Colorado has a vibrant local food scene. Farms grow succulent Western Slope peaches and Pueblo green chiles. Sauce companies brew pungent barbeque; picklers offer gourmet preserves.
Elizabeth Mozer, who started the Lyric Cinema Café in Fort Collins, wanted to offer those local foods to her customers. She ran into difficulties, though, when she tried to track them down.
"We were running all over, trying to find things," she recalled. "It took a lot of effort, driving all over the place."
Mozer realized other businesses interested in sourcing locally were probably having the same problem. So she and her husband started LoCo Foods, to distribute local foods. Now LoCo and another new local food distributor, Source Local, are filling in the missing link between food producers and markets and restaurants.
"This is the prep area," said Rogue Edwards, founder of Bolder Beans, a company that makes pickled beans and other pickled products. "So over on this side, these are all spice prepped already, and they are packing in the green beans and the carrots."
Edwards is showing off a new co-packing facility run by Redlaw Sauce Co. in Golden. It's his turn on the production line, and gleaming kettles await jars of fresh-packed veggies, soon to be transformed into colorful jars of crunchy pickles.
Like most local food producers, Edwards started out doing his own distribution, at times driving two hours round trip to make a delivery. He was selling in about 25 stores when he signed on with LoCo Foods. Now Bolder Beans are in over 250, he said.
"The distribution was really the key to our growth," Edwards said. "With [LoCo] doing the driving it enabled us to focus on sales," he added.
It's not just processed foods that benefit from distribution. Local farmers see benefits as well.
Benjamin Jayne, the farm manager at Colorado Aquaponics, likes to focus on his growing system. Aquaponics is a combination of hydroponics – growing plants in water – and aquaculture, or fish farming. Jayne uses waste from his fish as fertilizer for the water his salad greens grow in. Inside a bright greenhouse filled with growing greens, it's clearly a productive setup, but the five different methods Jayne uses to grow salad greens, along with care of the facility and three kinds of fish, demand a lot of attention.
Jayne said LoCo is easy to work with, and that allows him to focus on growing a quality product.
"We sell more now, and we sell more faster," he said.
Jayne said he used to struggle with what to do with excess produce. Now, LoCo takes whatever he can grow. The company has also helped him sell alternative products, like micro greens, to new customers.
Coloradans Demand For Local Food Drives Distributor Growth
Colorado distributors are filling a strong demand for local products, said Aaron Perry, co-founder and CEO of Source Local, another local distributor based in Broomfield. Perry said distributors play a strong role in the food hub movement, helping small producers get to larger marketplaces. Such food hubs have strong community support in the Northeast, Michigan and California – and now Colorado, he said.
"It is driven by people and families all over the state wanting access to healthier, more sustainable natural and organic foods," said Perry.
Source Local, founded in 2012, is a certified B Corporation, which means it can make social benefits a priority as well as profit. Perry, who is passionate about helping people connect with the source of their food, has also developed an app to help customers search for and learn more about local foods.
Both Loco Foods and Source Local have experienced rapid growth. Source Local now employs 25 people and moves between $3 and $4 million worth of products every year, said Perry.
While distribution is often seen as a missing piece in the local food system, not every new Colorado food company is signing up.
Justin Park, CEO of The Real Dill, another local pickle company, said his company still does their own distribution. His products are in about 150 stories and restaurants, and so far the company has managed to do its distribution on its own. While at some point The Real Dill might want to engage a distributor, Park sees advantages to doing it himself – his margins are higher, and he also maintains relationships with his customers by having more face-to-face interaction with them.
Another option he is exploring is co-distribution, banding together with other local food companies who sell at the same markets he does, and delivering products on each others' behalf.
"If each of us has our products in one particular store, we can work with that store to try to synchronize the orders," he said.
Still, as more and more local farms and food businesses look to expand beyond the farmers market, many of them will look to companies like LoCo Foods to help them reach new customers
Mozer now has a lengthy list of chefs, grocers, hospitals and universities she delivers to, all over the region. It's quite a difference from a few years ago, when she started the company. Then, her first delivery involved hand-wheeling a bag of flour down the street on a dolly. Now, she said: "Vans run all day."