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McClatchy-Tribune  06/23/2014 6:23 PM ET
Partners behind online food company launch nationwide venture [The Herald-Sun, Durham, N.C. :: ]

June 23--DURHAM -- From the back of her station wagon on a sunny Tuesday morning, Coon Rock Farm partner Jamie DeMent unloaded boxes of broccoli so they could be carted into a pop-up warehouse on Angier Avenue.

There were bars across the windows of a nearby business, but the building she was headed into was bright and busy. Her boxes were carted inside to where employees of the online food market and delivery company Bella Bean Organics were busy sorting and bagging yellow squash, green beans and other vegetables from Coon Rock and other N.C. farms.

At the back, Cheryl DeMent, who is Jamie DeMent's mother and an employee of the company, was sorting locally made artisanal food products. She counted scones made by Cary's La Farm Bakery. There were jars of peanut butter made by Durham's Big Spoon Roasters, carrot cake made in Durham, and bread loaves made by other local companies already sorted on the table.

The sorting, bagging and boxing operation was part of the weekly routine for Bella Bean, which delivers goods from N.C. farms and local artisans to customers in the state and in South Carolina, Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C.

Recently, the owners of the business have taken the operation nationwide. They launched a companion business in March called Heirloom Provisions that ships artisan goods and meats around the country.

The new company is part of a growing industry. According to IBISWorld Inc., U.S. online grocery sales were $6.5 billion last year. Each year through 2018, sales are projected to grow at an annual rate of 9.2 percent.

Sales of groceries online are expected to get a boost from per capita disposable income growth and a rise in mobile Internet connectivity. However, the report said, online food grocers face competition with traditional stores if they don't price competitively or if they don't avoid products that can be found in traditional stores.

Tyler Allen, a spokeswoman for IBISWorld, said the market research company doesn't have much data on sales of organic groceries in the report from December 2013, but he did say that the most popular grocery products sold are beverages, dairy items and fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables.

"A key success factor for this industry is offering competitive pricing and items not easily

found in traditional grocery stores," Allen said.

Heirloom Provisions was "almost forced" on the owners behind Bella Bean, DeMent said. Coon Rock Farm was a supplier to Bella Bean, and bought the business in 2012. In addition, DeMent is one of the partners behind Piedmont Restaurant in downtown Durham, of which Coon Rock is also a supplier.

Bella Bean is as "online as Amazon," DeMent said, so customers anywhere could go to its site and place an order for produce and meats. And people were doing so.

They were turning potential customers down, DeMent said, because they considered shipping nationally as the "antithesis" of their mission to source and sell locally grown and raised food. But she said the "answer every single time came back" that those customers didn't' have a source of organic or locally grown food.

They were getting orders from places that she called "Whole Foods deserts," where customers may not have access to the organic and local food or hormone-free or pasture-raised meats, she said.

Eventually, the partners gave in.

They started a test version of the Heirloom Provisions website in December, and launched sales from the site in March. They plan to do a more public launch in July.

The website includes items such as Big Spoon Roasters' Almond Brazil Butter that's priced at $16.95, a French Broad Chocolate Bar from an Asheville company selling for $7.95, a gluten-free bread loaf made by a Durham business selling for $7.95, and a package of All-Beef Grass-Fed Hot Dogs from Coon Rock selling for $18.95.

They have sent a package of hot dogs to New York, tomato jam to Nevada, and just made their first shipment to Nevada on Tuesday.

"I'm amazed at what's made in North Carolina, and in Durham, Chapel Hill, and what they're able to send with Heirloom," Cheryl DeMent said, as she counted scones. "They're able to send all over the country."

The shipping process for Heirloom Provisions works similarly to Bella Bean's. For Bella Bean, orders placed online Wednesday through Friday are sent to vendors Friday evening. Some deliveries start coming to the warehouse on Angier Avenue on Monday, and come through Tuesday morning, when the sorting, bagging, and boxing starts.

The items are packed into insulated boxes with freezer packs. They're delivered later that same day. If the customer lives close enough, drivers employed by Bella Bean make the deliveries directly to the customer's home. If the customer lives outside the area, the box is shipped out Tuesday night using FedEx.

And while Bella Bean ships items including eggs and vegetables from farms and sourced through the local distributor Eastern Carolina Organics, Heirloom Provisions focuses on selling artisan items that ship well such as peanut butters, soaps, breads, and cakes as well as packaged meats.

Bella Bean focuses on produce and meats from the state, but Heirloom Provisions sells items from the across the South.

"We've taken the items from Bella Bean that people are gonna want nationally," Jamie DeMent said. "They're all Southern items. Right now, thank God, Southern is big."

 

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