Would you buy a box of bread, cheese, chocolate, wine, olive oil or jam from a local artisan on a regular basis?

In Berkeley and beyond, budding food producers are incorporating the community food model in their business plans. But they are having mixed success. Indeed, whether this concept can become financially feasible outside of the fruit and vegetable box remains to be seen.

“The jury is still out on if this is sustainable, long term,” said Cindy Tsai Schultz, co-founder of Fresh Bite, a baked goods start-up that began with a community supported approach, but has since put the idea on hold.

Community supported food began with CSAs or Community Supported Agriculture, which has proven mutually beneficial for farmers and consumers. It’s a popular way to buy local, seasonal, organic, sustainable vegetables, fruits, and herbs directly from a small-scale farmer through a subscription or membership system, and it offers a direct connection between producer and purchaser. From an economic standpoint, a CSA provides growers with upfront funds and a known demand, an important buffer in the risky and unpredictable business of farming. (Subscribers pay a regular weekly fee, typically in the $20-$55 range, depending on the size and mix of the box.)

Full Belly Farm was one of the first farms to offer a CSA in Berkeley. Another farmers’ market regular, Riverdog Farm, also offers a subscription veggie box program.  Eatwell Farm and Terra Firma Farm are also popular CSA programs offering weekly pick-up at central locations. Capay Organic Farm (whose CSA is known as Farm Fresh to You) delivers to your door.

Other perishable CSA purveyors include Soul Food Farm (chicken and eggs), Marin Sun Farms (meat) and Massa Organics (rice), which partners with produce CSAs to provide its products.  Bellwether Farms and Cowgirl Creamery have cheese clubs, which essentially work in a similar way to CSAs. (Find a long list of CSAs that deliver around town here.) Berkeley also boasts the community supported kitchen Three Stone Hearth.

But a review of recent start-up community supported food initiatives reveals the challenges of making such a model cost-effective.

Pandora’s Box, a community supported bread seller, had short but sweet success before calling it a day. Fresh Bite began as a baked-good community supported business, but quickly morphed into providing complete meals, following consumer demand.

The new business is the brainchild of two moms, friends Terry Betts and Cindy Tsai Schultz, who have six kids between them and so know just how challenging it can be to get a healthy dinner on the table. But building a membership base proved too onerous for the nascent company, which opted to put the weekly subscription on hiatus to concentrate on its wholesale line of baked goods, available at Monterey Market and Star Grocery. Their seasonal, savory and sweet eats will also be available at the new farmers’ market opening in May on Wednesdays at San Pablo and Solano Avenues.

Another local business that tried a community supported element up until recently was The Xocolate Bar store on Solano Avenue, where once-a-month members received handmade chocolates and truffles featuring seasonable, sustainable organic ingredients. The effort has also been discontinued. “Even in Berkeley there’s still a lot of education you have to do with eaters around a subscription,” said Malena Lopez-Maggi, co-owner of the chocolate shop. “It’s a really hard sell. I’d suggest other businesses interested in this kind of model partner with an existing CSA instead of starting their own.”

Some local businesses have made the model work. At Vintage Berkeley, wine buffs can walk in and pick up a monthly six-pack (six mostly red wines for $60), curated by owner Peter Eastlake and Vine Street store manager Brent Fraker. A more traditional subscription wine club is also available, and the store has about 200 wine lovers signed up, which helps the staff negotiate better rates with wine distributors. And in a new, symbiotic relationship, Vintage on Vine Street has just begun serving as the East Bay CSA pick-up spot for the Fatted Calf Charcuterie.  “We just figured it was a good fit,” said Fraker. “People who like artisan salumi, duck confit, and pork terrine are probably going to want to drink some wine with their meat. It’s working out really well.”

Dafna Kory, maker of the popular preserves INNA jam says that 25-30% of her business comes from people who sign up for her seasonal subscription (starting at $60 for six jars). Kory, like others who provide this option to their customers, likes to include something special for folks on her subscription list, this spring it’s a limited edition organic kiwi jam. “When it works, the community supported model can really help you plan and grow your company,” Kory said. “It’s an important part of my business and it’s a show of support from customers who invest in you when you need it most.”

Sarah Henry is the voice behind Lettuce Eat Kale. You can follow her on Twitter and become a fan of Lettuce Eat Kale on Facebook.

Jam maker turns hobby into thriving local business [02.18.11]
Berkeley Bites: Jessica Prentice (Three Stone Hearth co-founder) [06.04.10]
Funding Berkeley’s first community olive oil press [08.02.10]