How One Farmer’s Market Delivery Service Helps Local Farms Bridge the Gap to Online
When you sell an essential good online during a global pandemic, it’s safe to say that you’re going to be a little bit busier than normal.
Erin Baumgartner and Tim Fu are hard people to pin down right now, which is probably because they’re packing 600 boxes of food to go out to customers on a weekly basis through their Boston-based food delivery business, Family Dinner.
Recently, I was able to grab some time with the duo in between deliveries to ask them about Family Dinner, their marketing strategy, how their business has been doing during the pandemic (hint: it’s booming), and how they’re putting food on their customers’ tables amid an influx of interest.
Word-of-mouth travels fast
Family Dinner started with Tim and Erin delivering farm-fresh groceries to seven friends every week.
“We were doing deliveries out of our apartment. We would run around and get things from different farms and markets. It was wildly inefficient. People would PayPal us money and text us that they wanted an order. It was absolutely not scalable,” said Erin.
But when word of their food share service got out, more people wanted to sign up for weekly deliveries. After hitting 20 customers, they decided it was time to upgrade their space and moved into a shared kitchen facility in Somerville, Massachusetts.
Once Erin and Tim realized they could monetize word-of-mouth, they set up a referral program through ReferralCandy, which has been one of their most effective growth channels to date.
They’ve found this referral program has helped build a sense of trust among locals, whereas spending money on advertising channels like Google Adwords and Facebook had high customer acquisition costs and didn’t foster the same sense of community, according to Erin.
“It was sort of funny when we started to have customers that weren’t our friends. Before, we’d pack up all these groceries, then we’d go see our seven friends, give everybody a hug, ask about the kids, and pet the dog. The first time we dropped off groceries at somebody’s house and they just took the bag, I thought, ‘Where’s my hug?’” said Erin.
“But we also realized that people were on board with Family Dinner, not just because they wanted to support their friend, but because they thought the service was valuable. That was a real turning point for us,” she said.
"We also realized that people were on board with Family Dinner, not just because they wanted to support their friend, but because they thought the service was valuable. That was a real turning point for us."
Erin Baumgartner, founder, Family Dinner
A mission-driven email marketing strategy
Today, one of the most prominent ways Erin and Tim communicate with their customers is through email, specifically their newsletter, which they use to highlight what’s included in the weekly shares.
“We send an email that tells customers what came in their share and what farms it came from. We’ll also either highlight a farmer, a maker, or an item to elevate the story of the food and the people who grew it,” said Erin.
For people who may be new to food shares or may even just need some guidance on how they work, these emails are a consistent resource for learning more about Family Dinner, the ingredients they’re receiving, and the farmers who grew it.
“People go to the newsletter when they want to understand what the funky vegetable is that they’ve never seen or heard of before. When they read the email, they can find out the name, how best to cook it, and use some of the recipes that we’ve included,” said Tim.
Additionally, they use email to further their mission by supplying readers with information on how to reuse leftovers. Erin and Tim are passionate about creating zero waste, which goes beyond just focusing on their own operations to also encourage customers to reduce waste in their homes.
They also hope that seeing stories of the people behind the food will help in their mission.
“When people understand a bit more about the food and where it came from, they may be slightly less inclined to waste it and slightly more inclined to find creative ways to use and reuse it,” said Erin.
Email marketing has also been a critical channel for Erin and Tim to communicate with customers since they don’t operate a brick-and-mortar presence and no longer have the chance to meet every customer they deliver food to—now, they depend on a team of 30 people to help them get fresh food to customers in a timely manner.
“We’re trying to consistently explain our mission, explain who we are, and reinforce why local food matters, so email is really like the beating heart of the connection between us and the customer,” said Erin.
"We're trying to consistently explain our mission, explain who we are, and reinforce why local food matters, so email is really like the beating heart of the connection between us and the customer"
Erin Baumgartner, founder, Family Dinner
How Erin and Tim managed an influx of hungry customers
At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, consumers began flocking to grocery stores and food delivery apps in droves to ensure they had everything they needed to stay safe and nourished at home.
This also meant that Family Dinner was in high demand—they went from packing 200 to 600 deliveries a week.
In fact, so many Massachusetts residents were finding their way to Family Dinner that Erin and Tim eventually had to create a waitlist.
By implementing a waitlist popup on their website, Erin and Tim were able to create a segment of customers who were interested in trying the service. The master waitlist contained multiple segments of people based on when they submitted their information, and Erin and Tim would reach out to new segments once they could take on new customers.
As opposed to back-in-stock campaigns, which have been popular for brands that have been seeing supply chain issues and having problems with low inventory during the pandemic, the waitlist is a better fit for Family Dinner’s business model.
“We curate the food share week to week, so we don’t keep inventory. We have some frozen foods, but most of our products are fresh that week and are always changing based on what the farmers supply. We ship it almost immediately when we get it and don’t keep anything on-premise,” said Tim.
"We curate the food share week to week, so we don't keep inventory. We have some frozen foods, but most of our products are fresh that week and are always changing based on what the farmers supply. We ship it almost immediately when we get it and don't keep anything on-premise."
Tim Fu, founder, Family Dinner
With a growing waitlist also comes a growing newsletter subscriber list—today, Erin and Tim have more newsletter subscribers than they do customers.
They’ve been able to use this interest as an opportunity to teach more people about Family Dinner’s mission, even if they just came to the business looking for a dependable way to fill their fridges during the pandemic.
“Local food really matters. Knowing where your food comes from is important. Having as few people in between the farm and your plate as possible is important and having a massive global food supply chain is dangerous,” said Erin.
“I think it’s nice that there’s been a big push to support local more broadly. And I think this push toward having to rely on local food suppliers has sharpened people’s understanding of why local food is an important issue,” she said.
From farm to table and back to the community
Relationships with farms and farmers are at the foundation of Family Dinner’s business model, but the benefit goes both ways.
One of the major advantages of Family Dinner’s ecommerce model is their ability to connect farmers with online consumers who they may not have had access to if they were only selling at farmer’s markets. For farmers, partnering with Family Dinner has been a no-brainer.
“By selling online, it means that they’re no longer limited to the geographies around their farm or the farmers’ markets they go to. Now a farmer who lives in Lexington can access a customer who lives in Newburyport or Sudbury because we deliver to all these places. We told the farmers that we would do all of the customer acquisition, marketing, and logistics as long as they got us the product, so they can go back to farming and growing delicious food,” said Erin.
"By selling online, it means that they're no longer limited to the geographies around their farm or the farmers’ markets they go to. Now a farmer who lives in Lexington can access a customer who lives in Newburyport or Sudbury because we deliver to all these places."
Erin Baumgartner, founder, Family Dinner
“If somebody were to come to you and say, ‘I’m going to quadruple the number of people who are going to buy from you every week and move huge amounts of product,’ people tend to say yes,” she said.
But Erin and Tim don’t just partner with farms. Since the pandemic hit, they’ve partnered with food pantries like Chelsea Collaborative to give canned goods, non-perishables, and other essential items they collect from their customers’ doorsteps during deliveries.
“It’s nice to be able to use the systems and the structure you have to do things like that during times of crisis,” said Erin.
“It’s also changed the way people interact with the business—people are really forgiving of us right now. We get very few emails saying, ‘This was completely wrong,’ unless all they got was a giant bag of onions in their share and nothing else,” she said.
Erin and Tim’s advice to marketers and future plans
Since email has been such a major part of the marketing strategy for Family Dinner, both during a pandemic and when it’s business as usual, the team has found a few tried and true tactics to use it as a way to build relationships with their customers.
Erin and Tim shared their top three tips for other marketers and email enthusiasts:
1 | Be mission-driven in your communications
Erin emphasizes that you can use email marketing to reinforce your mission and help people better understand your business, whether they’re loyal customers who already talk about you to all their friends, or they’re new customers who know nothing about your brand.
2 | Be authentically yourself
“Our emails sometimes might seem flippant. There might be curse words, there might be bad jokes or references to eighties movies, but that’s who we are. And I think because we’re trying to constantly be as authentically our weird selves as we can, it’s something that people appreciate,” said Erin.
3 | Show your expertise
Erin also says that if you can use content to share your knowledge with customers and help them walk away feeling like they’ve learned something, it’s extremely valuable. The team consistently uses emails to teach customers about the food they’re receiving and where it comes from while highlighting different ways that consumers can make each forkful go further by reducing waste.
"I think because we're trying to constantly be as authentically our weird selves as we can, it’s something that people appreciate."
Erin Baumgartner, founder, Family Dinner
While Erin and Tim have had their hands (literally) full right now, they acknowledge that there’s a lot of opportunity for Family Dinner’s business model. For example, they’re interested in experimenting with targeting their marketing towards specific geographies and even floated the possibility of eventually expanding their business to other areas outside of Boston.
“The model of Family Dinner is transferable, so if you wanted to pick this up and start one in Portland, Maine, it’s easy enough to do because all of the technology is scalable. The sweat equity of working on farms and going to meet farmers is not, but all of the systems we’ve put in place are things that could be moved into different geographies,” said Erin.
For now, though, Erin and Tim are staying focused on meeting demand they never expected, supplying farm-fresh food to the greater Boston area, and bringing home the leftover bacon.
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