It is 2008. Courtney Tellefsen wanted to serve her family fresh, local fruits and vegetables on a regular basis. She found it was too hard to go to the farmers market with two children under five. So, Courtney tried a CSA. But she did not like the inconvenience of going to the CSA location every week. Sometimes she would forget to pick-up her items, and she would often buy things that she didn’t necessarily want.
Courtney thought: What if she wasn’t alone? What if she could come up with a better way to get fresh fruits and vegetables? The ones people actually wanted. And what if, that produce could be delivered right to your doorstep?
Later that year, The Produce Box was born.
I had a chance to ask Courtney some questions about this great organization.
Tell us about the first year at The Produce Box and how you have grown.
It all started with an email that went out to 100 or so of my neighbors. In the email, I asked who would be interested in produce being delivered to your door. Remember, in 2008, no one was delivering anything, and obtaining local produce was just starting to be of interest to people.
I received a positive response from 25 people, and that was enough incentive for me to figure out where to get the local produce. I went to the farmers market and talked to a few farmers, and ended up working with one particular farmer who would let me pick up the boxes from the market each week. The farm decided what went in the box. I just marked up the box price a little and delivered it to the folks who signed up in my neighborhood.
In just a few weeks, the number of people who wanted the service grew, and families in other neighborhoods wanted me to deliver to them. So, I got some help and recruited a few friends who would take care of the deliveries. By the end of that first year, we had 200 customers. Over the next three years, The Produce Box grew to 1000 members.
Today, we have almost 200 stay at home moms and dads who deliver in the neighborhood near and/or where they reside. Our members live across North Carolina — Wilmington all the way to Charlotte. We work with more than 100 farmers, producers and artisans from North Carolina as well as some outside of the state.
What is the mission of The Produce Box?
Our mission is to sell as much local produce as possible on behalf of our local farm partners.
At the same time, we need to balance the needs of our members with the needs of our farmers, the needs of the community, and the needs of our employees. We want to
- Pay the farmers the price they need,
- Sell produce at a price that’s reasonable for our customers,
- Donate some fresh produce to local non-profit organizations,
- Pay our employees a sustainable wage.
It can be challenging. But so far so good.
When big decisions come to the table, the first question is: What’s the RIGHT thing to do? When we think about it like that, the answer is almost always clear.
What are some of The Produce Box’s milestones?
First Farmer: I remember the first time I wrote a check for $5000 to that first farmer. That was pretty amazing…for both me and him.
Adding Boxes: I think it was the second year that we added a different box so we had two different box choices. A year or so later, we added a third choice – so we had A, B and C boxes. Then, we had members who wanted organic or pesticide-free and we created the “O” box. I think the next year we realized that maybe we should come up with more interesting names for the boxes…and Harvest, Sprout and O’ Natural were born. Then we added the BUILD YOUR OWN BOX option, and that has been a huge hit.
Specialty Items: Eventually we had members who wanted Specialty items, like honey. We went from offering one specialty item per week in year two, to today where we offer almost 100 specialty items each week including meat, dairy, and other artisan products.
Neighborhood Ambassadors: I remember the second year when I asked some of my friends to bring their friends who might be interested in delivering. I expected about six people to show up. But to my surprise, there were 25 ladies interested. Thank goodness I had brought some wine and cheese! We had a little bit of wine and talked about how we would organize the next year. That’s really how it all got started.
What is your proudest moment (so far) at The Produce Box?
I think I’ve had a lot of proud moments:
It’s pretty awesome when farmers come in and I can hand them a check every week. Especially when a lot of them tell me that it helps them make payroll since we write them a check when they walk in the door. We don’t make them wait 30 or 60 days for it like many grocery stores do. I’m pretty proud that I have chosen to run my company that way. Because it’s important.
I’m proud that we provide good part-time work for many stay at home moms and dads. It’s hard to find a 2-3 hour a week job that allows you to have your kids with you as well.
Since 2012, we’ve used Wake Enterprises and their workforce of disadvantaged adults who help us assemble the boxes before we start packing them. That’s pretty cool. And, we employ a number of adults who are challenged in different ways. They work in the warehouse.
Most recently, we have been able to provide a hot lunch for our employees every day that we pack. This keeps them healthy and safe and gives a bit of business to local chefs in our area.
If you could trade jobs with some at The Produce Box, what would that job be and why?
I do like getting on the packing line every once in a while. It is nice in the warehouse. Everyone is very friendly and there is always music playing. You can hang out with all the amazing people, do your job, and relax. On the packing line, you do have to check the produce to make sure the portions are right and inspect the quality, but it’s a nice break from my regular responsibilities.
What do you hope never changes about The Produce Box?
Our sense of community.
Community in the warehouse with the employees. It is a friendly environment and everyone pitches in to get the job done.
Community with the neighborhood ambassadors, who believe so much in our mission.
Community within the membership, when members talk with each other over social media, talk with us about what they want and what they like, as well as make suggestions and tactful comments.
Community among our farmers, who respect each other and even work together to get their product to the warehouse, combining products and sharing trucks, or working together to build a box that our customers get excited about.
What do you want for the company in five years?
I’m happy to have us continue to grow in North Carolina – as long as there are opportunities for the employees to grow, there are customers who want the products, and there are farmers who have products to sell. It’s less about me now, and more about everybody else.
I’d also love to see The Produce Box model duplicated in other states. I really think this can work everywhere.