This Digital Supermarket Wants to Deliver Artisanal Products without the Whole Foods Price Tag

Chai Mishra is out to build a brand-new way to buy groceries — one that’s more sustainable, affordable, and transparent.

Oct 14 · 8 min read
Fruit, almond butter, and salmon from Move, a digital supermarket that’s raising funds on Kickstarter now

Picture a supermarket with the stripped-down aesthetic of an Apple store. On the shelves are a few carefully curated items, each plainly labeled and packaged. There’s only one kind of extra-virgin olive oil, or almond butter, or cheddar cheese, instead of the dozens of brands and varieties you’d find at a regular grocery store. And for each of the 100 products on offer, you can watch a mini-documentary that introduces you to the person who made it.

This is Chai Mishra’s vision for Move, a digital supermarket that aims to deliver quality grocery staples without the markups that typically result from a global product-sourcing pipeline dotted with middlemen.

“The traditional [retail] model is, people want the widest selection possible at the lowest price possible,” Mishra says. “What we believe is that people want the best product possible at the fairest price possible — a price that’s fair to them, a price that’s fair to the producer, a price that’s fair to the worker.”

Mishra says Move can prioritize quality and ethics while still cutting the price of many of the products they offer compared to other premium supermarkets (think Whole Foods) because they’re working directly with producers, rather than moving products along an intricate supply chain that increases costs incrementally.

He’s already piloted a version of the model, called Movebutter, on a smaller scale, and he’s now raising funds on Kickstarter to move the business into its next phase: a members-only online store that operates across the United States, with free two-day shipping and, eventually, physical locations as well.

Mishra’s journey to launching Move began with a wildly niche childhood fascination with supply chains. It’s taken him from his native India to China and Germany, Estonia and France, and eventually to San Francisco, where he founded the company in 2017.

“I grew up visiting steel mills and warehouses, cement plants, giant food-processing centers,” Mishra says of his childhood in India, where his father owned a trading company. “My grandfather used to joke that I had refractories in my blood.”

Chai Mishra, founder and CEO of Move

That industrial upbringing instilled a lifelong interest in the nuts and bolts of the product supply chain. “There’s something really cool [about the fact] that someone somewhere makes a product, and someone somewhere else gets to consume it, and all this magic happens in the middle that we know nothing about,” he says.

As a young adult, Mishra enrolled in mechanical engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, hoping to study that middle-of-the-supply-chain magic. But he found the program to be more about “[getting] a job at Tesla” than starting a company or launching a product. He dropped out six months into the program, and at 18 he landed a job in China, working with hardware companies and brands to bring products to market. Over the next few years, Mishra became the “supply-chain guy” for a variety of companies in China, the U.S., India, Estonia, and France. “I would show up and my job would be, here’s a team of designers and builders who’ve got a great idea — how do you now bring that to market?”

His last supply-chain job was for a coffee company based in Germany. They’d manufactured a machine that let consumers roast, grind, and brew their own beans, and wanted to set up a supply chain that would allow customers to purchase green coffee beans directly from farmers. “I would spend about six, seven hours a day talking to coffee farmers in Guatemala, Indonesia, Sumatra, and Ethiopia, and I would spend the other half of the day talking to supermarkets in America, Scandinavia, Western Europe,” he recalls.

Cold brew coffee from Move

This taught him two lessons about the food supply chain that sparked the creation of Move: “Firstly, it’s incredibly inefficient, and secondly, it’s incredibly exploitative.” A farmer might sell a pound of coffee for around 17 cents; that same pound of coffee, once it’s shipped and packaged and shelved at a supermarket, might cost the consumer $17. And it may have passed through a dozen or so middlemen along the journey from farm to shelf.

“I wanted to start a company that had to do, more than with coffee or granola or any individual product, with the process of how products get made,” Mishra says. “A company that, at its core, was trying to make it more efficient for customers and more ethical toward producers.”

The Move model didn’t always involve stocking just one version of each pantry staple. In 2016 and 2017, when he was developing the idea, “we went through basically every iteration of it,” Mishra says. “What does it look like if we sell five almond butters, what does it look like if we sell three, and so on.”

Working with seed funding from investors like Y Combinator, NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana, Muse frontman Matt Bellamy, and entrepreneur Jason Wang, Mishra set up a website where people could sign up to join his digital-supermarket experiment. Some 30,000 people became a part of the early Move (then called Movebutter) community on Facebook, where Mishra and his 15-person team would poll users on what kinds of products they’d want to see on Movebutter’s virtual shelves.

Tortillas and ketchup from Move

Once they had a list of products, they set about researching producers. They sought out reputable, ethical operations around the country with whom they could partner to establish a direct supply chain — from the producer straight to Move, which would handle the portioning and packaging and shipping. Then, they sent out samples to their community members.

Mishra soon noticed that “people actually line up on one or two products.” Which got the team thinking: Maybe they didn’t need to offer five varieties of almond butter. Maybe one really good almond butter was enough.

“We’re not really okay with having one option that’s the organic option, another one that’s healthy, and another one that’s cheap,” he says. “We want one option to check all of those boxes, or as many as we possibly could.”

After gathering feedback from the community and pairing with producers to fine-tune products, Movebutter launched to a few thousand members around the U.S. in November 2017. At that point, they’d narrowed their product catalog down to 500, and wanted to pare it down further. So they’d ship customers one of several varieties of a product — say, one of three kinds of almond butter they were testing — and keep the one that got the most positive feedback.

One year later, having landed on their 100-product selection and shipping some 10,000 test orders, Mishra decided to shut down the site. “During the testing period, we were working with hundreds of units,” he explains. “Once we knew what we were doing for each product, we had to figure out a way to go from hundreds of units to 10,000 units.”

A Move smoothie

The answer, Mishra felt, would be to open decentralized distribution centers across the U.S. to ensure that Move could ship orders within two days to anywhere in the country. And they had to sever ties with certain producers who simply couldn’t scale up with them: mom-and-pop-type suppliers who wouldn’t be able to ramp up production to the tens of thousands of units that a full-fledged online supermarket would require.

“We realized that this testing phase, it wasn’t going to develop organically into us being able to do this at this gigantic scale,” Mishra says. “We had to stop and then start up again.”

Now, with the new community members who have backed the project for a discounted membership on Kickstarter, as well as the original members of the Movebutter community, they’re getting ready to ramp back up with this new distribution model and product pipeline.

Ultimately, Mishra is betting on a segment of the market that’s willing to pay a little more to get more: more ethics, more transparency, more quality.

The mini-documentary videos Move makes for each product is a part of that mission, Mishra says: “When you’re holding a Move product in your hand, we want you to know everything about what went into getting that product to you. We all sleepwalk through 90 percent of the transactions in our life — we buy these products that don’t really mean anything to us. We don’t care about who made them, we don’t care about the quality of them. Every time you buy one of these products, we want that to be a more meaningful experience.

We all sleepwalk through 90 percent of the transactions in our life… Every time you buy one of these products, we want that to be a more meaningful experience.

“We don’t have any illusions,” he adds. “If you’re making a ham sandwich every morning, you’re still going to be making a ham sandwich every morning [after joining Move]. What we want is that when you bite into that ham sandwich, you know that bread was made by a Michelin-star baker in San Francisco, that ham came from the most ethical ranch in America, that cheese came from the people who won the Best American Cheese award. And also, we want you to know that you paid the same for that sandwich that you would have before, and the producer got paid a lot better.”

For Move’s backers, that’s a delicious proposition.

Rebecca Hiscott

Move: A Brand New Supermarket is live on Kickstarter until November 8, 2019.

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