CHICAGO — The pandemic-driven decline in dining out has had a silver lining for home cooks: The high-quality produce and meats typically destined for restaurants are increasingly finding their way to people’s kitchen tables.
Now one of Chicago’s top restaurant produce distributors is using its muscle to deliver fresh foods to consumers’ doorsteps, bringing a heavyweight to a growing movement to bypass grocery stores and give shoppers direct access to high-quality farm products.
Fresh Midwest, a company launched by the family that owns Midwest Foods and Edible Cuts, home-delivers fresh meat and produce as well as snacks prepared in-house and meals and meal kits developed in partnership with restaurants.
It serves ZIP codes located between Kenosha, Wisconsin, and Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood, but plans to expand throughout the region, south to Indiana, by the end of March.
Patrick Fitzgerald, who created Fresh Midwest with his twin brother, Mike, had been interested in selling direct to consumers for some time but saw an opening after grocery delivery pioneer Peapod shut down its Midwest operations in February.
The onset of COVID-19 a month later, which caused wholesale orders to drop as restaurant clients saw business wiped out, created a “perfect storm,” he said.
Fresh Midwest hired several former Peapod employees to tap their e-commerce and consumer expertise. Tony Stallone, a 20-year veteran of Peapod who ran its fresh merchandising department, initially told Fitzgerald the idea “sounds crazy” because selling produce online is difficult, but upon further reflection he thought it made sense.
“They have all the relationships with all the fresh purveyors, they’re cutting out a middleman, but they’re leveraging everything else: the trucks, the facility, all the people,” said Stallone, now chief merchant at Fresh Midwest.
The pandemic has transformed how people buy food. A surge in online grocery shopping sent grocers scrambling to satisfy customers’ expectations of convenience. Whole Foods last week announced free same-day pickup for Prime members and Jewel-Osco recently introduced temperature-controlled pickup lockers at its stores. Some grocers are operating customer-free “dark stores” dedicated to filling online orders.
There are also more ways for shoppers to forgo the grocery store altogether and buy fresh food direct from suppliers, as business disruptions drive farms and restaurants to seek new revenue streams.
The model predates the pandemic. Niles-based Irv and Shelly’s Fresh Picks has been delivering food from local farms to consumers since 2006, and people for years have been able to order boxes of produce through community-supported agriculture programs. But demand has boomed as people concerned about their health and immune systems seek more nutritious food.
“There’s been a flight to quality,” said Jim Slama, CEO of FamilyFarmed, a Chicago-based nonprofit that promotes a locally grown food system. “If you’re getting product that’s just a day or two old, the antioxidant levels and levels of other nutrients are higher when it’s fresher.”
Nichols Farm and Orchard in Marengo, a major presence at Chicago farmers markets, in March started delivering its mushrooms, carrots, jams and other products to customers’ homes. Green City Market, which failed to gain traction with a delivery service two years ago, launched the WhatsGood app in March and has since helped 25 vendors fill 5,200 delivery and pickup orders.
Village Farmstand opened a storefront in Evanston during the summer to help area farmers address a key challenge they encountered as they tried to sell directly to consumers: how to sort through and package their product into sizes meant for families rather than the restaurants they were accustomed to serving.
It works with nearly 60 farms and sells their seasonal produce, pasture-raised meats and artisan flours online, offering pickup and, as of last week, home delivery to the North Shore suburbs for a $10 fee. It also is working with restaurants to create frozen meals and meal kits. The business has 170 items in its store and serves about 300 customers a week.
“This is a new age of grocery shopping that’s way more convenient and way more flavorful,” said founder Matt Wechsler, a filmmaker who connected with the local farming community through films he made about sustainability in agriculture.
Farmers who worried they would be crushed this year by the fall in restaurant orders have found a consumer audience willing to open their wallets for farm-fresh food. Village Farmstand’s prices are comparable to buying organic at Whole Foods, Wechsler said.
“Some of our farms are having their best year ever,” said Wechsler’s business partner, Marty Travis, who owns Spence Farm in Fairbury, Illinois, and does the marketing and delivery for the other farms in the group.
The farms have increased production enough that if restaurants start ordering at normal levels again, Village Farmstand can continue to serve the consumer market, Travis said. There are plans to replicate the model elsewhere, including in towns that do not have grocery stores.
Slama thinks the new models are here to stay. “It’ll be a whole year of changed habits,” he said. “And people are liking it.”
Fresh Midwest hopes putting fresh food on wheels helps expand food access.
“We have the ability to penetrate food deserts,” Stallone said. “It’s all about bringing healthy food to people who need it.”
This kind of food can be expensive, but there are cost savings in cutting out the middlemen. Fresh Midwest, which compares its retail prices to Jewel-Osco or Mariano’s, offers free delivery for orders over $75 and charges a $4.95 delivery fee for smaller orders.
Fresh Midwest has logistical advantages given its association with Midwest Foods, a Chicago-based produce distributor whose clients include Gibsons Steakhouse and The Peninsula hotel, and Edible Cuts, a wholesaler that suppliescut fruits, vegetables, wrapped sandwiches and desserts to hospitals, schools and other institutions.
The company rewrapped existing refrigerated delivery vans with Fresh Midwest’s logo and shifted some workers over from the other companies. Together the three companies employ about 200 people.
Fresh Midwest operates out of Edible Cuts’ 70,000-square-foot facility in Kenosha. It has hired six former Peapod employees who work in marketing, meal kit development, technology, production and driving. Peapod co-founder Thomas Parkinson is a neighbor and longtime friend of Mike Fitzgerald.
The service has 520 items listed on its online store currently but expects to be at 2,000 or 3,000 within the next three months, Patrick Fitzgerald said. Among them are aquaponic greens from Farm on Ogden, cold-pressed juices from Milwaukee vendor Juiced and house-made yogurt parfaits.
The biggest seller from Fresh Midwest so far, during the weeks it has been testing the service on friends and family, is its Wildfire Signature Chopped Salad meal kit. The company worked with the chef at the River North restaurant to develop a consumer-friendly recipe for the dish, and has several other restaurant partnerships underway at a time when restaurants are looking for new ways to reach customers.
“We really do feel that ‘restaurant made’ is going to be a huge category for us,” Patrick Fitzgerald said. “People aren’t going downtown like they used to.”
He envisions building a kitchen where chefs can design products for consumers that Fresh Midwest then delivers. The Kenosha facility, built three years ago, sits on 4 acres of a 15-acre plot of land the family owns, so there is room to grow.
Despite its ambitions, Fresh Midwest is trying to take it slow as it learns the consumer mindset.
Selling fresh food online to customers is notoriously challenging because there are many variables, including shelf life and a higher expectation of quality because people can’t choose the particular item for themselves, Stallone said.
He developed a motto while at Peapod for employees filling online produce orders: “Don’t pick it like you’d pick it for yourself,” he said. “Pick it like it was for your mother.”
©2020 Chicago Tribune
Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.