A few years ago, several large corporations thought they sniffed
profits through Internet ordering and home delivery of groceries, but
most of them failed fairly quickly. That might have been because
consumers didn't consider the convenience worth the cost, although
Peapod, a corporate affiliate of Stop &Shop, still survives despite
a minimum delivery order of $50 and a minimum delivery charge of $4.95.
But what would consumers think if they could get fresh, organic
fruits and vegetables delivered to their door for the same money or
less than what they were paying at the market?
Jeffrey Barry, 35, of Newburyport, is trying to find out with his
fledgling enterprise, Bostonorganics.com, which delivers organic
produce to households in Boston and eight other nearby communities. So
far, he has about 150 customers, but hopes to expand his service area
and add free-range organic meats and dairy.
He's been at it 11 months, and though he's not doing well enough to
get a salary yet, he said he's covering his operating costs. As for
corporate backing, he says, "It's pretty much myself, although my
grandfather helped with payments on the van."
Enrolling in Barry's service takes less than 10 minutes on his
website; most of the time is spent choosing from among the delivery
options: $25 box or $35 box? Weekly or bi-weekly? All fruit, all
vegetable, or a mixture? Beyond that choice, customers don't get to
determine what will be in their order - availability determines that -
although they do get to exclude things they don't care for.
The service can be discontinued on the website as well, though when
it says you have to cancel by Monday noon of the delivery week, it
means just that. After I sampled the service, I tried canceling on a
Tuesday, but got one more box. As with my other two orders, the produce
was tasty and in good shape.
"I try to keep the produce as local as possible," Barry said, "but
during the winter, it's not possible. Also, I want to offer a good
variety, and I get things like bananas and mangoes from Central and
South America. That's one of the challenges; they can't always be local
if you want organics."
With its undertone of grass-roots activism, the comment is revealing
about Barry. A former servant in the Peace Corps, he said he's long
wanted to operate a "socially responsible business [that] didn't have
too much negative impact on the environment."
He said he and his wife are native New Englanders, but had been
living in San Francisco. He has a graduate degree that combined
environmental economics with business, but his only experience with
food before starting Bostonorganics was from "the consumption side."
As he approaches his first anniversary, he's still working on a
string-bean budget. He has a warehouse in Charlestown, but does the
computer and administrative work at home. He said his father-in-law is
"helping out on the operations side," and he is bartering produce with
two others who help him with his data base and with the newsletter that
arrives with each order. His paid work staff consists of "a kid that
helps out a couple days a week."
It's natural to want to root for a small entrepreneur like Barry,
but consumers will stick around only if it suits their pocketbook. To
find out how much home delivery was adding to the cost of my $25, half
fruit/half vegetable box, I trotted over to Bread &Circus to
conduct a price comparison.
Though it was only a good approximation, as Barry said it might not
turn out this way every time, the total at Bread & Circus was
actually higher: $27.37.