Auckland food box business set to grow

By Ben Chapman-Smith

Ooooby founder Pete Russell wants to make locally-grown food as affordable and convenient as what people can buy in the supermarket.
Ooooby founder Pete Russell wants to make locally-grown food as affordable and convenient as what people can buy in the supermarket.

Waiheke-based entrepreneur Pete Russell is on a mission to revive the local food market, one city at a time.

After founding fruit and vegetable home delivery business Ooooby (Out Of Our Own Backyards) in Auckland nearly three years ago, Russell has now launched the concept in Sydney.

The self-declared "start-up guy" wants to makes locally-grown food as affordable and convenient as what people can buy in the supermarket.

"We believe we can do that because we can cut a whole lot of fat out of the supply chain," Russell said.

By applying the same technology and methods used in long distance supply chains, he aims to get local, natural food into the market at a competitive price without squeezing the farmer.

"If we prototype that in Auckland, we can replicate from city to city," he said.

Russell, who will speak at TEDxAuckland next week, started Ooooby as a social network about six years ago, building a community of local growers who could trade tips, and swap seedlings and food.

The network soon grew to 1500 members and Russell identified a viable food production group lacking a channel to market.

"We figured 'what would happen if we could provide a way for these guys to tap into the market and make some money from their backyard?'"

Ooooby has since grown to 16 part-time staff and a base of 40 growers, who ensure about 300 Auckland households get a box of fresh produce once a week.

Growers deliver their food to a depot in Mt Wellington every Tuesday morning, where the boxes are packed to order and sent out in the afternoon.

The food was usually picked that morning and carrying out all the work in one day meant there was no need for storage or double-handling, Russell said.

Customers can choose from a variety of boxes, ranging in price from $28 for the 'Original Box' to $53 for the 'Organic Family Box'.

"We've got a system now where we can cover all our expenses, pay everyone on less than 300 deliveries a week. So we've cracked it in terms of proving the financial model on a small customer base," Russell said.

Growers were being paid a minimum of 50 per cent of the retail price. "They're getting paid well compared to if they were selling through traditional outlets," he said.

Russell said the model was about being as lean as possible, leveraging off the fact that local food did not have to travel far.

The 40-year old Australian, who lives "a pretty low key life" with his family on Waiheke Island, recently launched the next Ooooby business in Sydney.

"Now we've built a prototype that works, my focus is all about introducing that to new locations and building a team."

He is no stranger to the Australian market, having started and sold a number of other successful businesses in the food industry there .

He currently runs a nationwide wheatgrass business based out of Melbourne.

One of the other businesses he started involved importing pastries from Europe, which were frozen and shipped across to Australia, then distributed throughout the country.

"It was good money but I wasn't working on things that were fulfilling or inspiring. It was all about the money," he said.

Russell said the biggest problem in the current industrial food system was that family-scale growers were fast "dropping off the vine".

"As the mainstream markets are consolidating and looking for efficiencies, they're not wanting to deal with 100 different suppliers. They want to deal with one supplier that can do the volume of 100."

The result was that family growers were left selling at farmers markets, which were "a minute fraction" of the main market, Russell said.

Russell will speak at TEDxAuckland on August 3, where he will talk about taking lessons from the corporate food world and applying them to the local market.

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