Berkeley residents now have a new way to get groceries. Delivery service Farmstead partners with Bay Area grocers, butchers, bakers, farms and others to bring fresh ingredients straight to your door. The company hopes to distinguish itself from other grocery delivery services — Good Eggs, Amazon Fresh, Instacart, et al. — by making grocery shopping more user-friendly and by reducing food waste.
“We are bringing you very high quality, locally sourced products,” said Farmstead founder and CEO Pradeep Elankumaran. “Very fresh products, which is something you don’t usually see with delivery.”
Farmstead aims to increase efficiency throughout the entire process through acts both large and small. For example, when a perishable product like milk is listed on the website, Farmstead posts a sell-by date next to it. The service also delivers all containers with insulated ice packs, both of which can be left out for pickup to be cleaned and reused. And by providing groceries via weekly delivery routes, they are reducing the number of individual car trips made by each customer. “These things are small but they matter,” said Elankumaran.
Elankumaran got the idea for Farmstead in 2016. As the father of a toddler, he noticed how much time he was spending at grocery stores just to buy the same products over and over again. It bothered him that there wasn’t a delivery service available to supply his daughter with the food she likes. “She was obsessed with Straus milk,” said Elankumaran. “So I wanted to start by delivering high-quality milk.”
Elankumaran soon expanded that fantasy to include other staples like yogurt and bread. He conducted a casual poll among friends to see if there would be much demand for a service like that in Mountain View where he lives, or elsewhere in the Peninsula. The response was overwhelmingly positive. “Two hundred people said yes in one day.”
As the service grew in popularity, Farmstead expanded from Mountain View to San Mateo, San Francisco and San Jose — “filling in the gaps” according to Elankumaran — soon covering the whole Peninsula. In January, Farmstead expanded its coverage to Berkeley, as well as a few other cities in the East Bay, San Jose and Marin.
For Farmstead, sourcing “local” means from a network of Bay Area vendors spread across its delivery area, and does not necessarily mean that a product is from within city limits. So a farmer or artisanal bread baker from Petaluma, for example, could have their product end up on a kitchen table in Berkeley. At this time Farmstead does not directly partner with any producers based in the East Bay.
The company operates out of two 2,000-sq ft warehouses — or “micro-hubs” as Elankumaran calls them — one in San Mateo and one in San Francisco. From these two locations, Farmstead dispatches around 1,500 deliveries a week to residents throughout the Bay Area. Farmstead offers both weekly routes and one-time orders. Delivery is free for weekly customers. For other customers, the cost of delivery is a flat $6.99 across all service areas, or free if the total cost of goods is more than $35.
Customers create user accounts for the service. Every time they make an order with Farmstead, the service records their preferences, making it easy for them to set up recurring deliveries of staples. “As you order, it learns from you,” said Elankumaran. “We try to make it as painless as possible for how you think about buying your food.”
Baker Claudio Rezende, vice president of Acme Bread has partnered with Farmstead since the delivery service launched in 2016. (Though Acme started in Berkeley, it is currently headquartered in South San Francisco.) “The relationship has been great,” Rezende wrote in an email. “Farmstead has been growing for the last two years, they order bread every day from Acme Bread.”
Rezende is not sure if Farmstead has helped expand his customer base, but he’s happy with the partnership, even though he still does his own grocery shopping the traditional way. “But I can see the appeal of online shopping for busy professional or millennials, who might gravitate towards technology and apps,” he wrote.
While the service does partner with local farms and other food-related businesses, Farmstead offers more than just local goods. Clients can purchase the gamut, be it dairy from Marin, freshly baked loaves from Acme Bread or a box of Cheerios.
Farmstead considers quality and scale when choosing to source from a vendor. “Some farms are too small; we cannot directly work with them,” said Elankumaran. “They can’t support our volume or we can’t support theirs.” Farmstead instead prefers to work with produce aggregators, middlemen who can assure them a steady supply of produce, especially during the winter months when Bay Area farms are less productive.
“We’re really looking to replace your weekly grocery bill,” said Elankumaran. “Most people go to three to four grocery stores to get what they need. We would like to remove at least three of those trips.”
Readers may be curious as to whether grocery and meal delivery services have cut into the bottom lines of local grocery stores. “It’s hard to say,” said Jon Berman, manager of the Berkeley Natural Grocery Company at 1336 Gilman St. “I would imagine that it has not affected us that much,” he said. “If it has, it’s not been obvious.”
Berman has good reason to believe his particular store will not be impacted by Farmstead, citing a broad base of loyal customers who have been coming to Berkeley Natural Grocery for decades. Put another way, Berman’s customers don’t view grocery shopping as a waste, but rather as a way to pleasantly spend time. “They like to see what they’re buying,” he said.
Nick Pappas, owner of Star Grocery on Claremont Avenue, likewise has not seen meal and grocery delivery services have much of an impact on business. “I don’t know of any effect on me,” he said.
“It’s much harder to deliver groceries than most people think,” said Pappas. “You still have to pick the item that people want. And people make mistakes. There are thousands of items to pick from. A lot can go wrong.”
“I don’t know how great it is delivering groceries,” he said. Pappas speaks from experience. Star Grocery was founded by the Pappas family in 1922. Employees first hand-delivered groceries in wicker baskets, then later via a fleet of trucks. Star discontinued delivery in the 1970s. “It’s not easy. It’s very labor intensive,” said Pappas.
Pappas isn’t opposed to the convenience delivery services offer, acknowledging the appeal for customers short on time and who trust a service to pick the right item for them. “Some things have gotten easier with these modern services,” he said.
But Pappas remains dubious of an industry-wide disruption, citing that many customers enjoy the experience of shopping at Star, other grocery stores and farmers markets.
“There are so many ways to eat food,” said Pappas. According to Pappas, with so much competition, it’s hard to see how online delivery is adversely impacting brick-and-mortar grocers like Star. “I don’t know of anyone using services like that much, yet,” he said. “It’s going to be a while before that’s going to have an effect.”
Elankumaran insists Farmstead is not trying to compete with farmers markets — “those are experiences in themselves” he said — nor is he trying to disrupt the produce business by doing away with grocery stores. He is instead trying to give something back to his customers: time.
“The traditional supermarket experience, quite frankly, is very flawed,” he said. “Why do we still have to sort through produce to find perfection? Why are you spending precious time standing in line when you could be reading a book or playing with your kids?”
Elankumaran wants to reform the grocery business with efficiency. “We’re technologists. We’re not people who traditionally run grocery stores. We’re people who write code,” he said. “Thirty-five to forty percent of vegetables are wasted at grocery stores. As technologists, that offends us.”
A joint study by the Center for Biological Diversity and the Ugly Fruit and Veg Campaign found that many grocery stores do a poor job preventing or recovering food waste. Of the top 10 grocery suppliers nationwide, none received an A rating.
Many grocery stores reduce waste by donating unsold produce to food banks and other charities. “I think it’s fantastic that local charities are getting food,” said Elankumaran, “but you shouldn’t have so much food waste to begin with.”
Where Farmstead innovates, according to Elankumaran, is in how it reduces waste by matching demand to supply, instead of the reverse, following a principle of prevention rather than recovery, with a goal of less than 10% waste overall. Farmstead does not donate excess food to charity because there is not much in the way of excess food.
Lest readers get the wrong idea, Farmstead does donate food to charities. But unlike grocery stores that only donate food gone past the sell-by date, Farmstead offers fresh produce through a buy-one-give-one program. True to its Mountain View roots, Farmstead currently partners with Mid-Peninsula Boys & Girls Club, though is on the lookout for other nonprofits. “If there are East Bay organizations that would like to partner, we would love to talk about that,” said Elankumaran.