A couple of years ago, a Waterloo Region startup wanted to solve a puzzle: Why is food grown closest to a community typically the most expensive and the most difficult to access?
The startup is Local Line, and the solution, according to President and CEO Cole Jones, is to build relationships between restaurants and farms in Waterloo Region and other communities, to give chefs an innovative and convenient way to order local food from producers in their community.
Since it started about two years ago, Local Line has grown to a seven-member team whose members have analyzed farm technology and discovered, literally, only nuts-and-bolts hardware: more efficient equipment for planting seeds, better tractors and devices that provide precise readings on crop growth, soil conditions and water requirements. Farmers are even using drones to survey crops, says Jones.
“Where we have not seen innovation is in supply-chain software for local food,” he says. “Big food companies leverage existing logistics solutions and order-management tools to help run their businesses, but there is nothing like that for local food.”
In January 2014, Local Line joined Wilfrid Laurier University’s LaunchPad program, based in the Communitech Hub, where students and alumni embark on business ventures. “With LaunchPad’s resources, we learned how to take an unvalidated idea of a farm-to-fork platform to an innovative business that generates revenue. It taught us that listening to your customers – in our case, suppliers – is critically important and can steer you in the direction of a sustainable business,” Jones says.
Jones, a 22-year-old philosophy graduate from Laurier, says Communitech helped Local Line find team members via WaterlooTechJobs.com and to tap into the Communitech network to meet investors and learn from other entrepreneurs.
With the seeds sown, Local Line created a solution to the cost and access problem that inhibits efficient business transactions in the local food community. It registered its first sale in April of 2014 – “We made exactly six dollars,” Jones says, “on ground beef and potatoes. It was the happiest day of our lives.”
More significantly, it signalled that this could be a worthwhile venture. The team decided to tackle the business and fine-tune it full-time that summer.
If Local Line’s software infrastructure is innovative, it is so only when compared to the antiquities of the larger industry, and the plethora of online platforms that have been unsuccessful in applying a marketplace model to the B2B food industry.
Local Line software supports local supply chains by capturing order and sales information, analyzing harvests and pricing structures, and optimizing delivery. In many cases, it does what big logistics software does not do.
“We have three team members working on our product, which goes much deeper than just a transaction system,” Jones says. “We’re building tools our users will rely on to run their businesses. We’re also optimizing logistics, creating market density, and watching real dollars stay in local communities to help the various local-food stakeholders.”
When you listen to Jones, you might say Local Line is motivated by looking back, in a positive retrograde way, to reconnect farmers to chefs and create repeatable local relationships. “It’s the way our food system should have stayed,” he says.
As an example of the need for change, Local Line discovered faxes are still used for ordering food.
“How are you supposed to make informed purchasing decisions or understand how to optimize your purchasing habits when you’re ordering that way?” Jones asks.
He points out our current food system was built six decades ago, and it hasn’t evolved. “That’s probably why food startups are some of the most popular and best-funded companies today,” he says.
Local Line is not jumping on a bandwagon, however. For them, the idea of local is more than buzzwords related to the current mass appeal of farmers’ markets and farm-to-plate movements. Jones argues that the system must be revamped.
“We looked at the way the food system operates now, and we concluded that strong local food systems will be crucial to our future. We’ve got food travelling so far in such an unsustainable way and using up so much of our shrinking ecological budget, that we cannot sustain it in years to come.”
The Local Line team did the math around those years to come. The average food product travels 1,200 kilometers, which means added costs because it requires a longer shelf-life, more preservatives and longer periods of expensive refrigeration – not to mention transportation and fuel costs and the spectre of crippling carbon taxes.
As for scalability, Local Line recently expanded to Kingston – “our first experience outside of our own Waterloo Region community,” says Jones – and the team reports they have quickly established early value for a growing client base there. That augurs well for the young company as it seeks to localize the food system.
“Our goal is to make regional food systems the most empowered food systems in the world, Jones says. “While we will remain headquartered in Waterloo Region, we’d like to see where else this system and its platform can go.”