Six months ago Friends and Farms was just an idea—two food industry experts wanted to provide customers with a way to get farm fresh food without it spending unncecessary time in a large distribution center.
Now, just half a year after opening, they've tripled their customer base and are eyeing future growth.
The key, says owners Philip Gottwals and Tim Hosking, is being able to provide baskets of regional food, year-round, directly from farms to customers for $51 for a two-person basket each week or $76 for a four-person basket.
"People are astounded by pristine quality fish in a $51 basket," said Hosking. "We pickup fish everyday that we pack baskets and the fish are cut that day."
"It's really exciting that we have a system that's working and people are liking it," said Gottwals.
The business also offers an indivdual basket for $41 per week.
It hasn't always been so bright, according to the owners. When Patch first caught up with Gottwals and Hosking in June, they were one week away from their initial launch and optimistic about their success. But, once launched, problems began to occur.
They had to briefly operate out of Pennsylvania while they attempted to get a food distributors' license from the state. As a result, they were bringing food from Maryland farms, to Pennsylvania, packaging it and then bringing it back into Maryland to deliver to customers. Eventually, they got a federal Food and Drug Administration processor's license that allows them to operate in Maryland and ship over state lines.
Then came Hurricane Sandy, which they said wiped out fall crops at farms they use as suppliers in New Jersey, Delaware and the Eastern Shore.
"Massive amounts of rain, followed by freezing temperatures decimated crops," said Gottwalls.
In response, they moved up their winter plan, which included greenhouse tomatoes, collard greens and dry beans, to fill baskets.
One of the things that separates Friends and Farms from similar Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs) groups is that the business delivers baskets year-round.
"We assure our customers that we take the risk," said Hosking. Last week, this meant throwing away a shipment of cauliflower that arrived at their warehouse in poor condition. Hosking said they take great care in telling the farms they work with how to properly ship and package the meat and produce they order to ensure it reaches the customer fresh.
In one instance, Hosking said they bought a vacuum sealing machine for their fishmonger to protect the freshness of their seafood before they drop it off to customers.
According to Gottwals, the business uses a network of regional farms to continously supply food through the winter. This winter they plan to include items such as popcorn, maple syrup, preserves and fruit butters in place of the two fruits they normally include in each basket that aren't available during the winter.
Friends and Farms works by providing weekly baskets of food that include two types of meat or fish, vegetables, fruit, milk, bread as well as eggs and bacon bi-weekly. Customers can pick up their baskets at set locations throughout the county every Thursday, Friday and Saturday. The business's warehouse on Gerwig Lane in Columbia also handles pickups from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Thursday and Friday.
Both Gottwals and Hosking previously worked as food industry consultants and use their experience and connections to work with local farms who provide food directly to their distribution warehouse in Columbia.
After the company opened, Hosking and Gottwalls said they made some changes to give customers more options. Rather than deciding every item in a customer's baskets for him or her, they've created an online ordering system that allows customers to pick additional items. They also include recipes to go along with each week's basket to provide meal ideas.
The business has already spawned at least one local blog dedicated to cooking their food—Ines and Jeff's kitchen. Each week, Ines and Jeff post a picture of the food they receive in their Friends and Farms basket, as well as a recipe featuring the food, such as pecan pie and red beans and rice.
Hosking said they launched the company with about 30 weekly customers, but have since grown to close to 150 and the FDA processor's license will allow them to expand to other area markets including D.C. and Northern Virginia.
At the drop-off point at Earth Treks in Columbia last week, customers said they were pleased with the service as they swung by to grab their baskets.
"It's less expensive than a grocery store," said Kristy Skocik, whose baby could be heard inside her van as she picked up her basket. "And it beats walking around a grocery store with a baby."
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Editor's Note: Correction - The original article stated a 4-person basket cost $71. In fact it costs $76, the article has been corrected.