NEK Farm Delivering Chef-Made Meals And Pantry Staples To Porches Across Northern Vt.
When a global pandemic abruptly shutters your business, do you close up shop, or pivot to a new model? That’s the calculation businesses around Vermont have had to make over the last month and a half.
For Ardelia Farm in Irasburg, they’ve chosen to change things up, going from selling baked goods at farmers markets and flowers wholesale, to starting up a meal delivery business, all in just a few weeks. VPR’s Henry Epp spoke with Thomas McCurdy, who owns Ardelia Farm along with his husband Bailey Hale. Their interview is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Henry Epp: What are you delivering?
Thomas McCurdy: Our offerings include a weekly dinner party, or a meal that's portioned for two that has been packaged and chilled — just ready for you to heat up. We have a full lineup of bakery items: cookies, brownies, granola bars. And soups by the quart, casseroles.
Really anything I can produce here in my bakery. I'm cranking it out as much and as fast as I can.
Is this something you've been thinking about for a while? Or was this all in response to the pandemic and quarantine?
I never once had given a single thought to the idea of becoming some sort of online grocer delivery service. It never crossed my mind until, really just about a month ago. I think, like so many others when all this began, we had about a week and a half or two weeks where we were just sitting around the house, reading the news, feeling anxious and forlorn, and just really having no idea what the future held. And woke up one morning and thought, "Ok, well that's enough of that. It's time to get to work."
But at that time, the future of the Burlington Farmers Market was still uncertain. And on our flower side of the business — our farm, we grow flowers that we sell almost exclusively down into New York City to the wholesale market for event florists — and so if the farmers market is not happening, potentially, and if there are no big events happening in New York City this summer, how are we going to pay our bills and hopefully keep our employees on?
And so, one morning over coffee, Bailey and I were talking about, 'Hey, what if we threw some baked goods on our website, sold them and delivered them out to our customers?' And that really quickly evolved. And here we are just four weeks later, and we've already tripled the amount of orders that we're bringing in.
Obviously, it sounds like a really quick pivot for your business model. Does it feel sustainable, at least for the next few months for you?
To be honest, it didn't at first, just because it grew so quickly. And those first two, three weeks, I was barely home at all. I was just in the kitchen and on the computer working out logistics and menu planning. But I've been able to bring on some more help this past week, and I have an extra set of hands in the kitchen, which is just invaluable. And within the next week or so it looks like we'll be investing in a refrigerated delivery vehicle.
Gov. Scott is allowing farmers markets to go forward starting May 1, and you typically sell at markets during the summer. Are you thinking at all about selling at markets again this season? Or is that off the table at this point?
For now, vending at the farmers market is off the table for us for this season. We looked so long and hard at this option and the very valuable measures that are going to be taken for social distancing at the market, it really won't make sense for us to be vendors there financially. That is to say, we rely so heavily on staying really busy. Because we sell a whole lot of inexpensive products, that if we're relying on pre-orders and pickups, we just couldn't work out the logistics.
On a completely different topic, Thomas, this month, you were also crowned the winner of Chopped Sweets on the Food Network. Congratulations. Can you tell me what was that experience like, being on a reality show like that?
It was so much fun. I really had no idea what to expect going into it. But I loved it even more than I thought that I would. And my biggest takeaway from Chopped Sweets is just how real it all is. I think I was expecting a lot more TV magic. But no, those secret ingredients are a secret until you open that basket. And the time constraints are real. They set that clock and we have to produce something in just a few minutes.
Can you tell me a little bit about what's on the menu for this week, and what you're thinking for some of the meals that you'll be delivering in the coming weeks.
Absolutely. Right now we're in the middle of preparing a Tex-Mex dinner party for two that has a pickled cabbage salad, Elote Mexican street corn inspired dish, and then spicy vegetable enchillada casserole. And next week we'll be doing a Greek menu, so making spanakopita and a chopped salad and some really tasty lemon and chickpea soup. I have a couple new soups that are on the menu for next week, and the ever-exciting mac and cheese that I think people are going to absolutely love.