Customers of the local foods distributor Good Eggs click through a beautiful website constantly updated with appetizing photos of raw ingredients and hand-made prepared foods, while an ever-evolving array of software keeps the wheels turning behind the scenes.
But when it’s time to get groceries to the door and dinner on the plate, this thoroughly digital-age start-up relies on good old-fashioned elbow grease. It means hefting milk crates and farm bins, stacking groceries in bags and boxes and logging miles on the road for ever-expanding daily delivery routes.
“We started as a technology company, we didn’t intend to be a distribution and trucking company,” said Tess Monaghan, who leads this local Good Eggs “hub,” as the business is called. “But we’re mission driven and evolving and that’s what the market wanted.”
The market seems to be responding. Since its debut last year, this New Orleans Good Eggs hub has grown from two employees – Monaghan and Simone Reggie – to a staff of 30 today. It has moved twice into successively larger spaces, and negotiations are now underway for yet another expanded base of operations. At last count, it had 120 vendors, offering dairy products, meats and seafood, produce, baked goods, prepared deli items and even gifts and health and beauty supplies, all sourced or made by small producers from around the New Orleans area.
While the product is local, the business model and the computer systems that propel it sprang from San Francisco, where a team of young tech entrepreneurs launched the company in 2012. They quickly expanded to New York and then New Orleans in 2013 and later added a Los Angeles hub.
The idea started as an online platform, or “web stand,” for farmers and other food producers to market their goods to more customers, with the company charging vendors a percentage of the sales it facilitated. But Monaghan said it became clear early on that as orders increased small purveyors who were busy working their fields or making their products would be limited by how much time they could allot for deliveries. Good Eggs decided to tackle this logistical quandary, aggregating orders and then distributing them with a mix of online efficiency and hands-on execution.
Distribution can be a formidable hurdle in the food world, given the perishable nature of the product. But rather than warehousing products for future orders or stocking shelves and hoping people buy, the Good Eggs model starts with customers using its web site to place orders directly with the food producers. This means nearly everything Good Eggs collects from its purveyors is already pre-sold, with a specific customer’s name on it.
“The orders come in and then (purveyors) have a day to fill them, to harvest the potatoes, milk the cows,” said Reggie, who is the lead liaison between Good Eggs and its purveyors. “We don’t keep an inventory, so there’s no waste.”
The Good Eggs headquarters is in a vintage Tchoupitoulas Street warehouse, but inside it looks more like an assembly line, as staff fill customized orders from bin to box. With the exception of some frozen meats and shelf-stable pantry staples, the Good Eggs space is essentially stocked and cleared each day. Staff then fan out on delivery routes, which are customized daily according to orders, in an ad hoc fleet of delivery vans and their own personal cars. Customers can also pick up their own orders at more than a dozen designated sites around town.
A grocery store alternative?
Some vendors now doing business on Good Eggs already have their own retail outlets, like the downtown chocolate shop Bittersweet Confections or the Uptown bakery Breads on Oak. Many are familiar names from local farmers markets. Reggie said Good Eggs doesn’t want to compete with traditional farmers markets but instead add an alternative for local farmers and consumers to connect.
“I think we’re very different from farmers markets,” she said. “Not everyone has the time to go to farmers markets when they’re open. They do have time to do this.”
Good Eggs has been working closely with some grow-local programs, including the nonprofit Hollygrove Market & Farm, which sells food from a network of local producers. Since June, Hollygrove has been using Good Eggs to deliver its market boxes, a pre-selected assortment of produce from its member farmers.
“It’s been working out really well for us because they just have a better system for distributing it all,” said Bill Pastellak, operations manager for Hollygrove.
As it grows, Good Eggs’ goal is to offer what Monaghan called “a full basket shopping experience,” one that can replace a grocery store visit. There are trade offs, however. Fulfillment takes about 32 hours, so customers planning a meal on Friday, for instance, need to order their groceries by Wednesday. And by relying on local seasonality and suitability, Good Eggs can provide only a fraction of the products a full grocery store stocks. The company is making some inroads here, however.
“We don’t want to take away from the local aspect, but when other (Good Eggs) hubs have products that we don’t produce here we’re looking to bring those in,” Reggie said.
For instance, nuts and olive oil from the Good Eggs hub in San Francisco could be coming to New Orleans soon, while Louisiana-grown sugarcane from Three Brothers Farm and rice from Cajun Grain sourced through Good Eggs here are already available to its customers in New York.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.