Startup Spotlight: Vinder

Startup Spotlight: Vinder

Founded in Port Townsend, Washington, by Sam Lillie, Vinder connects home veggie gardeners with folks who want to buy that fresh produce. The app brings together community members who are interested in ultra-local food and reducing food waste. It also boosts the local economy by opening up a revenue stream for green thumbs who connect with their neighbors to share their garden’s bounty. We recently reached out to the 2018 Food+City Challenge Prize contestant to find out how things are going at Vinder.

What’s your founding date?

January 21, 2018.

How big is your team?

Four full time.

What problem are you solving?

Food waste, cost and food insecurity.

What’s been the biggest surprise about running your business?

As much as I heard and read about it, the investor “run-around” has been my biggest surprise. Most professional investors I’ve had the privilege to speak with don’t give a solid “no.” They give advice and information, which is great because it helps hone the pitch and business plan/strategy. But it may not be the right type of advice that works for your company or be useful when approaching other investors. It ends up being a massive time/energy zap.

What part of the food system are you in?

Vinder is situated in the distribution of hyper-local produce — neighbor to neighbor. Yet, we do not own any delivery vehicles or own any inventory.

What was the big idea that got you started?

My community, Port Townsend, Washington, had a big problem accessing local organic produce for a reasonable price. Vinder was created not to be some massive, disruptive company, but to solve a problem in my community.

Whom are you competing with?

For convenience, we compete with HEB or Whole Foods. For freshness and locality, we compete with farmers’ markets. However, we see ourselves as a tool to help those small vendors reach more customers and increase sales direct-to-consumer.

The coolest food system innovation I’ve heard of is…

a company called Vinder that allows you to buy, sell or trade homegrown produce and neighbor-made goods directly from your neighbors. It’s free to sign up and free to sell or trade.

The scariest thing about today’s food system is…

we have normalized an absence of connection to our food system. We have no idea what is actually going into the soil in which our food is being grown (or what chemicals are being sprayed on them), who is growing it or where exactly it is being grown.

What’s your latest big news?

We are now a user-owned and -operated company. After successfully closing an Equity Crowdfunding round of more than $85,000 via WeFunder and receiving matching angel investments, Vinder issued preferred shares to users who are taking a stand against our current food system and are opting to create the neighbor-made food system of the future. Vinder is also now available for iOS and Android.

Best advice you’ve received?

In the words of entrepreneur and venture capitalist Paul Graham, “Focus on getting 100 people to love you rather than 1,000 people to kind of like you.”

What advice do you give to potential startup founders?

You don’t need a lot of money to start a company. First, come up with the lowest-budget minimum viable product and validate that the market needs your solution. Then build out manually, followed by tech. Let tech be a solution to make a process more efficient rather than the primary focus.

Startup Spotlight: Grit Grocery

Startup Spotlight: Grit Grocery

Grit Grocery has put a gourmet grocery into a food truck. Working directly with farmers and other local producers, Grit Grocery launched a fleet of grocery trucks to bring fresh ingredients and meal-kit bundles into urban areas — starting in Houston — underserved by traditional grocery options. We visited with cofounders Michael Powell and Dustin Windham to find out how they’re doing after competing in the Food+City Challenge Prize in 2018.

What’s your founding date?

Founded in 2015, pilot in 2016-2017, full-scale launch in April 2018.

How big is your team?

Five co-founders, plus a team of seven who drive trucks, sell food, work in the kitchen and organize the warehouse.

What problem are you solving?

Grit Grocery trucks bring fresh local food products to urban locations that don’t have food retailers or that have stores that carry mainly processed nonperishable food. We’ve designed a shopping experience that provides ideas and inspirations for healthy, easy, fresh, local-food meal solutions, tonight.

What’s been the biggest surprise about running your business?

A lot of local brands are producing and growing great food, but they don’t have access to customers through a retail outlet. We get a lot of these groups asking to get their products on the truck. We also hear from apartment complexes and developers requesting that Grit be at their residences. We already have a long waiting list of sites.

What part of the food system are you in?

Grit Grocery is a retail destination. We source directly from local farmers and ranchers as much as possible. As a retailer, we are at the front line of customer interaction.

What was the big idea that got you started?

Why is it so difficult to put together all of our meals over the course of the week with fresh, local, healthy food? There’s something wrong with food retail — and with the traditional grocery store model, in particular — that makes it hard for so many people to eat healthy, find local foods and put together meals. While we’ve seen a lot of innovation in how food is grown and produced, retail innovation has been lacking. New online options are promising but lack the flexibility to be a good fit for today’s urban life. This is where Grit Grocery started.

Whom are you competing with?

Traditional grocery stores and other big-box stores are obviously the main source of food retail. Organic and specialty grocers offer food more in line with what Grit offers, but they mainly carry nonlocal food and a lot of processed food. Farmer’s markets are not competitors, but they do overlap with Grit’s offerings — though their shopping experiences are not strategically designed for customers. Online grocers and meal-kit providers are similarly flexible when it comes to delivering food retail access, but they also come up short in responding to a customer’s daily food issues and needs.

The coolest food system innovation I’ve heard of is…

Coolbot. Build a poor man’s walk-in cooler.

The scariest thing about today’s food system is…

Nowadays, food is everywhere you look, from the airport to the hardware store, schools to the office. But most of it seems to be processed junk. Society is busier than ever and we have created more on-the-go occasions to eat food than can possibly be healthy, or that can accommodate real food solutions. The processed food industry likes that and profits enormously.

What’s your latest big news?

We released a Chatbot in October 2018 that allows people to use their smartphone to order a meal for pickup at the truck. They can also use the Chatbot to find the Grit Grocery truck and order a Grit-Together, a unique dinner party event for small groups.

Best advice you’ve received?

Be resilient. That’s what grit is all about. Keep trying new things, putting ideas into action and watching to see what works and what needs further improvement.

What advice do you give to potential startup founders?

Good strategy and technology are not enough. People and their food habits are kind of weird and hard to predict. You need to test and get in front of people, see how they really engage with your food or product in their daily lives.

The Freshest Leafy Greens

The Freshest Leafy Greens

Have you ever had a salad with lettuce freshly picked from the garden? Maybe your grandmother grew her own greens, or perhaps that farm-to-plate restaurant you love makes amazing salads. Unless you have your own backyard garden, fresh lettuce most likely travels the distance from the farm to your grocer on a long-haul truck. Until now.

A 21st-century lettuce farm no longer requires muddy rows cut into a rural field subject to the whim of weather and labor. Behind a suburban grocery store in Dallas, fresh leafy greens are produced under a limitless pink glow inside a clean, 53-foot-long, steel shipping container, yards away from where they will eventually be sold.

The glow — provided by LED lights in both the red and blue spectra — is an engine that works 24-7, producing spicy arugula rich in vitamins and antioxidants, fresh green leaves ruffled in purple and romaine so crisp that it oozes milky sap when cut.

Since May 2017, Central Market, the gourmet offspring of the family-run, Texas-based H-E-B Grocery Co., has been selling lettuce and herbs grown on-site. Production is contained and perfected so that customers have access to a daily harvest of fresh, organic greens. While Austin-based rival Whole Foods has partnered with another company to sow seeds on a store’s roof, and startups like San Francisco’s Plenty have built large urban food-production facilities, Central Market’s growing container represents the first time that a grocery store has grown produce on-site with their own staff.

The container garden is the brainchild of Marty Mika, produce specialist and buyer for Central Market. After years of working to procure the freshest ingredients for customers, he is well aware of how difficult it is to always have the best on hand.

“There are so many variables in produce: Mother Nature, seasonality, labor issues, water and even transportation,” says Mika. “So, we looked at how we could take over some of the supply chain and put all of these issues under our own umbrella.”

Americans eat a lot of lettuce — about 11 pounds of romaine and other leafy lettuces per person per year, and even more if hardy iceberg varieties are considered. In 2017, romaine and other leafy green harvests were valued at over $2 billion, a substantial increase in value from the previous year. Salad, a key component of a healthy diet, is so popular that many fast-food chains have added salads to their menus. At-home salad consumption is increasing too, thanks partly to new packaging in bags and clamshells that can extend freshness.

But getting lettuce to the table at the peak of perfection is not an easy task. The challenges are numerous: drought, pests, temperature, contamination and physical damage during transportation.

Lettuce is a cool-weather crop, so it grows best when days are not too hot and nights are not too cold. Because of this, 90 percent of all romaine and leafy greens harvested in the U.S. hail from either California or Arizona. As a result, much of the lettuce produced travels great distances to end up plated with a tomato and vinaigrette.

From top: Lettuce almost ready for the produce aisle; the plain white box conceals a productive indoor garden; pink light — a mix of red and blue — is all plants need to thrive indoors. Click on any image to enlarge.

The transportation challenge means that lettuce is often picked just before maturity and immediately bundled onto a truck for distribution. Driving lettuce to markets adds to the cost of food, especially when fuel costs fluctuate. A 2013 USDA report found that a doubling of diesel prices could lead to an average increase of 20 to 28 percent in wholesale prices for a variety of produce.

Another issue related to transportation is nutrient loss. Research has shown that as lettuce is trucked across the country from farm to market, levels of ascorbic acid, chlorophyll, carotenoids and important minerals decrease, a reduction in quality that persists as long as the lettuce is being moved or sits on a shelf in a supermarket before purchase. Transportation also introduces new risks into the food chain: If vehicles are not adequately cleaned and maintained, there is always the potential for contamination.

So, what is a purveyor of produce to do?

Contain. Contain. Contain.

To facilitate growing their own fresh greens, Mika and his Central Market team purchased a domestic shipping container from Growtainers that had a few modifications crammed into nine feet of headspace: neat units with four shelves, a system for modulating temperature and an LED growing system that shines 24 hours of pink light into every corner. The crop grows in a perfectly controlled environment primed for maximum production.

In Dallas, Central Market employees sow varieties of lettuce and herbs into a medium made of melted rocks. This clean, sterile substrate is the perfect underpinning for growing plants hydroponically, or without soil. Nutrients are added to the water, and the plants grow rapidly without pesticides or herbicides. In addition, the temperature range in the container can be optimized for growth. And though scientific research has not shown that pink light makes plants grow more quickly, the LED system that uses only some wavelengths of the light spectrum allows plants to flourish while saving on energy costs.

Many commercial hydroponic growers do not want to talk about proprietary data and results; however, research suggests that crops can be coaxed to grow between 20 and 50 percent faster in hydroponic conditions. Recent research also shows that hydroponic farming can yield 11 times as much lettuce per area under cultivation and uses a fraction of the water when compared to conventionally farmed lettuce.

The Dallas team plants and harvests by section within the container. Each new planting takes over a new set of shelves, which enables a scheduled harvest of perfect greens to be plopped into a clamshell and then moved to the market shelf in minutes. The work is very detail oriented, but once the process starts, it is consistent and easy to maintain.

Even better: Transportation of product to retailer is now a mere few feet, and customers have access to pesticide-free, organic produce.

“We produce enough of different, basic varieties each week to sell in the store: not too much, not too little,” said Mika. “Customers like the flavor and freshness of the greens, and they like the fact that we’re reducing the carbon footprint.”

There are some disadvantages to producing container lettuce, though, including high initial costs for equipment. In addition, because container farms tend to be in urban areas — close to customers — the cost of land is high. These costs are passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices for greens. Hydroponic farming also uses much more energy than conventional farming — more than 80 times the amount of energy, although this excludes energy used for transportation.

Stay tuned. Researchers are developing more sustainable practices for indoor farming that should further reduce the carbon footprint.

Central Market offers samples of its homegrown lettuce in the produce section, just a few yards from the container where it was harvested. Click on any image to enlarge.

On Our Loading Dock

On Our Loading Dock

Our nightstands are loaded with books to read, and our laptops are packed with websites to explore and unpack wisdom about the global food supply chain.


The Omega Principle (Paul Greenberg)

The author of several books about our seafood, Paul Greenberg takes us for a deep dive into the merits, demerits and challenges of Omega 3, a nutritionally beneficial fatty acid found in seafood. As you might imagine, the consequences ripple right through the seafood supply chain.

American Catch (Paul Greenberg)

In another book, Greenberg uses stories about three types of seafood — Eastern oysters, sockeye salmon and shrimp — to chart the rise and fall of American fisheries.

The Plant Paradox (Steven Gundry)

If you think eating bread makes you fat, you might find an argument in this book to support your theory. There’s lots of debate between these covers, and nutritionist Steven Gundry will give you reason to reconsider the science behind most diets.


The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America (Marc Levinson)

For some history about mom-and-pop stores, in the context of the grocery juggernaut that was A&P (aka The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company), read Marc Levinson’s book about the grocery giant. A&P threatened Main Street stores long before anyone had ever heard of Walmart.


Eat This: Our Daily Bread series

We continue to be fans of Jeremy Cherfas’ “Eat This Podcast.” Recently, he explored every angle and story about wheat in at least 31 micro-episodes. You will learn about Red Fife, sourdough, bakeries, mills and more. We love enthusiasm, and Mr. Cherfas’ zeal takes us to a very complicated slice of bread. 

Planet Money

Born out of the financial crisis in 2008, National Public Radio’s podcast about the economics of everything covers food in unexpected ways. From the cost of popcorn in a baseball stadium to the concept of “free” food, Planet Money is full of insights about the role economics plays in how we eat.

Food52’s Burnt Toast

Since 2009, Food52 founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs have curated this community-based trove of kitchen goods and recipes. Their podcast, “Food52’s Burnt Toast,” will elucidate just how your toast burns — and why. Such a simple food, with a complicated twist.


We found another ingredient map in the article “Deconstructing the Environmental Footprint of a Sandwich” in Anthropocene. You may never again order a meat sandwich. Check out the first issue of Food+City for our map of the ingredients for a sandwich made in Austin.


Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown

The passing of food legend Anthony Bourdain is a good reason to review (or re-view) his award-winning Parts Unknown. It’s worth 
reconsidering every episode in appreciation of his close-up view of food and the people around the world who make it.

Ugly Delicious

As our screens flood with documentaries that shame and disgust us, we are ready to see a new take on the food world. David Chang does this with his series about ordinary food made by ordinary people. The series also has helpings of Chang’s personal story about his beginnings as a chef and his conflicted relationship with Korean cuisine.

Water and Power: A California Heist

Food production relies on water. With fires raging in California during the summer of 2018, water resources for firefighters were even more scarce. Long the focus of battles between environmental conservation activists and economic development advocates, water resources are hotly contested. If you want some historical context for this topic, check out the PBS “Cadillac Desert” series, especially “Mulholland’s Dreams.”

Startup Spotlight: Ten Acre Organics

Startup Spotlight: Ten Acre Organics

Urban farming is a hot topic in food production right now, but creating a profitable farm in the middle of a city is a hard field to plow. We caught up with 2015 Food+City Prize winner Ten Acre Organics to find out how they did it.

Ten Acre Organics (TAO) co-founders Michael Hanan and Lloyd Minick have been working on their urban aquaponic farm since 2013. Since then they have been through several iterations of products, processes and procedures. Thanks to determination and their perfect-looking, colorful variety of Bibb, Romaine, Oak Leaf and Red and Green Leaf lettuces that have attracted Austin’s top chefs, TAO became profitable in early 2018. Their five-year journey has required patience and persistence — qualities that are emblematic of every entrepreneur.

Bootstrapping the capital to get started via a Kickstarter campaign, they stayed afloat in the early years with grant money and the support of friends and family. Ten acres of land, Hanan and Minick thought, “was the ‘just-right’ size for a diversified farm to achieve economies of scale and profitability while still being able to distribute 100 percent of its produce locally,” Minick says.

Working on the farm as a “garage project” for the first year, they painstakingly developed about one-tenth of an acre from scratch in their backyard in north Austin, consuming most of what they produced. At that point the co-founders faced a question all entrepreneurs must address: How do I quit my job and work on this full time?

Raising a seed investment round is a good way for startup founders to earn the ability to work on their company full time. It’s also validation that other people see value and promise in your idea. TAO was looking for both. Then, in 2015, a panel of industry expert judges named Ten Acre Organics the Grand Prize winner of the inaugural Food+City Challenge Prize, which came with $10,000 in prize money. While the money helped them float the operation for a few months while they continued to raise money, the more important thing, according to Lloyd, was the validation.

“Winning the Food+City Challenge Prize proved to us that we had a good idea, and that investors recognized the opportunity. It really helped in terms of our reputation,” he says. Later that year, TAO closed their seed investment round with $500,000.

Receiving validation and investment are big milestones for startups. But the work doesn’t end there. With big milestones come big expectations. Scaling a business from working prototype to profitable company is often more difficult than drumming up initial success. And in the farming business, where margins are notoriously thin, economies of scale are the only way to have financial success.

But expanding an urban farm can be challenging because city land is expensive. Hanan and Minick could have moved a few miles outside of town to save on land and utilities, but their dream was to grow a community, not just food. Creating a place for community workshops, think-tank style dinners and private events is their way to help people understand and appreciate where our food comes from, how it’s grown and by whom.

“We want to make an a place that is not just a farm but a community center as a change agent, where people who feel disconnected and alienated by the modern industrial food system can experience social cohesion,” Micinic says.

With the community in mind, they stayed true to their dream and in 2016 purchased an existing urban farm just a few miles from downtown Austin. Hanan and Minick saw potential in an urban farm that was struggling operationally and financially. They decided that they could improve upon the business with things like better system design and engineering, better staffing and personnel management, improved horticultural practices to maintain product quality and consistency, and an increased focus on sales and customer development.  With these improvements, they thought, Agua Dulce farm could be the model profitable urban community farm. In early 2018, they celebrated their first profitable month. Their certified organic, aquaponically grown leafy greens are the opposite of ugly produce, and the quality of the product is one of their most significant accomplishments. It’s also a differentiator that helped them catch the attention of some of the most high-profile restaurants in Austin.

All it took was four years of back-breaking labor, day in and day out. And that’s just on the farming side. There are also business duties and decisions to be made regarding human resource management, accounting, sales and marketing, and disaster control. While he stops short of telling people not to build more urban farms, Minick has a strong warning for the folks who think urban farming is more romantic than rigor.

“Farming is hard. Starting a business is hard. And starting a farming business is just insane,” Minick says. But if you’re insane enough to work long hours in the Texas heat for several years, you just might end up with a successful business.

A variety of lettuces growing at Agua Dulce farm in Austin.
Ten Acre Organic co-founder Lloyd Minick in front of their aquaponic system at Agua Dulce farm in Austin.
 Watch the recap video of the 2015 Food+City Challenge Prize featuring Ten Acre Organics as the Grand Prize winner.
Agua Dulce farm in Austin