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Natural Awakenings Atlanta

Nature’s Garden Express ~ A Win-Win for Everybody

Nature’s Garden Express (NGE), based in Tucker, Georgia, is the largest sustainable grocery delivery service in the Atlanta area, operating since January 2009. Co-owners Scott Frishman and Michael Kirk were roommates at Auburn University and they always wanted to do something progressive within the community together.

They recognized that there was a growing demand for organic and local foods in the Southeast. “When we first started five years ago, if you didn’t live near a Whole Foods, you really didn’t have any organic options,” says Frishman. “Publix had a very limited selection back then, and it wasn’t local, and it wasn’t very good quality, either. Farmers’ markets were just starting to pop up in a few places, now they’re everywhere. That’s the niche we wanted to fill.”

They started with virtually no capital investment, just the will to do good. “At first we were doing it out of a little 600-square-foot shed behind the house we were renting, and we were delivering out of our cars,” notes Frishman. “We began with just produce, and then we slowly added things from local farmers’ markets as demand grew. That’s where we met a lot of our connections that we began to expand on, like our honey source or our beef source or our chicken source.” As purchasing power increased, they were able to go directly to the farms and now utilize 11 refrigerated vans operating out of a 40,000-square-foot facility.

WEB-NG_BoxDelivery1Nature’s Garden Express in not exactly a food co-op or community supported agriculture (CSA); it’s a hybrid of both. “When we first started planning the business, we looked at a whole lot of different co-ops and CSA models, and there were some common problems that a lot of people mentioned they didn’t like about them. One of the biggest was getting to the drop-off point, so we decided we would do home delivery instead,” says Frishman.

“Another was that you get the same thing in your box for three months out of the year, so from the very beginning, we allowed substitutions, and you aren’t really stuck with what’s in the box. We have a customized menu, basically,” he explains.

“Another complaint was having to enroll in either a three-month or six-month share program, so we don’t have any commitments; you buy one box or you can get a weekly box; you can get a box when you have a dinner party or use it as your main source of produce,” says Frishman. “We decided to work with as many farms as possible to always keep the menu new and interesting and give people more variety.”

Frishman is from Columbia, South Carolina, and attended Auburn to study mechanical engineering. After graduating, he went to work for Honda as a chassis manager doing new model assessment and market analysis. Kirk also hails from the Southeast and went to Auburn for aviation management, which is part of the business school. He went out to Colorado to pursue music. That doesn’t always pay the bills, so he began working at an organic food distribution company in Colorado.

Frishman relates the conversation that started it all. “We got to talking one day while I was at work at Honda and Michael said we should do something like this in the Southeast. I said I’m all in; you caught me on a bad day at work, and we went from there. It was definitely a big difference from chassis engineering to selling tomatoes, but some of the skills I brought with me are useful.”

The next step after about a year was to hire some employees to get help. “We were doing everything at the time, from the marketing of the business to the developing the website, packing the boxes and delivering them and coming back and getting everything ready for the next day,” says Frishman. Their first employee, Warehouse Manager Bezabeh “Bez” Emiru, is still there today.

The secret ingredient to their success is flexibility and convenience. “We have some products that are not certified organic, and those are generally from smaller local farms that we work closely with and they are using organic practices,” says Frishman. “A lot of times they are going beyond organic practices, but they are just small farms that have not gone through the certification process, whether for financial reasons or it’s just not something they need for their business.” Obtaining U.S. Department of Agriculture certified Organic status is a complicated and expensive process.

WEB-NG_CounterTop3“We didn’t want to eliminate these smaller farms, because one of the reasons we started this business was to support the community. We always go out to the farm and inspect their processes, and generally they are the farmers we become closest with. There are several farms that were struggling, working at farmers’ markets sitting on the back of their truck five days a week, trying to sell their product. They don’t know what they’re going to sell, so they may have harvested six cases of tomatoes and it rains that afternoon; now they’re stuck with them.”

Today, the farmers know exactly what Nature’s Garden Express is going to buy. “Sometimes a month ahead of time we’ll say, ‘We’ll buy all of your lettuce,’” says Frishman. “They sometimes plant the crops in anticipation of the sale. They’ve gotten to where they are selling a whole lot more by selling to us and growing exactly what we need. It’s a win-win for everybody.”

Frishman says that plans are underway to launch an organic, cold-pressed juice program in coming months and expand their service to the entire Southeast via FedEx. Frishman says, “They already go everywhere, why don’t we utilize their delivery network and let them do what they do best?”

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Martin Miron is the editor of Natural Awakenings Atlanta.


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