It's the middle of the afternoon in the middle of the week, and all is quiet at the office park off Red Run Boulevard in Owings Mills. A white truck sits by the parking lot entrance. Next to it is a folding table stacked with packages of food, labeled and ready for pickup.
Friends & Farms, the alternative food company headquartered in Columbia, is expanding. In late March, it opened two new pickup locations in Baltimore County: one in Owings Mills and the other in Pikesville.
"We keep track of requests. Our current and prospective customers kept asking, 'When are you going to open?' " Collin Morstein, Friends & Farms business development officer, said of the Owings Mills location, at the Merritt Center office park, 10715 Red Run Blvd., and the Pikesville location, at Commerce Center, 1777 Reisterstown Road.
Philip Gottwals and Tim Hosking co-founded Friends & Farms in 2012. The company takes community-supported agriculture (CSA) a couple of steps further.
Like CSAs, customers get fresh, locally grown food, paid in advance for a set fee. But instead of getting its produce and other items from one or two farms, as CSAs do, Friends & Farms draws from more than 70 local farms and producers. Besides produce, the company also offers items such as meat and fish, dairy and eggs, unusual for a CSA.
The model gives farmers a measure of financial security. They have a guaranteed market for their product.
Before the growing season, Friends & Farms staffers meet with the farmers to discuss what and how much to plant. Included in the conversation are the people whose products the company buys, such meat processors, fishermen and people who make honey and preserves, as well as owners of local bakeries and creameries.
Starting with three locations in Howard County, Friends & Farms has grown to 15 pickup locations in Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Howard counties; and Baltimore City. Put another way, that amounts to 555 families per week, that buy company baskets that are feeding 1,500 people per week.
Weekly baskets come in a variety of sizes and subscription periods. The standard four-week small basket (for two people) costs $54 per week; the large basket (for four people), $83 per week. There is a discount for the 13-week subscription period. Other basket choices are individual, vegetarian and lean protein.
Each basket contains enough food for one week: fresh produce, two proteins (fish, poultry, meat or vegetarian), bread and dairy. Food selection varies with the seasons, and baskets can be customized. Customers get a weekly newsletter with basket contents and recipes.
"Typically, each location has 40 to 50 people," said Morstein, although it takes awhile for word to get around. Currently, 15 families have signed up for the Owings Mills location and five families for Pikesville.
Dana Slater is one of them. "I heard about [Friends & Farms] on a radio program. It sounded interesting," said Slater, an Owings Mills resident who became a customer last year.
"I've been urging them to open in Owings Mills," said Slater, who used to pick up her weekly basket at the Timonium location.
Slater works in the development department of Ladew Gardens. Her husband, Matthew, is a builder. Their three young adult children don't live at home, so Slater buys the small basket, for two people, which is the main source of her evening meals for that week.
She customizes the basket by including yogurt in each. "The rest is the standard offerings," she said. "If fish is included in the basket, we have fish that week."
Slater enjoys the farm-fresh food but she also likes knowing that it's coming from, and supporting, local farms. Sometimes, she isn't familiar with an item that is included in a basket, but then, that's part of the charm for her.
"One of the baskets had pork butt, which I've never made before. There was a recipe for a stew on the [Friends & Farms] website and it was quite good," she said. "The meat and vegetables you get aren't necessarily typical. It spurs your creativity."
Brad Miller, of Miller Farms, has been supplying Friends & Farms with produce since 2013. Last winter, he started supplying the company with eggs as well, from the 600 chickens on his family's 250-acre farm in Clinton.
Miller collects 550 eggs per day. He sells some at the eight farmers markets per season in which he participates, sells others to restaurants in the metropolitan Washington area, and uses some in the on-farm bakery, but it's a relief to have a guaranteed customer in Friends & Farms —especially in the winter when the farmers markets aren't open.
"I started supplying them with 100 dozen eggs per week, but it's been growing. Now, I supply 400 dozen to 600 dozen eggs per week," said Miller. "It helps us that they take so many of our eggs."
At one time, Miller thought of forming his own CSA. It proved too difficult. Friends & Farms is the only company Miller works with.
"It's a way for us to reach consumers directly," he said.
Owings Mills pickup is Wednesdays, 3 to 5:30 p.m.; Pikesville pickup is on Saturdays, noon to 2 p.m. For more information, go to Friends & Farms website, http://www.friendsandfarms.com.