Columbia business 'honest broker' between farmers and consumers

In Michael Lewis's best-selling book Flash Boys, a group of do-good stockbrokers abscond from their cushy, high-paying jobs at big Wall Street banks to become the honest broker in what is depicted as increasingly corrupt stock market, one that rewards leaving the everyman on the raw end of the stick.

Philip Gottwals, of Columbia, and Tim Hosking, of Baltimore, aren't stockbrokers, but through their locally sourced grocery business Friends & Farms, the duo have carved out their own small place as the honest broker in what they describe as a rapidly devolving food distribution chain.


From that standpoint, it's not hard to see the parallels between Lewis's flash boys and these fresh boys.

"It started as a mission for the two of us to find a better way to get fresh foods into people's hands at an affordable price," said Gottwals, sitting inside the business' Columbia offices.


"Having a good quality option at an affordable price was something that was difficult to find, particularly year-round, so we really wanted to tackle that issue. And, do it in a meaningful way that encouraged people to take a more active role in preparing their own food, reconnecting people with their suppliers and being fair to everyone in the system."

Friends & Farms provides each customer, based on their family size and dietary preferences, with a weekly, balanced food basket composed of locally sourced produce, which includes two meats and a bevy of dairy products, vegetables and fruits.

The baskets are compiled from produce collected from regional Mid-Atlantic farms — almost everything, save for the occasional winter order of oranges from Florida, is collected from farms within a 70-mile radius of Columbia — and are picked up by the consumer at designated pickup locations in Howard, Anne Arundel and Baltimore City. The baskets, which cost between $42 and $97 a week based on size and options, are compiled in a way that allows the consumer to fashion balanced meals. Friends & Farms also provides a series of recipes to aid in the endeavor.

"The twist that we offer is a cohesive package that is designed around the center of the plate. It's a menu-based, portion-based basket," Gottwals said. "We really do design it to work in the kitchen for the consumer, rather than designing a basket that is solely driven by what producers want to give us because its what they have the most of at the time."

Twenty-five months into the experiment, the returns are encouraging. The company has grown steadily since being founded in July 2012, and it currently boasts 619 regular customers. Among them is Elkridge resident Jeanine Federline, who said she joined in July 2013.

"It's a system different than anything I had seen before," said Federline, 27.

Federline said she was previously a member of a CSA, or Community-supported agriculture, but that it didn't provide her the same convenience that Friends & Farms does.

According to Hosking, the system works because the two end points in the transaction, the customer and the farmer, are looking out for one another.

"We want customers who want us to give a good deal to farms, and we want farms who want to sell to us because we have customers who care about what they grow, who want fresh produce," Hosking said. "Everybody wins."

The formula is simple — cut out the middle men. Well, all but one.

"By making the supply chain more efficient, both players can do better," Gottwals said.

According to Gottwals, the need for a business like Friends & Farms is relatively recent; it's only over the last 10 years or so that food purchasing patterns have swung toward lower quality and pre-packaged products.


This trend has created a divide in the market, according to Gottwals. On one side you have traditional grocers, who, because of increased supply chain efficiency, offer pre-packaged foods and lower quality produce at low prices. On the other side are grocers like Whole Foods, who offer shoppers a premium product at a premium price.

Like the protagonists in Flash Boys, Gottwals and Hosking say they have a greater end game: to change the way grocery stores do business.

"We can grow as much as we need to grow, but victory comes from also getting the food system to respond," said Hosking. "Ultimately, our goal is to get the grocery stores to change."

And, they're not alone. Gottwals said people's desire for better, locally sourced food is a nationwide trend, and it's taking roots here in Howard County, too. On Aug. 21, the company is partnering with Howard County General Hospital's Wellness Center to deliver a free health assessment to customers. According to Susan Case, spokeswoman for the hospital, the center conducted 70 screenings last year and usually partners with community nonprofits.

Last year, County Executive Ken Ulman created a 24-person task force, which Gottwals serves on, to create a local food hub and a mobile market, which is called the Roving Radish and began operating last month. The food hub, which is still in development, will be a facility that supports local farms and makes fresh produce more readily available.

The county also supports local farmers markets, and there are independent organizations like the Howard County Farm Bureau and the Howard County Fair Association that support agriculture education within the county.

"The initiatives that the county is taking are good for us in the sense that it's making more people aware of the benefits of eating local, and they are more likely to find a product like ours interesting," said Collin Morstein, who does business development Friends & Farms.

Morstein said about 60 percent of its customer base is from Howard County, but that it also gets a lot of business from Baltimore City as well.

He added that Farms & Friends does not see itself as competition to the farmers markets, CSAs or even a group like Relay Foods, which offers a similar subscription-based, locally-sourced grocery service.

For them, the biggest competition is old habits.

"Farmers markets, CSAs, local food initiatives — and we are included in that — comprise a tiny piece of the marketplace for food," Gottwals said. "Any dent we make, any growth we have has to come from the traditional food distribution system."

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