Policy: Technology

Online company delivers fresh, local groceries

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News,Business,Food and Drink,Technology

WASHINGTON (AP) — Does your weekend grocery list look something like, "Produce and dairy from the farmers market; meat and bread from Whole Foods; frozen meals and wine from Trader Joe's; graham crackers, Diet Coke and cereal from Safeway?"

It's a modern-day dilemma, but for busy urban families, shopping for everyone's grocery preferences can be a logistical nightmare. That's where one company hopes to provide some relief.

Relay Foods is an online grocery retailer that started in 2009 in Charlottesville, Virginia. Over the past few years, it's expanded to a handful of other markets, including Richmond, Baltimore and the Washington area.

Relay, which has more than 30,000 products available, is different from most online grocery services. It sells a selection of conventional products — such as Eggo waffles, Diet Coke, Cheerios and Stouffer's French Bread Pizza — but the company places a heavy emphasis on natural and local products.

Those in the Washington area can add bottles of fermented tea from Capital Kombucha, cartons of ice cream from Ice Cream Jubilee and containers of soup from Soupergirl to their carts, along with other products from more than 100 local vendors.

Relay also doesn't limit its services to cities or densely populated areas. Its most recent market is Harrisonburg, Virginia.

Sarah Yates, vice president of merchandising and communications at Relay Foods, says the company wants to serve those who don't have access to natural and organic products.

"Maybe they have a great farmers market (in Harrisonburg), but the grocery stores there are much more conventional. People are still looking to find (all of their products) in one place," she says.

At a recent Friday afternoon at Relay's Northeast Washington warehouse, approximately 20 employees, all of whom looked to be under 35 years old, were sampling products from local food producers Runningbyrd Tea and Kate Bakes.

"There are a lot of people who love working at Relay because they care about food," said Yates, as her energetic co-workers, dressed in brightly colored Relay shirts, chatted with Ben Byrd of Runningbyrd Tea Company, who was there to talk about his product and answer questions.

"We have this mission to provide really healthy local food, and I think that attracts people who might otherwise go some more corporate route. They get really excited about this opportunity to work with a company that really wants to change things," Yates says.

Grocery orders placed before midnight Sunday through Thursday are filled the next day — either delivered to your door for a charge, or available for free pickup at one of several locations in the area.

Once the order is placed, the overnight team at Relay fills the order from its Richmond warehouse, where there is freezer space, as well as an in-house butcher and seafood team.

"You can get a great stuffed snapper or a great grouper that's actually been cut that day," Yates says.

The trucks then drive to Washington, where the orders are finalized.

Brent Ling, District of Columbia and Baltimore city manager for Relay Foods, says the lack of inventory creates zero waste at Relay's District warehouse.

"We only bring in for the day what we sell that day," he says.

In the early morning hours, bakers drop off their breads, and other local products are picked up by Relay employees.

"So, morning-of, we would go to Union Kitchen and pick up any Union Kitchen food, so that you're getting that as fresh as possible," Yates says.

The groceries are then sorted and labeled by pick up location in the District warehouse before Relay employees head out on deliveries.

"You choose a location that's along your commuting route or . at your kids' school. You come to us, we don't charge you a fee to pick-up those groceries," Yates says.

A popular product is the company's Bounty Box — an assortment of in-season produce from local farmers. Relay's full-time local produce planner works with about 35 area farmers to source the produce.

"Right now it's asparagus, lettuce, hydroponic tomatoes, radishes, strawberries; it's incredible," Yates says.

In Richmond and Charlottesville, Relay sells wine. This service isn't available yet in the Washington area, but Yates says, maybe one day.

"We're working really, really hard to have this available."

Currently, 3.3 percent of total U.S. grocery spending — a $500 billion industry — is done online, according to Bloomberg Businessweek.

And the e-grocery business is garnering a lot of interest from investors. In a 2013 round of venture funding, Relay Foods raised $8.25 million, The Wall Street Journal reports. With that money, Relay plans to continue its expansion.

According to Ling, the District team, which has grown from 3 employees to 30 in under two years, is looking to move into a bigger warehouse space in the next year.

Yates thinks the company, which has more than 100 employees in 11 markets, has room to grow to additional areas, but for now, Relay wants to work on developing its current markets.

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Information from: WTOP-FM, http://www.wtop.com

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