Dreamed up in a college dorm room at the University of Maryland six years ago, the company started out first with just a single farm stand in Washington, D.C.
Fast-forward to 2020, and the Baltimore-based company distributes produce boxes to customers in Maryland; Washington, D.C.; Virginia; Philadelphia; New Jersey; Delaware; South Florida; North Carolina and Detroit. With packing locations in Maryland and North Carolina, the company uses independent contractors in its markets to deliver produce boxes to the doorsteps of customers.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created more desire for online shopping for food, said Evan Lutz, CEO and founder of the company, noting a big uptick in demand since the crisis began in mid-March.
“We are very fortunate and lucky to be in this spot, as a lot of businesses that have foodservice or school sales are way down,” he said. “We’re lucky in this economy to have a lot more demand than we expected so far this year.”
The mission of the company is to fight food waste, he said, and that also strike a chord with customers.
“We buy produce that would otherwise go to waste,” he said, noting that the firm buys produce from farms, packing houses and wholesalers on the East Coast primarily, but also throughout the country.
At any given time, Kevin Kresloff, director of procurement for Hungry Harvest, said the firm has about 20 fresh produce vendors. Over the course of the year, Kresloff said the firm has well more than 200 fresh produce suppliers.
About 70% of the company’s customers have been choosing a “customizable” package of produce after the COVID-19 crisis started, up from about 30% before COVID-19. Sustainable packaging also is important, he said.
“People are trying to get the most out of the service and limit the amount of (trips) to the store,” he said.
Compared with the early days of the company, Kresloff said that its increasing scale of growth has helped it find greater volume of No. 2 grade produce.
“Asking people to ship 20 to 50 boxes of tomatoes is nearly impossible, but now we are taking full loads of items, and it has become a whole lot easier to get the interest of growers.”
During the first couple of weeks of the pandemic, demand for Harvest boxes from the company doubled.
“We put together a couple of night shifts in those first few weeks to pack all those boxes, hired a lot more folks and got some more warehouse space and lots more equipment,” he said.
“Normally you would have to have six months to plan to be able to fulfill that volume, but we had only a couple of weeks, so it was crazy for those first two months.”
Hungry Harvest filled a real need for its customers, he said.
“A delivery service like ours was really important in their lives to make sure that they at least knew that they can get fresh produce.”
Subscribers to Hungry Harvest typically get a box of produce either every week or every other week and can adjust or cancel their orders at any time. Customers can choose standard or organic options, with prices for the smallest box starting at $15, according to the Hungry Harvest website.
Customers can customize what produce items they want in their harvest boxes, and also elect to add to the box from a list of about 100 pantry products, Lutz said.
While the company had to temporarily stop new customers from signing up because of overwhelming demand, Lutz said many previous customers of Hungry Harvest also signed back up again.
“We have had this problem that our order volume was increasing even though no new people were signing up (because of the company’s hold on new subscribers),” he said.
“I’m very happy to say nearly every single person got a box,” he said.
By late July, the company had successfully scaled up for bigger volume, Lutz said, and is rescuing more produce and feeding more families than ever through its e-commerce subscriptions and with its charity donations.
“We have definitely seen a positive impact on our business, but we have tried to return the favor because a lot more folks are suffering right now from a lack of income and do not know where their food is coming from,” he said.
Lutz said the company is not a direct contractor in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farmers to Families Food Box program, a coronavirus relief plan created by the Trump administration to help foodservice distributors who suffered hardships because of COVID-19 restrictions on restaurants.
“We have worked with a couple companies in the (Farmers to Families Food Box) program in terms of either supplying them (produce) or helping them out with (packing) produce boxes,” he said.
The future for online sales of produce boxes looks strong, Lutz said.
“The predictions have always been that the adoption of consumers getting used to ordering online will increase over time, pretty slowly,” he said, noting that pre-COVID predictions estimated that about a third of American would be ordering food online by 2025.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed all that and moved the timeline up by about five years, he said. Now, he said, it is estimated that as many as 40% to 50% of Americans are shopping online for food to at least some degree.
If consumers find that they can trust companies like Hungry Harvest to pick out good produce for them and deliver to their homes at a convenient time and a good price, Lutz said they won’t go back to their old habits when the pandemic is over.
The new reality will create opportunities.
“Everybody has to eat three times a day so there is a lot of opportunities for companies to go after consumers,” he said.
Lutz said Hungry Harvest is planning to expand into more markets on the East Coast and the Midwest, close to the areas they already distribute to.
Kresloff said that online grocery will continue to become more mainstream.
”The biggest thing for us is to make sure that we’re getting ahead of the things that our customers are going to want access to and the features they’re going to want,” he said.
“We are trying to excite folks when it comes time to go online and buy what they want from us, so that it’s less of a chore and more of something that is enjoyable.”