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Lonely Produce co-founders, left to right: Andrew Clapp, Claire Baron and George Felton. (Lonely Produce Photo)

Farm-to-table dining is a powerful movement. But it’s a challenge for local produce growers to get their spinach and peaches onto restaurant menus.

A trio of graduates and students of the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business are trying to connect the two through their early-stage startup, Lonely Produce. The Seattle-based online marketplace launched last year and features a platform where farmers can offer produce and chefs can make requests for specific items. Farmers are able to sell some goods at full price and if they have a bumper crop, they can provide discounts or put produce up for auction.

“We’re trying to bring those relationships online and making it easier to interact,” said co-founder and CEO Andrew Clapp.

Lonely Produce ran a pilot over the summer and is working on the first version of the platform, which should come out in May. Clapp said they’re looking in particular to get more restaurants and other buyers signed up. Next month they’re going to try to raise some money through a friends-and-family round as well as a seed round.

The other co-founders are Chief Operating Officer George Felton and Chief Financial Officer Claire Baron. UW undergraduate students Sarah Evered and Megha Shetty are also working with the startup.

Lonely Produce will charge farmers a 5 percent transaction fee for the produce that they sell. The startup plans to build additional services, such as helping with product demand forecasting, routing and delivery information, and assistance with inventory management. Once additional tools are in place, the company could sell a subscription to farmers, Clapp said. Another long-term goal is to offer farmers micro loans for planting and capital expenditures, but that’s about two years down the road.

George Felton, left, co-founder of Lonely Produce, with peaches sourced by the startup and delivered to Thor Stoddard, a brewer at Reuben’s Brews in Seattle. (Lonely Produce Photo)

Their main competitors are large distributors who provide produce from global rather than local sources. California-based Blue Cart occupies a similar space in connecting buyers to local foods.

The team is currently outsourcing their engineering work. Clapp managed offshore tech work in previous jobs, so the solution is a good fit. He’d love to hire an engineer at some point, but can’t afford to right now. “You’re competing with the likes of Amazon for talent, so it’s hard to get someone on early,” he said. Their present need isn’t overly technical anyhow, Clapp said, but that would change with the additional tools they’re planning for.

Beyond the act of connecting farmers and chefs, the Lonely Produce team is interested in a broader goal of fostering relationships and reducing food waste.

“It’s about the community,” Clapp said, “and people in the community.”

We caught up with Clapp for this Startup Spotlight, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for his answers to our questionnaire.

Explain what you do so our parents can understand it: We make it simple for businesses to buy local produce directly from the source by connecting farmers with buyers on an easy to use online marketplace.

Inspiration hit us when: While having a beer with local farmer Brian Collins of Collins Family Orchards. The conversation drifted to how inefficient the current local distribution model is. It turns out, neither the farmers nor restaurants are happy with how the produce ordering process currently works and they had few affordable alternatives.

Chefs can search for local fruits and veg through Lonely Produce. (Lonely Produce Image)

VC, Angel or Bootstrap: We have been bootstrapped, but are gearing up to raise a small seed round. We wanted to stay bootstrapped in the early stages so we could be hyper focused on getting the product-market fit right and solving the correct problem. Putting our own money in has given us the time and flexibility to explore different models that we may not have had the luxury of trying if we were under pressure to grow as quickly as possible.

Our ‘secret sauce’ is: A focus on the local food community and their specific needs. At the end of the day, we are a technology company and we have put a lot of effort into meeting farmers and buyers where they are at. Our primary focus is eliminating friction in the ordering process and developing tools that are specifically built for farmers and buyers. We understand that both farmers and restaurateurs are on the go and need a mobile friendly solution that’s quick and easy to use.

The smartest move we’ve made so far: Talking to everyone who will listen. We’ve really benefited from the local startup community in Seattle. We have a large network of mentors and entrepreneurs who have lent us their time to walk through our challenges and questions. This has saved us time and frustration and allowed us to avoid some of the early stage entrepreneurial pitfalls. On the consumer side, we’ve spent countless hours with restaurants and farmers getting their input on their specific needs from an ordering platform. Their insights are fueling our vision for a platform that will enable both buyer and seller to be more efficient.

The biggest mistake we’ve made so far: In the beginning, we chased down several business models that made us money immediately at the expense of growing a long term sustainable business. Looking back, we should have stopped some of our early direct to consumer pilots earlier.

Dashboard for farmers using Lonely Produce. (Lonely Produce Image)

Which entrepreneur or executive would you want working in your corner? Cal Henderson and Stewart Butterfield, the co-founders of Slack. They were able to take an inefficient and frustrating process (corporate communication) and make it super efficient and fun, something we plan to do with the local food distribution process.

Our favorite team-building activity is: Right in line with our mission, we love to eat and drink local goods. We especially can’t wait to take the team out to enjoy a Reuben’s Brews Sour made from peaches we supplied over the summer.

The biggest thing we look for when hiring is: Smart and motivated doers who love to learn. There is so much to be done in a startup that we have the most success with folks who seek out challenges and tackle them head on. There is an element of uncertainty in any startup, so being willing to become an expert in an area that currently needs attention and then being able to execute on what needs to be done is a huge asset.

What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out: Seek out other entrepreneurs, talk to everyone possible about your startup and stay hyper focused on what’s most important to your customer.

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