may have all the headlines, but another grocery shopping experience is opening in Howard County in mid-June.
It’s called Friends and Farms, and the idea behind it is to supply fresh meats, seafood, dairy, bread and produce directly from farms to consumers year-round.
The two co-founders, Phillip Gottwals, 47, of Columbia and Tim Hosking, 53, of Baltimore, recently met with Patch to explain the structure of the business.
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Both Gottwals and Hosking are former agriculture consultants that helped large and small regional farms manage food distribution and financing.
Over time, they said they became frustrated with the current system of wholesale food delivery, in which many grocery stores place produce in a warehouse for up to a week and sell meats, chicken and fish from unknown locations.
Out of that frustration came Friends and Farms.
“The system hasn’t developed in a way that’s good for the consumer,” said Gottwals. “There’s nothing wrong with CSAs (community supported agriculture) and farmers’ markets, but they’re seasonal, variety is limited and it’s a tough way to get a full basket of products.”
Gottwals said there were two reasons why they chose Howard County to start their business: “One it’s our home base, we’ve been here for a long time. And we have very good connections with the industry here; with the farmers and producers.”
Here’s how Friends and Farms would work: Each week they’ll create a food basket consisting of two proteins, breakfast items, a variety of produce, a loaf of bread, and a half gallon of milk. Food baskets will then be available for pickup during set times and at set locations on Thursday and Friday.
For example the first basket, which ships the week of Monday, June 18, consists of beef hanger steak, whole chicken, bacon, a half gallon of milk, a dozen eggs, peas, broccoli, yellow squash, garlic, radishes, herbs, watercress, bibb lettuce, strawberries, cherries and a loaf of bread, according to the website.
Gottwals said the baskets would be made up of “robust portion sizes.” A list of the farms that produce the food is also available on the business's website.
The next week, a different set of proteins and produce would be available (such as pork chops, fish, beets and arugula the week of June 25.) Each week, someone will post the basket items on the website.
The 4-person basket costs $76 per week and the 2-person basket costs $51 per week.
“We’re really looking at the operations as a watershed supply chain,” said Gottwals. “The food comes from farmer-to-delivery within two days. It’s not unlike a farmers’ market, but we’ll have a year-round, full-product perishable list.”
“It’s a model about knowing where your food is coming from and extending customers’ relationship with the supplier,” said Hosking, who has a background in consulting on financial matters for farms.
Hosking said that by scaling the business to utilize a large number of regional producers, they could bring down prices for consumers.
“It’s pretty clear a strictly local perspective will not succeed,” said Hosking. “The solution is a regional solution; aggregating a lot of producers and efficiently getting it to the customer right away.”
And by providing things like a variety of meat, fish and cheese each week, they’ll differentiate themselves from farmers’ markets where those products aren’t always readily available, said Gottwals.
Friends and Farms will use a warehouse space on Gerwig Road in Columbia as its main distribution and delivery point. Other pick-up locations include Basignani Winery in Glencoe on Thursday morning, in Columbia on Thursday evening, and Linden-Linthicum United Methodist Church in Clarksville on Friday morning.
However, the company is seeking requests in other areas around the county to expand pick-up locations.
Gotwalls and Hosking said they are hoping the business will expand quickly.
“We had a great response from focus groups,” said Gotwalls. “I can’t tell you how many people we tell about it and we get to the second sentence and they’re like ‘got it, we’re in.’ ”
He also said their prices would be lower than higher-end grocery stores such as Harris Teeter, Whole Foods and Wegmans.
And how do they feel about competing with Wegmans?
“We’re just hoping we don’t overshadow them,” joked Gotwalls, before becoming slightly more serious. “We’re just very different from them. We’ll have a very different customer experience than they offer.”