Shopping for organic food has gotten a lot easier since Irv Cernauskas and Shelly Herman started doing it 20 years ago. "Back then there wasn't a lot of choice," Herman says. But even with all the options that exist now, from CSA subscriptions to specialty sections in 24-hour supermarkets, the couple saw room for improvement. Local farmers, they thought, needed infrastructure to connect them to wider markets. So two years ago they hatched a plan----a way to help farmers and make a living doing it.
In June Cernauskas and Herman launched Fresh Picks (freshpicks.com), an online grocery store selling products sourced from more than 40 area farms. Similar businesses have serviced Chicago for some time, from the national chain Peapod (which carries Wild Oats stock) to the regional operation Timber Creek Farms, but Fresh Picks is the first to offer item-by-item ordering from an inventory that's entirely organic and by and large locally produced. Fruits and vegetables make up the bulk of the stock, but you can also get meat, dairy, eggs, baked goods, and pantry items like pasta sauce and preserves. "Not everybody has time for a farmers' market," Herman says. "A CSA doesn't work for some people either, because they don't want to put money up for a whole season."
Cernauskas and Herman, who live in West Town, both hold MBAs from the MIT Sloan School of Management, where they met. Before starting Fresh Picks, Cernauskas was an IT consultant; Herman worked for ShoreBank Corporation, helping low-income areas finance development. Cernauskas, who'd been interested in environmental causes for many years, also volunteered part-time with various farmland preservation groups, which had given him an up-close look at the way farms worked. He and Herman met with dozens of farmers in Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Indiana to discuss their business plan, and realized that skills they took for granted in their jobs--data processing and market research, in particular--were things farmers either didn't have the time for or flat-out disliked. "A lot of them said, 'you know, I'm really just good at growing the best carrot," Herman says."
Most of the farms that sell to Fresh Picks are too small to supply major retailers like Whole Foods, so they rely primarily on farmers' markets and CSA subscriptions for income. Those outlets are usually limited to the growing season and entail "running around to a lot of different places with little amounts of produce," says farmer Vicki Westerhoff, who runs Genesis Growers in downstate Saint Anne. She continues to sell crops through the usual channels, but during the off-season, she estimates 95 percent of her business comes from Fresh Picks.
Fresh Picks is itself a pretty small operation. For the first several months Herman personally packed every order at headquarters in Niles, and Cernauskas made all the deliveries in a Dodge diesel van. They've since hired a full-time driver and warehouse worker. Cernauskas now concentrates on brokering deals with farmers and Herman handles the books and customer service. They say business has grown steadily, and though they won't reveal how many people currently buy from Fresh Picks (or how often), their service area covers 55 zip codes.
Although most of the farmers who sell to Fresh Picks do so on a regular basis, the company hasn't asked anyone for a long-term commitment. Still, Cernauskas hopes business will pick up enough that he can give farmers an incentive to increase production. "A bad gamble can make the difference between a good year and a disastrous year for a farmer," he says. "We can say, 'Here are the products we think we'll need and when we think we're going to need them.' It can take a bit of the guesswork out of it for them, and therefore a bit of the financial risk."
One farmer who hasn't turned to Fresh Picks is John Peterson, owner of Angelic Organics, one of the largest CSAs in the country. He says he doesn't see anything wrong with Fresh Picks, but laments that their business model "doesn't bring a person into a direct, ongoing relationship with a farm. Ours has its own individuality, and if that's what people want, the only way they're going to get that is by belonging to a CSA." Herman responds that Fresh Picks does include information about their suppliers in every order and that many of her customers are CSA subscribers who only use her service during the off-season. "We want to give people whatever access point might work for them," she says, "whether it's a farmers' market, a CSA, or ordering from us."
Besides, Cernauskas says, Fresh Picks is supporting CSAs--by helping to sustain the farmers who run them. "If there's a crop that they tend to grow more of than they can use, it's great for them to have an outlet that can take up some of that surplus instead of composting it. I mean, composting is a wonderful thing, but I think they'd rather get their revenue."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.