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In wake of Relay Foods merger, some producers left hanging

In wake of Relay Foods merger, some producers left hanging

Many local Relay Foods producers have been left in limbo by the company’s merger with Door to Door Organics, uncertain whether their products will be sold through the new company.

In June 2016, the Charlottesville-based online grocer Relay Foods announced that it was merging with Door to Door Organics, another online grocer based in Colorado. Earlier this month, Relay Foods announced that the newly merged company will begin operating solely under the Door to Door Organics brand and that its services as Relay would end Jan. 15, with the Door to Door Organics website opening to customers in Charlottesville, Richmond, Washington, D.C., and Baltimore on Jan. 13.

With the merger, Relay Foods closed its warehouses in Charlottesville and Richmond, laying off 48 employees in the Charlottesville area alone and leaving 25 employees in Virginia. Customers who migrate to Door to Door Organics will now be serviced from a warehouse in Pennsylvania.

Spokeswoman Nancy Shloss said produce growers, whole animal producers and primary distributor partners were contacted directly prior to the public announcement of the closure on Jan. 2. Other vendors were notified in a letter sent the day of the announcement.

“We are in the process of reviewing our catalog and our logistics as we begin to service customers in this region from our Pennsylvania warehouse,” the letter says. “Some vendors may be able to continue to work with us, while some may not.”

In an email, Shloss said they have reached an agreement their primary dairy producer, Pennsylvania-based Trickling Springs Creamery, as well as other Relay Foods producers that work with distributors, such as Bright Greens Smoothie Shakers, Bake’mmm Bagels, Mason Dixie Biscuit Co., NoBull Burger, Health Warrior, Nello’s Sauce and others.

“Our team is working hard to iron out the details and determine how to onboard as many local producers as possible,” she said. “However, developing a logistics plan that allows Door to Door Organics to offer former Relay Foods producers will take time. One example of a roadblock to an easy transition is that Door to Door Organics offers only organic produce, meaning that any non-certified organic growers would need to be certified in order to make the transition with us.”

* * *

But many former Relay Foods producers are currently not on the Door to Door Organics site — and they are unsure if that will ever change.

John Whiteside, owner of Wolf Creek Farm in Madison County, has been working as a producer with Relay Foods since they started. He said he was not surprised when they announced the merger.

“Their objective was to maintain the kind of distribution they were doing here locally, which was centered around local Virginia farms,” Whiteside said. “I knew at the time, several months ago, that it was going to be difficult for them to maintain that with the Door to Door Organics model, especially the local aspect of it.”

“They called me in late December and said it looks as though we’re going to be rationalizing our catalog items that we carry around Door to Door Organics suppliers, thereby eliminating most of the supplier relationships we’ve got here in the Virginia area,” he said.

Whiteside said Richmond’s warehouse had the ability to take Wolf Creek’s primal cuts of beef and further break that down into individual cuts, wrap them and label them with the joint Wolf Creek–Relay Foods Artisanal Cuts label. Door to Door Organics does not have that capability, so if Wolf Creek continues on as a producer, they would receive the cuts of individually wrapped meat directly from the farm.

“Any local farmer that they had in the Charlottesville area that was supplying them by delivering to their Carlton Avenue warehouse are going to be confronted with, even if Door to Door wanted to include that product in the catalog, logistically, how do they get it from the farm in Albemarle, Madison, Greene, wherever, up to Philadelphia in an economic matter,” he said.

When Whiteside had a booth at the City Market, he would refer customers to buying his product on Relay Foods for a more convenient way to order, he said.

“We’ve invested an awful lot in building up that customer loyalty and customer base through Relay Foods. I would hate to see — from a business standpoint, but also for the sake of the customers — that just disappear,” he said.

If his products won’t be offered through Door to Door, he said he plans on working with Relay on sending out a mailer to customers, advising them of area locations where they can get Wolf Creek Farm meats and their bi-weekly delivery service.

“We’re kind of in purgatory here while we wait to figure out what Door to Door Organics’ decision is going to be, and then we communicate that out to the customers,” he said.

* * *

Radical Roots Farm in Keezletown, southeast of Harrisonburg, is also currently not on the Door to Door website. Owner Lee O’Neill said she is hoping they can work with the company, but they are still waiting to hear the decision.

“Relay was very invested in working with us and other local producers,” she said. “As you build business with someone, you stop having business with other people because we’re moving more towards having business with them and that, so we dropped certain markets that we were doing because of more focus on working with Relay. So now we’re like, ‘where are we going to go now?’”

They’re working on strategizing for the future and considering what backup options they have in case Door to Door Organics does not pick them up. Usually around this time of year, she said, Relay’s produce manager would work with the farm on planning for the upcoming year. Radical Roots grew for Relay’s bounty shares, similar to a community-supported agriculture share, and they would ask them to grow certain things based on projections.

Right now, they’re doing their planning and are having to make their best guess on what they should grow more of in case Door to Door Organics does extend an offer to them.

“I think that one of the challenges is that a lot of people that they were working with were small and medium scale, so you’re going to feel that impact of losing something that was a sixth of our business,” O’Neill said. “At different points, they’ve been a quarter to a sixth of who we sold to, and that’s pretty big.”

She doesn’t know what will happen next, she said, but she’s remaining optimistic that something great will come.

“Working with Relay, particularly our produce buyer, was amazing,” O’Neill said. “I loved working with her and she really got what we were doing and the value of what we were doing. I feel like that was part of the success of Relay, is all the people that we know that worked there, they were all really great people doing really good work that they believed in, you could just tell.”

* * *

Brigitte Rau, owner of Brigit True Organics, a skin-care company based in Charlottesville that had sold through Relay Foods, said she found out about the closure from the email that was sent to customers. She doesn’t think she will be picked up by Door to Door Organics because they do not have any other skin-care products on their website.

“After I got the email, I did look and see who I would talk to at Door to Door, who is the buyer, when I realized there was not even the product category,” she said. “I was a little surprised and I think my chance of contacting them in the next few weeks is very low; I’m just waiting to see what’s going on.”

They were a contact to the D.C. area for her business, she said, so it will affect the area that her product reaches more than a financial impact. She said she’s reaching out to other contacts she has in the D.C. area to try to fill that gap for customers.

“I do feel Relay did a great job in promoting the area, promoting the local, small growers, like the old system of bringing the good country food to the big town,” she said. “I really enjoyed and appreciated that part of Relay. I think it was hard work for them.”

Shloss said they cannot comment now on a timeframe for decisions regarding specific Relay Foods producers being brought on to Door to Door Organics, but they are notifying producers as soon as decisions are reached.

“We have worked to make clear to all of our producers that we cannot make promises that we will be able to bring their products on board at Door to Door Organics,” she said in the email. “We are sincerely sorry to hear that some of our producers have not felt that we have made this clear.”

Shloss said that, at this time, there are no plans to open a warehouse in Virginia.

Allison Wrabel is a reporter for The Daily Progress. Contact her at (434) 978-7261, or @craftypanda on Twitter.

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