Portland restaurateur Mike Wiley still remembers the days when he could carry by hand all the produce he would need to serve customers over the course of a weekend. But those days are long gone.

Wiley, co-owner of Eventide Oyster Co., Hugo’s, The Honey Paw and other local food service businesses, needed a tool to help organize the process of sourcing and ordering local ingredients for his growing restaurant empire. He turned to a Portland technology startup that is trying to revolutionize the way locally sourced foods make their way from producer to consumer.

The startup, Forager1 LLC, has created a digital procurement platform for local food producers, distributors and wholesale buyers that is gaining traction, with about $2 million in sales facilitated by its Amazon-like online marketplace over the past 18 months.

SUPPLIED BY OVER 150 FARMS

Founder David Stone says Forager makes “locally sourced food more accessible to all.” Staff file photo by John Ewing

Known as Forager, the company now has over 150 farms in its supplier network and has been signing up new buyers such as restaurants, grocers and food distributors. The company recently signed Wiley’s restaurant group, Big Tree Hospitality, as a client and is in a pilot program with a large grocery chain that Forager will not yet name.

Forager founder David Stone, who previously co-founded digital gift card provider CashStar Inc. in Portland, said that for retailers of locally sourced foods, the traditional process of finding and doing business with multiple local farmers and other producers has been expensive, inefficient and error-prone. As a result, he said, the retailers can spend up to 60 hours a week communicating with farmers, managing orders and making payments, which can reduce their margins by 33 percent or more.

Forager seeks to change all that. In turn, making it easier for businesses to procure local foods will make them more widely available to consumers, Stone said.

“Our vision and our mission is to make locally sourced food more accessible to all,” he said.

Local food producers also struggle with inefficient processes such as updating product availability, invoicing and depositing payments, 99 percent of which are paper checks, Stone said. Forager lets them keep potential buyers apprised of their full range of available products in real time from a computer, tablet or smartphone, thus increasing sales opportunities, while speeding up billing and payments.

Wiley said the Forager procurement tool makes it easier to plan upcoming menus for his restaurants because it provides a complete picture of which locally produced foods are available at any given time.

The Forager app provides a digital platform for linking food orders and local suppliers. Photo courtesy of Forager1 LLC

“As a chef, I’m always interested in what’s available right now,” he said. “We can see with Forager, just using the search feature, a particular vegetable, say asparagus … you can see, ‘Wow, 15 farms have asparagus available.’ ”

Using the platform also helps Big Tree maintain good relationships with the local farms from which it sources ingredients, Wiley said.

“A lot of the people that we do business with are also doing some of their business through Forager,” he said.

Stone has big plans for Forager, which currently has eight employees and outsources most of its software development. The company is now operating in six states – Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia – with plans to roll out nationwide.

COMPETITIVE EDGE: FRESHER

A big part of the sales pitch for Forager is that smaller brick-and-mortar grocery outlets can better compete with online behemoths such as Amazon by stocking more locally sourced foods.

“When Amazon bought Whole Foods, they rocked the grocery industry,” Stone said. “It’s about as disruptive as anything that’s happened in that segment in 20, 30 or 50 years.”

But where Amazon has fallen down is in its efforts to provide fresh, locally sourced foods to the consumer’s doorstep, he said. The failure of Amazon Fresh to gain a foothold in the market has created an opening for more traditional grocers to fight against the tide.

“The way they win is by having much more local, fresh produce,” Stone said. “It’s very difficult for Amazon to do that.”

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