'The new normal': With grocery delivery service Lucky Pantry, Catonsville business adapts to a changing economy

Lucky Pantry’s launch day was a mess of snow and sleet, the dreaded “wintry mix” that keeps people off of roads and out of stores — but the foul weather only made the owners of Rooster and Hen, Allison Smith and her husband Joe McRedmond, more determined.

The owners of the small Oella grocery store spent Jan. 8 how they hope to spend each future Monday: packing boxes full of local organic produce, pantry staples and pre-made meals.

Then McRedmond packed the boxes into his car and drove into the sleet to deliver boxes to those 10 early customers himself, dropping each one off on a snowy route around Catonsville that lasted two hours.

“I was proud that we did it that day,” Smith said on Jan. 15. “That was a treat for them, to not go out and find food in that weather … it made my heart warm to know that we got to feed people that day.”

Lucky Pantry, an offshoot of Rooster and Hen, is a local grocery delivery service created to be an “access point” for local businesses, Smith said.

The launch mirrors a national rise in popularity of meal planning and grocery delivery services, showing how small local businesses are adapting in new ways to an increasingly “on demand” economy.

“People now expect to get what they want delivered to their home — it’s the new normal,” Smith said. “We don’t want to be left behind with consumer demand.”

Customers in Catonsville and Ellicott City can order weekly or bi-weekly boxes on the Lucky Pantry website. The couple said they do not currently deliver to the Arbutus area, because they are delivering themselves and are limited by distance; if Lucky Pantry grows, the couple said they would consider hiring someone to help with delivery. Lucky Pantry’s website suggests checking back in the summer to see if they have expanded their coverage area.

The “Pantry Staples” box, for $55, comes with standard weekly purchases like produce, milk, bread and coffee. The “Lucky Crate,” for $65, centers its contents around a weekly theme — on Jan. 15, customers opened their boxes to find Italian ingredients, including imported pasta, tomato sauce and a ready-to-bake pizza.

Lucky Pantry is a local example of a number of trends — in online shopping, subscription services and meal kits — that are growing in prominence nationwide.

Food industry consulting and research firm Technomic predicted in 2016 that by 2020, the meal kit industry will top $10 billion, growing by a factor of 10 times from when the study was done. Meanwhile, online grocery spending could jump to one-fifth of the grocery market by 2025, according to a report by the Food Marketing Institute and Nielsen.

The trend toward delivery and subscription services is strong in southwest Baltimore County, said Stacy Carroll, director of sales and partnerships at Hungry Harvest, a Baltimore-area company that offers subscription boxes of “ugly food,” produce rejected from mainstream grocery stores due to physical imperfections.

Hungry Harvest, which has operated in the area since 2014, makes “several hundred” weekly deliveries in ZIP codes 21227, 21228 and 21229, which cover the southwest area, Carroll said.

“There’s definitely a demand for this type of service and this type of resource,” Carroll said.

Gayle Killen, a frequent Rooster and Hen customer who lives just over the county border in Ellicott City, said she helped Smith and McRedmond brainstorm for Lucky Pantry, an idea she said fills a need for people like her in the area.

“I am a huge fan of making things that are better for us, making them easy for us, because we’re so overwhelmed with life, especially in this area and this day and age,” Killen said. One aspect Killen likes about Lucky Pantry is that unlike many community-supported agriculture programs, the food is delivered at no extra cost rather than scheduled for pickup.

Though McRedmond and Smith said they were familiar with, and inspired by, national companies like Blue Apron and HelloFresh that sell subscription meal kits, they said Lucky Pantry is different.

Some services, Smith said, offer loose produce and ingredients to make food from scratch; others parcel out and package the exact ingredients required to make a single meal. Lucky Pantry, Smith said, is somewhere in between, offering farm-fresh produce and pantry goods with which to cook it. And rather than parceling out a few tablespoons of oil like Blue Apron does, Lucky Pantry provides the whole bottle.

Because the food is local, Smith said, Lucky Pantry’s prices can be more expensive than average groceries.

Unlike national kits, nearly all of Lucky Pantry's food is locally grown and produced — though some food, like the Italian pasta, is imported, and some food comes from Amish country in Pennsylvania, the rest is largely from Baltimore City and Baltimore County.

“We know, literally, on a personal level, every single person that we buy food from,” Smith said. The food at Rooster and Hen — and in Lucky Pantry boxes, which are partly made up of regular Rooster and Hen items and partly specially ordered — is purchased directly from farmers and producers, such as Cockeysville-based Moon Valley Farms and the Zahradka Farm in Essex.

Before opening Rooster and Hen — which lies somewhere between a farm stand, a convenience store and a gift shop — in 2016, the couple, who live in Oella, considered purchasing goods from major natural food distributors, even going to a natural foods show to meet them.

“It was like, so many creepy guys in khakis,” Smith said. “People who were treating [food] just like a commodity, and not like what it is, which is human beings trying to share something good with each other.”

Smith declined to share Rooster and Hen’s revenues publicly. However, she and McRedmond insisted that they are not focused just on how much food they sell, but its quality and environmental impact.

Knowing farmers and their growing practices, “we don’t have to be skeptical, or concerned about giving our baby that food,” Smith said. “And we know that by supporting them, there’s a patch of land that’s clean and pure, that is helping to keep the Chesapeake Bay cleaner.”

Rooster and Hen’s focus on local food, Smith said, is what differentiates it from larger companies like Amazon that deliver food.

The quick-changing retail landscape means that Rooster and Hen has to constantly adapt. In February, only a month after the rollout of Lucky Pantry, McRedmond said that they will launch an online shopping platform in which customers can order anything stocked in the store online.

Even with those changes, however, “we will never be able to compete with Amazon,” Smith said. Instead, their goal is to “find what makes us unique” — local food — and focus on it.

“What Lucky Pantry really shows is how connected they are to making sure that the absolute best is getting into their pantry, and into your belly,” Killen said. “They’re social activists, all about your belly.”

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