Austin’s Peach Digitally Connects Local Farmers to Restaurant Chefs

Xconomy Texas — 

Call it a virtual farmers market.

Two Austin entrepreneurs have developed a mobile app that they say will digitize the marketplace for produce, meat, and other food products grown by local farms.

“Chefs want to source more locally but they have no time to research, find these products, and connect to the farmers,” says co-founder Mario Barrett. “We want to be the 24/7 farmers’ market.”

The app, which is still in beta, so far has almost 80 users and features about 100 products—including eggs and lettuces as well as cured salmon and maple bourbon bacon—as it readies for a launch next month.

Digitizing how we cook and eat is a growing startup niche. Most of the innovation in the food space has so far addressed the consumer, one, that is, say, seeking out sustainable foods such as AgLocal’s online meat market or getting home delivery of locally sourced groceries through services like Greenling.

Peach is one of the first apps targeted to restaurateurs and chefs seeking out local foodstuffs, and could create a more networked future for what traditionally has been a fragmented and decidedly low-tech marketplace.

Peach’s founders say they have developed an order management tool that lets chefs can place orders for, say, 48 lamb chops from local producers. That sends a push notification to the seller that an order has arrived. The app is free as Peach builds its database, but co-founder Daniel Ehevich says the plan is to sell monthly subscriptions to buyers from $40 to $100 a month.

What Peach addresses could be called the F-to-R—farm to restaurant—market. The National Restaurant Association’s most recent survey of the 1,300-member American Culinary Federation found that local-sourcing and environmental sustainability rank among the top goals in menu planning for chefs. More and more diners are focused on their food’s provenance—where it’s grown and harvested. Which means chefs like Daniel Yates, executive chef at The Woodlands Waterway Marriott Hotel & Convention Center, are always on the lookout for fresh ingredients.

“I don’t have a lot of time to do research, sitting in the office,” Yates says. “For me, it’s helpful if I can be in the kitchen and pull out my phone, if we’re talking about a product, and find that product then and there.”

For chefs like Yates, Peach could be a real-time connection to farmers he would otherwise have to spend time searching the Web to find. None of the farmers Peach displays are within a close enough range to the hotel, Yates says. But he adds its service would be of interest to him should they add producers within a 100-mile radius.

Despite the favorable response by both chefs and farmers, a key obstacle in Peach’s growth is distribution: Getting the products from the farms to the restaurant kitchens efficiently, says Robyn Metcalfe, director of the Food Lab at the University of Texas at Austin, an incubator program she created at the Center for Sustainable Development in UT’s architecture school.

“A virtual farmers app is great but you still have the real tricky bit which is the physical, on-the-ground issue: How do you deliver it?” she says. “These are perishable goods that need to be picked up and delivered to the end user.”

Ehevich says he and Barrett are speaking with existing food distributors about getting capacity on existing delivery runs. Right now, the farmers and chefs will have to work that out amongst themselves, he added.

Yates says that, at his previous kitchen at a hotel in Orlando, FL, they ended up buying their own truck in order to pick up products purchased at local farms.

“And we ended up building our own two-acre working farm. We had bees, gardens,” he says. “We helped a young lady start a company to broker between the farms, pick up, and make deliveries.”

The distribution issue also became a sticking point for AgLocal, a Kansas-based food startup that earlier this month closed on a $1.3 million Series A round from investors such as Andreessen Horowitz. A partnership with their main distributor abruptly dissolved, causing missing products and missed deliveries, TechCrunch reported last month. (AgLocal itself began as a marketplace for meat, connecting farmers to chefs, but the company has now changed gears, offering an e-retail site to consumers who can purchase the meat on a monthly subscription basis.)

In the meantime, Ehevich says Peach’s strength is that it was created to be on mobile from the ground up, making it useful both to people in the field and those behind the stove. “Farmers are not on computers behind the desk, but they do carry phones,” he says.

All of the company’s outreach to farmers has also inadvertently given Peach a side business: Redesigning or creating websites for the 21st century. “We’ve found that farmers are not the best at marketing,” Ehevich adds. “If they don’t have a good website, how will people find them?”

In addition to Yates, Peach has signed up other chefs, including Janelle Reynolds, who runs the kitchen at Austin’s @t large, a private chef services company, and is a winner of the “Chopped” television show.

Ehevich and Barrett met as classmates at the University of Texas where they are both completing their MBAs this month, just as they are putting the final touches on Peach’s launch. The two began collaborating on the app last year and have bootstrapped the company with their own money.

“It takes a lot of effort from a chef’s perspective to find these local products,” says Yates at the Marriott hotel. “We gotta work together on it.”