Sprout BC expands into retail end of the fresh food business

What if receiving a box of locally grown produce was as easy as signing up for Netflix?

That was the spark of an idea that sent the Sprout team investigating delivered food boxes already on the market — like Blue Apron, Door to Door Organics, Home Chef — to find out what they were doing right and what they could do better.

After seeing what’s out there, Sprout Box was their answer to those far- flung food services. The brainchild of Sprout BC offers fruits and vegetables and lots of other options from farms within an 80-mile radius. So your box will have the veggies and fruits that grow here, not the avocado and limes of Florida or California. 

“We created a box that is customizable,” says Jeremy Andrews, CEO of Sprout BC. “You can put in it what you want. Every week you get new lists of products that will keep growing and expanding. And they're from local farmers and local food entrepreneurs, people that are making jams, or cold pressed juices. Or from egg farmers and meat farmers and cheese makers and bread makers.”

The boxes, available year-round, also feature goods such as Michigan-grown dry beans, cheese, yogurt, locally baked breads, juices, and honey. Each week you get to pick from the list of available produce and value added food products what it is you want. Or, if you would rather be surprised, Sprout will choose what goes into the box. The amount of food you get depends on the size box you order. They cost $15, $25, $50 or $100 and the higher the price the more food is in your Sprout Box.

Where the Netflix idea comes in is in the payment plan. It can be automatic and recur weekly, using the purchase processing service Stripe. Sprout will automatically charge your account weekly based on your box choice and your delivery or pickup option. For a $10 fee, they can deliver. Deliveries are made to the Battle Creek, Marshall, Athens, and Kalamazoo areas. SNAP, Bridge Card, and Double-Up Food Bucks benefits are accepted. 

For those who are not familiar with the Sprout BC operation, it is difficult to capture everything in one sentence. Or even a paragraph. Sprout got its start in 2009 as a community garden and has grown to be a farm incubator, a wholesaler, and a food hub — an organization that buys food from a large number of farmers and sells it at area Farmers Markets, restaurants hospitals, government facilities, schools, and nonprofits. It’s a resource for community gardens, farmers, and offers an educational component for youngsters. And, Andrews says, thanks in large part to Food Hub Manager Brennan Dougherty, its grown from $14,000 to $150,000 in sales in recent years.  

Early in the growing season of 2016 the food hub arm of the operation reached capacity for the amount of produce it could take in from area farmers. “We did really well at what we were doing,” Andrews says. “So well, in fact, that we needed to find new space, or build new space, or expand at our farm. And we came up with a lot of temporary solutions.” 

The more permanent solution started to come together in the early fall of 2016 when Sprout informed the City of Springfield that they likely would not be returning as a vendor to the market. It led to a partnership with the City of Springfield to use the space that had previously been the Springfield Farmers Market. The agreement gave Sprout expanded space for its food hub, which serves Sprout Box, its wholesale customers, and its markets.

“They were losing other vendors and so they said, ‘Well, maybe there's a way we can do something different there. Are you guys interested in partnering with us to think about something different?’ And I said, ‘Well, I am absolutely interested in doing something different there because I have a need already. I need space to put walk-in coolers.’ There's a big open space in there and there's a commercial kitchen, a certified commercial kitchen there.”

What emerged was Sprout Grocery + Kitchen, an ever expanding retail grocery open on Thursdays and Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. for now.

Sprout also is doing further outreach to food businesses to make the most of an already operational incubator kitchen in the space. Small food businesses had been growing there for a number of years and Sprout had been recommending the space to start-up food businesses for some time. “I intend to push business to a future food incubator that's going to be being built in Battle Creek sometime in the next year as well and have plans to keep doing that. But here's this kitchen that's available and we're already pushing business to it so it's a natural fit. And so we have food entrepreneurs that want to use it and that we already buy from. So it'll make things easier for all of us.”

It’s just one example of what Sprout knows how to do.

“We're creating farmers, we're creating new food entrepreneurs, and then we're aggregating and buying it and putting those products into boxes that are going out to consumers and to wholesale markets,” Andrews says. “And then our final piece to that is we're going to create a retail location. People will not only have one day a week to go there to the market but five days a week in the future. And it'll be more of a healthy grocery store, a local healthy grocery, with ready-to-go, ready-made food for lunch and possibly dinner or to take-out for dinner.”

Ultimately, the business is about healthy food that builds a healthy local economy.

“It's really about the local economy and making it possible for people to keep their food dollars right here,” Andrews says. “And that builds community. It builds other people's business. We support other local businesses as much as humanly possible. So, I think it's a local economy thing. We're not the only ones doing it. We're not the only people locally trying to keep their dollars locally. We've not invented something new. But it's one way.”

Kathy Jennings is the managing editor of Southwest Michigan’s Second Wave. She is a freelance writer and editor.
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