With 95 percent of U.S. single urban households willing to pay more for local food, you might be wondering why you haven’t seen more locally-sourced products at the grocery store or on restaurant menus. Thankfully, Alice Chalmers, Founder and CEO of Local Food Connection, is helping local food make its way into the mainstream. In this post, Chalmers talks about benefits of buying local, supporting farmers, and why grit is a must-have for aspiring entrepreneurs.
Like a home-cooked meal, locally-sourced food somehow just tastes better; after all, there’s certain flavors from your local ma and pa diner that you won’t find at any major chain. But if there’s such a high demand for locally-sourced food, why do so many of us have a hard time finding local food products at our favorite eateries and grocers? It’s a question that, at one time, weighed heavily on Alice Chalmers.
“I came from a corporate background and I was living in a rural area. I saw a lot of farmers sell their farm to fund their retirement. I asked myself, ‘aren’t there ways these farmers can be more profitable and don’t have to sell their farm?’ I raised funds for a study to look into this and found out that a big issue was the gap between how farmers were able to get their product to market and how it was distributed.”
And though Reagan-era commercials might have you convinced that a farmer’s life is a simple one, the reality of farming is a far cry from what you’ve seen on television.
“The process for farmers is really difficult. First, they have to get clients. Second, they have to grow the product, which is a very labor-intensive process itself. Third, they have to deliver what they grow. Fourth, they have to answer the customer’s questions and last, they have to collect their payments. All of this is very complex and difficult for the farmer.”
But the troubles don’t end there; putting locally-sourced food on consumers’ tables is a two-way street.
“The process for the buyer is difficult as well. If a buyer is purchasing their products locally, it’s very labor-intensive because they have to source and find multiple farms that they can buy all the individual products they need from. It’s very inconvenient.”
Inconvenient -- in this case -- might even be an understatement. That’s because farmers and buyers didn’t sign up for their respective professions to source clients, micromanage deliveries, or navigate through a complex system to pay or collect a fee.
“When we started Local Foods Connection, our mission was to make the purchasing and selling process easier for farmers and buyers. Basically, we want to create a way where farmers can focus on growing -- which is what they want to do and should be spending their time doing. The same goes for chefs; chefs want to spend their time cooking rather than sourcing products all day.”
And since founding the company in 2015, Chalmers has made good on her mission. Having both a B2B and B2C model, Local Food Connection has built out a number of strong partnerships to bring high-quality local food to chefs, households, grocers, and other institutional buyers. Part of what’s made her business successful is her focus on quick -- but quality -- delivery.
“Our main focus in on consistency and quality, along with the taste and nutrition of a product. That’s key. When you’re able to harvest a product locally and get it to the customer in 24 to 36 hours, there’s way less taste and nutrition loss than something that has been harvested for weeks before being transported coast to coast.”
By providing quick and quality customer service, ordering, and delivery, Local Food Connections has helped many farmers connect with a network of wholesale and retail buyers and vice-versa.
“It’s a win-win because we’re also working with distributors to help them source locally from smaller farms that they are not equipped to work with. We are already working with a couple of regional distributors and we are looking to expand that service and work with national distributors.”
Currently operating out of the Ohio River Valley, an area that covers a good portion of Ohio, Kentucky and South East Indiana, Local Food Connection is targeting to extend its reach throughout the Mid-West, and even beyond.
“We have also started our ‘Globally Local Initiative,’ which focuses on sourcing products that can’t be grown locally. We can bring olive oil from Greece to a chef, because we’re working with a food artisan overseas that shares our values of small family farms and traditional practices. These suppliers not only share our farm-to-table philosophy, but they also have an authentic production process that we vet before we partner with them.”
And though Chalmers already has a foothold in a number of different markets, she’s looking to expand the many services and offerings provided by Local Food Connection. That’s one of the reasons why she joined The Food Foundry, a 16-week accelerator program tailored to support, connect, and propel innovative startups with solutions across the foodservice value chain. Built in partnership with Gordon Food Service, Relish Works, and 1871, The Food Foundry provided Chalmers with a number of resources to help her improve her business.
“First, there’s Gordon Food Service. I believe there are great synergies in working with a successful mainline food distributor like them. And then, I went to business school about 20 years ago and the world has changed, so The Food Foundry has helped me learn new approaches to innovation. I’ve also been able to tap into its many resources, including the mentors and area-specific experts.”
Though The Food Foundry has certainly benefited Chalmers, part of what has helped Local Food Connection become the business it is today comes from Chalmers own focus and determination.
“You’ve got to really believe in what you’re doing and what you’re selling because entrepreneurship is very hard. Entrepreneurship can’t be done as a hobby. You’ve got to put your whole heart and soul in it -- I think grit is the major personality trait that can really help an entrepreneur.”
Along with grit, Chalmers adds that surrounding yourself with the right people is an essential part of building a strong business.
“You have to have a team that’s aligned with you in your mission. There’s going to be ups and downs, so you want to have a group of people that really believes in what you’re doing. Their goal should mirror yours.”
And if your goal is to eat local, well -- we know someone who can help you with that.
1871 provides work space, education, resources, and curated connections to help Chicago's entrepreneurs build and scale their business.