Unless you happen to be a farmer or a particularly dedicated gardener, this summer you’ll face the annual decision about where to buy your produce. The supermarket seems so bland and somehow so wrong if you know there are working farms anywhere within, say, a forty-five-minute drive. Why not pick your own? Why not befriend a local farmer? Or why not make this the year you plant cardoons and salsify instead of just tomatoes and zucchini?
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Chances are, of course, you will do none of these things—you’ll just hope the expensive Whole Foods–style supermarket you go to actually has some local produce. Quality-minded supermarkets such as Whole Foods are indeed making more efforts every summer to offer at least some produce grown in the same state. That’s not the same, though, as knowing the people who grow your food, or buying the food grown closest to you.
Convenience trumps ideals in everyday life, and sometimes the farmers’ market is inconvenient. Sometimes you long for the days when phone numbers had five digits and city grocers wrote down your delivery list with soft-leaded pencils on brown paper bags. Their successors are online grocery services, which promise infinite choice along with delivery when and where you want it. But big companies burned through hundreds (and hundreds) of millions of dollars trying to get online home-delivery services up and running, and just a few survive, including Safeway, Peapod (affiliated with Stop & Shop and Giant), and mywebgrocer.com.
These services are not built around local produce. But some online companies are building their businesses around produce for people whose wants go beyond convenience. FreshDirect, for example, succeeds in delivering high-quality food of all kinds—and even some local produce—to New Yorkers. And around the country, mom-and-pop online services that deliver organic produce are surviving with pluck, hope, and a few vans. The most admirable choice of all is a CSA (for Community Supported Agriculture), which can be convenient and is certainly more directly helpful to local farmers than even the farmers market. Joining one might be this summer’s resolution. And if you happen to live near one of the growing number of online produce-delivery companies, come winter you could have a new kind of Web adventure, and help a struggling businessperson too.
FreshDirect began with the same idea that many Web delivery services had: offer home delivery of groceries ordered online at reasonably competitive rates by eliminating the cost of bricks-and-mortar markets. Produce could be a good bit fresher than from a supermarket. Fruits and vegetables need not pass through a wholesaler or dawdle at some entrepôt, wilting by the day. They need not sit in supermarket bins at or near room temperature, wilting by the hour. Instead, produce could come by refrigerated truck to the company’s refrigerated order center and then travel by refrigerated van to your refrigerator, sparkling with freshness. Entire days could be cut out of the trip from farm to table.
You couldn’t select your own produce, of course. Not being able to see and touch the goods is part of the trade-off in ordering anything online. It’s a sacrifice for anyone who squeezes peaches and scrutinizes lettuce for black leaves—an unacceptable sacrifice, many cooks say. But once children or long work hours enter the picture, even proud shoppers buckle. FreshDirect aims to ease the pain by providing more information than most markets do—one of the happier aspects of the trade-off. And it wants its delivered produce to match the pictures, which online goods often don’t; all of its photographs are of sample fruits and vegetables actually on the premises.
The expenses and risks of setting up an online company that ships fresh produce are exceptionally high—so high that Webvan, the most ambitious of the start-ups that set out to do this on a national scale, lost $830 million and went bankrupt before delivering a single box on the East Coast. It had already rigged out an elaborate warehouse in Baltimore—“a ghost town,” David McInerney, who oversees FreshDirect’s product development, told me when I visited the company’s headquarters and order center, near the Queens entrance to the Midtown Tunnel.
FreshDirect bought much of its equipment from Webvan and wrote a comparatively modest business plan—guaranteeing delivery within two hours, for instance, rather than the unrealistic half hour Webvan had promised. Order baskets travel on elevated hooks from one part of the plant to another; bags of beets whiz down wheeled conveyor platforms to a box waiting on a sort of trolley track ready to go to the deli department. The whole system—from kitchen to cheese room to butcher and fish cutter to dry-goods area—looks like a miniature ride in a food theme park, with neat cardboard boxes instead of, say, giant teacups. It is seldom shown to visitors, McInerney said, for fear of revealing a process that reportedly cost $100 million to create.
On my visit I was impressed by the breads, which are made from scratch by Craig Kominiak, an experienced baker, and baked until almost done, to be finished at home (the only way to compensate for the cold storage at every step, which destroys the texture of fresh-baked bread); the cheese selection bought from Artisanal, one of the country’s best cheesemongers and the city’s best; the coffees, which are roasted by Patrick Spillman, an enthusiastic and dedicated roaster, whose technique and selection I have long admired; and the workers chopping vegetables and cutting and marinating fish for entrées that looked equal to what many restaurant kitchens turn out. The real future of the company, McInerney, a trained chef with an impressive résumé, implied, is in prepared foods: the sesame-marinated skirt steak, the Tobago wild blackfin tuna kabobs, the thin-crust frozen pizzas that, he said, even the staff was buying.