Farm2Counter Champions Local Fare

Celebrity Chef Austin Merath at Veggies Please in Fairgrove, Mo., which does hydroponic gardening, with Farmer David Bauman from Possum Creek Produce. Photo courtesty of Camera Time

In Springfield, Mo., Farm2Counter is offering customers fresh, local and healthier food and product options, and even teaching them how to cook.

By Erin Del Conte, Senior Editor

Farm2Counter is connecting local farmers to customers’ kitchen counters as it brings local, fresh foods to shoppers in a food desert, teaches new recipes and wows with a selection of organic options and local craft beer.

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In an era where most convenience retailers are trying to decipher how to bring local food and beverage options to customers, this Springfield, Mo.-based c-store retailer on Dec. 27, 2018 celebrated its one-year anniversary.

Owner Paul Allen and his wife Ashley Allen, the store’s chief financial officer, would like to expand the concept, seeing how Farm2Counter is already filling a unique niche.

Paul Allen, owner of Farm2Counter and his wife Ashley Allen, chief financial officer of Farm2Counter.

Allen previously sailed the globe as a private yacht chef and his experiences inspire his outside-the-box c-store concept, housed in a 2,400-square-foot store.

“When I was off the coast of Naples, Italy, I would get porcini mushrooms that only grow fresh there. Here in Missouri we get some of the best tomatoes,” Allen said.
Allen said it’s easy to tell the difference between a meal made from fresh, local foods, and any other type of meal—even organic.

When off the yacht, Allen would often spend the entire day shopping—visiting multiple locations from an Amish village for produce to a cattle farm for beef. The experience gave him the idea to create a location that could connect local farmers with customers eager to purchase convenient fresh, local foods.

Farm2Counter looks to offer everything a c-store provides but with a better option, such as healthy or organic alternatives. It doesn’t offer fuel, but it boasts the only organic soda fountain and the only organic slushes in the state of Missouri. The beer cooler provides only craft beer from small Missouri breweries, and features an impressive 120 local beer options.

But, perhaps its biggest calling card is the weekly meal-kits compiled in the store, featuring fresh produce and goods from local farmers, complete with recipes. About 80% of the ingredients are from the local area with a few global products­—like truffle oil—mixed in.
When it comes to produce, Farm2Counter offers locally-sourced first, organic second.

Farm2Counter sources fresh, local produce for its weekly meal-kit boxes.

Currently, in the winter season, Farm2Counter includes items from an array of local farmers including tomatoes, kale, spring onions, and herbs including rosemary and thyme. Customers can also find fresh fruit and avocados that are certified organic.

One local farmer with whom Allen partners uses hydroponics—a way of growing plants in a water-based, nutrient-rich solution rather than soil. “He’s going six kinds of spicy peppers, including ghost peppers, Habaneros and chili peppers,” Allen said. The farmer provides Farm2Counter with everything from Boston Bibb lettuce to broccoli—right in the middle of winter. “That’s unheard of for this area, especially in a convenience store.”

While customers can select their own produce, Farm2Counter makes it convenient by also offering three differently-sized meal-kit options for $49, $99 and $149.

All three meal-kits are intended for use over an entire week. The smallest includes produce for a week. The middle-sized box includes bread, cheese, more produce and canned items.

The largest adds multiple meats, cheeses, and additional fun items, such as a locally-sourced Bloody Mary Mix.

While Farm2Counter delivers to more than 13 cities, local customers can also pick up their boxes at the store. Boxes are delivered every Friday, and customers can opt for weekly, every-other-week or monthly options.

In addition to local produce, the boxes include local eggs and dairy, such as goat cheeses, and milk with the cream on it. Local canned goods and spices are also part of the package.
Most recently, the box included the fixings for crockpot cassoulet. “It’s a French recipe that includes beans and meats. A perfect cassoulet recipe takes about six to eight hours. Well, we did a crockpot cassoulet, so you just take all the ingredients, put them in a crockpot, turn it on and come back after your day of work, and it’s ready for you,” Allen said. “Our customer is someone that enjoys cooking. They have some kind of passion for it.”

Given the target customer, the box is designed to help novice cooks make upscale meals easily and successfully, without any additional shopping beyond the food kit.

Farm2Counter aims to provide the same fare as a normal c-store, but with healthier, higher-quality options and local food.

Perhaps what’s most impressive is Farm2Counter operates in a food desert, providing and teaching about healthy food on the northside of Springfield where there’s a dearth of healthy food venues.

The commitment to better options—which includes local, organic, upscale and healthy products—throughout the c-store is not without challenges.

“We do no high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in our entire store, which when we first got this store was a huge challenge. I couldn’t use any regular purveyor that a normal c-store uses; they laughed at me. So we have about 28 purveyors, where most stores have about four,” Allen said. When it comes to the organic slushes, the store also has to think outside the box. “There’s not a quick, easy thing where you can just throw in organic syrup and it’s good.”

In addition to craft beer, the store offers top-shelf liquor and wine. It
carries only one brand of cigarettes: American Spirit. As for vape and smokeless, “I think  I’m just going to leave that to the specialty shops here in town,” Allen said.

Customers can find an array of organic and local snacks and HFCS-free chocolate. Kids even get a free piece of fruit while they shop. Its cheese section rivals the selection at Whole Foods, and its meat selection includes 100% local meat. “We also have a lot in the frozen section that comes from the local area that customers can throw in the oven and go,” Allen said.

The store also offers sandwiches, salads and wraps, all made in house using locally-made breads and nitrate-free meats. Sandwich ingredients such as tomatoes and lettuce are placed on the side to ensure the sandwich doesn’t get soggy. The trade-off for fresh, locally-made in-house food is a shorter shelf life—another challenge to overcome.

New for 2019, Allen constructed a kitchen set in his store where he plans to demonstrate how to cook each week’s recipe on Friday nights. “When customers get the box Friday they can tune into my (YouTube) channel and I will make the box with them,” he said. He’ll even respond to customer questions in real time during the hour-long cooking episode.
Allen hopes after a year or two of the meal-kit service, customers grow from average chefs to great chefs, and when friends ask where they got their ingredients they’ll point them to Farm2Counter.

This organic farmer shows off some locally-grown tomatoes.

Allen is considering ways to make the “food experience” store demonstrations value-added, including potential multi-course meals, where guests can either watch or buy a ticket to enjoy the finished meal in the store. He’ll use folding chairs that can be removed after each event. The kitchen set is on caster wheels, so it can move around.

“So they’re going to get a show, they’re going to get dinner, and they might get a little champagne…We’ll make it a total experience,” Allen said.

While Allen wants to expand, it would take an investor to grow beyond the current location. If a chain wanted to change their c-stores to the Farm2Counter model, Allen would love to work with them. For now, Allen is focusing on making the Springfield Farm2Counter the best it can be for the local community.