Beyond the Pitch
From Farm to Fork – Technology Brings Fresh Food Closer to Home
Dave Ranallo, founder of Azoti of Columbus, OH has a vision for a new, disruptive technology.
It’s called local food.
Crisp leafy lettuce, tomatoes that taste like tomatoes, beans that snap, and pasture-raised meats—all readily available at consumer-friendly prices from local food producers who are raising great food on successful, sustainable, small farms.
“I look at local food as a new technology that hasn’t crossed the chasm yet,” says Ranallo, an entrepreneur who has developed technology systems for companies in seven different industries.
He’s referring to the 1991 classic for entrepreneurs, Crossing the Chasm, by Geoffrey A. Moore, a book that focuses on how to take new ideas and technology to the mainstream of society.
“We want more people eating more healthy local food,” Ranallo says. “We want more local farmers, ranchers, and food artisans creating regional jobs and wealth by growing this kind of food and selling it close to home. While local food might not ‘technically’ be a new technology, when we’re trying to change 60 years of consumer behavior, there are a lot of similarities.”
Ranallo, a self-described hardcore Italian from Cleveland, got the idea for Azoti during the financial crisis of 2008, reasoning that no matter how high gasoline prices went or whatever else happened, people would always need food. It also helped that he had listened his whole life to his Italian grandparents talk about their Victory Gardens and about the quality and degradation of food.
“I spent two years with growers diving deep and getting dirty,” he says.
The Azoti marketing platform was born from this understanding. Azoti builds on the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) food subscription model, which is a prepaid subscription arrangement where consumers and small farmers join together in economic partnership committed to furthering local agriculture.
“When I asked small farmers what they needed to make their CSA food subscriptions work,” Ranallo says, “they told me that they needed more demand; not new software. When I asked if they could handle five times their current CSA totals, they said no, but maybe they could with software that automated some administrative tasks. Just think of the struggle to farm ten or twenty acres and then have to sell directly to consumers. The administrative burden can be crippling.”
Azoti opens a whole new horizon and scale for CSA with an Internet platform that easily and efficiently connects local food producers with hundreds of people who want to purchase their food.
“We plug the growers into employers, schools, churches, and other aggregated pools of buyers and then handle all the marketing and backroom processing,” says Ranallo.
So how does an entrepreneur get all those consumers to adopt a new technology?
“We show them the benefits of not only eating fresh food but also how food-centered behavioral change is possible,” Ranallo says, “and then we show how Azoti streamlines the entire implementation process for HR and wellness teams.””
Azoti’s Employer Connect presents a package of local food producers and subscription options to company decision-makers.
When companies sign up—and big names like Wexner Medical Center, OSU, the City of Columbus, Safelite Group, and California Dept of Health Care Services have signed up—Azoti supplies all the internal marketing materials and subscription tools as well as online ordering. Subscribers can register and order online using credit/debit cards, eCheck, or even automatic payroll deductions. Food is delivered onsite.
The company is also delivering the paying customers that growers need—thousands of them so far—sometimes in less than 30 days.
“Last year, we had three farmers,” Ranallo says. “This year, we have eight. Our farmer partners have collaborated to combine their products for more variety in the product bag. We’ve added a meat guy. We are helping a critical mass of growers get to the point where small farming is a sustainable business. They can now concentrate on growing with integrity and skill while we can focus on pleasing the customer.”
For those who don’t know how to prepare kohlrabi, purple potatoes, or other types of food they receive, Azoti supplies recipes and has designed an entire Farm-2-Fork Program that drives material wellness outcomes for employers.
About 80 percent of the 2+ million farms in the US meet the US Department of Agriculture’s definition of small farms. That’s a huge market for Azoti to serve.
The company is also partnering with outside cafeterias at employer sites and with schools for fundraising.
“We make local food fun,” Ranallo says. “As people gain more exposure and confidence with how to use this type of food, local food markets will hit a tipping point as society gets past the notion that healthy eating is just for hippies or triathletes. Eating whole foods that taste great doesn’t mean you can’t go to Cheesecake Factory or Taco Bell ever again in your life. As with most big issues today, it’s about shifting the balance back to a more sane approach.
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