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Nicklaus: With restaurants closed, urban farm finds a niche in food delivery

Nicklaus: With restaurants closed, urban farm finds a niche in food delivery

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When restaurants closed their dining rooms because of the coronavirus outbreak, Good Life Growing was left with a glut of vegetables.

It also had bills that couldn’t be paid if the produce was left to rot in the fields. Restaurants represented 90% of sales for the urban farming enterprise, which grows vegetables outdoors in St. Louis and East St. Louis and in an indoor facility on the north riverfront.

“We had to do something different or it was a countdown until we ran out of money and started laying people off,” co-founder James Forbes said.

The idea that would save Good Life’s 13 full-time jobs came to Forbes when he ordered some personal groceries delivered to his home. Why couldn’t Old North Provisions, a neighborhood store he opened last year on North 14th Street, become a hub to deliver fresh, locally grown food to people throughout the St. Louis area?

He discussed the idea with his brother, Bobby Forbes, and co-founder Matt Stoyanov, and they came up with a slogan, “We’ll bring the farm to your table.” They crafted a Facebook post, spent $5 to advertise it and crossed their fingers.

This was in mid-March. Restaurant orders had stopped and payroll was a week away. Good Life considers itself a social enterprise, more concerned with helping the community than turning a profit, but it needed some cash flow soon.

The Facebook appeal worked. Lacking any e-commerce software, Forbes simply copied customers’ emailed shopping lists and printed them for staffers to fill the order. They’ll deliver within 30 miles of the Gateway Arch for a $7.50 fee, or customers can pick up their produce at the store.

Good Life has delivered more than 300 orders so far, and Forbes has lost count of the number of curbside pickups. “It’s been bigger than we could have imagined,” he said. “We were just trying to delay what we thought was the inevitable and live to fight another day.”

As the concept caught on, Forbes and his partners began offering to sell other area farmers’ products, including milk and fruit, along with meat, canned goods and other items acquired from shuttered restaurants. Shoppers now can choose among 350 items from 30 local producers.

Good Life found a couple of pleasant surprises in retailing. Profit margins are much better than when it was selling to restaurants at wholesale prices, and retail customers don’t make the store wait 15 or 30 days for payment.

“People prepay us, so that has allowed a cash flow we’ve never seen before,” Forbes said.

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The new model did come with some expenses. Forbes hired a general manager with retail experience, and the store needed more refrigeration. A relief grant from Arch Grants, which had first backed Good Life in 2018, helped meet those needs.

A federal Paycheck Protection Program loan will cover eight weeks of payroll. By the time that runs out, Forbes hopes to again have a wholesale business to go with the growing retail side.

“We still love the St. Louis restaurant scene, and we will gladly go back to supplying all the restaurants,” he said.

A business consultant would probably say such a two-tiered business model offers both stability and growth potential. Forbes cares mostly that Good Life’s timely pivot toward retail is helping achieve its goals of battling urban decay and food insecurity. “I have a sense of calm that I haven’t had in years,” he said.

David Nicklaus • 314-340-8213 @dnickbiz on Twitter

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