If you want fresh produce, try Local Dirt. It's a website that connects local farmers with food buyers, including restaurants and grocery stores. The Madison, Wisconsin, company, which was founded last year by Heather Hilleren, a former Whole Foods employee, posts information about local farms across the country, including profiles of the owners. Any product ordered through the site is labeled with the farm's name and how many miles it traveled to reach its buyer. "I don't want any fruit, vegetable, or any other kind of local food to be anonymous," says Hilleren. Individuals use the site to learn about local farms and see which stores sell local food. Businesses use Local Dirt to order produce and have it delivered. Local Dirt charges an annual subscription fee of $360 to businesses and farms that place or fulfill orders using Local Dirt's website. So far, close to 1,000 businesses and farms have signed up. How can Hilleren make the company grow? We asked four entrepreneurs to weigh in.
Zhena Muzyka, founder of Zhena's Gypsy Tea, an Ojai, California, maker of organic tea
This is a brilliant idea, but I think Hilleren is spreading herself thin by going national. I think the company should go deep instead of wide. Focus on one geographic region, and then hit up farmers' markets with a team of people and laptops. Your target audience is right there, and you can demonstrate what the site does and get farmers to sign up on the spot. Have a van or cool old truck drive around with the company website on the side of it.
Gary Hirshberg, CEO of Stonyfield Farm, an organic-yogurt company in Londonderry, New Hampshire
Since Local Dirt wants its customers to have a personal connection with their produce, put webcams on the farms, so consumers can actually see the farmers picking fruit or milking cows. Get personal with customers, too. You could have customers fill out a monthly survey in exchange for, say, a bunch of carrots or a half-gallon of milk. Find out what's on their grocery lists and what other sites they visit. There might be an opportunity for cross promotion with other companies.
Ari Weinzweig, co-founder of Zingerman's, a group of specialty food companies based in Ann Arbor, Michigan
Reach out to key people in the food world -- the top restaurateurs around the country. Explain your concept to them, and get them to sign up. I would also find the best farms in each area and do the same thing. Once you get influential people signed up, the masses will inevitably hear about Local Dirt and follow.
Bob Amick, founder of Concentrics Restaurants, which runs 13 high-end eateries in Atlanta and Orlando
Eating local is probably the hottest movement in food right now. Local Dirt should hire a PR firm to do a national campaign. Target restaurant associations and trade publications as well as major food magazines and the Food Network. Hilleren needs to have a system in place to make sure her suppliers can deliver. One of the biggest problems restaurant owners have is finding local suppliers that can deliver consistently high-quality produce in enough volume.
Hilleren likes the idea of reaching out to influential people. "There are certain farmers and restaurant owners who are in the press a lot, and having them on board could really benefit us," she says. Hilleren agrees that customer surveys would be helpful but thinks farmers might be uncomfortable with webcams. Local Dirt does track produce quality, Hilleren says, by letting restaurants rate their deliveries. Although Hilleren would like to launch a big PR campaign, Local Dirt doesn't have the funds for that right now. "I believe the best way for us to grow is by word of mouth," she says.