Barely three weeks ago, Freshfully, a website and now grocery store that connects local farmers to consumers, opened its first physical storefront in what is quickly becoming Birmingham’s hippest neighborhood, Avondale.
The paint has barely dried on the walls in their new store, but Freshfully’s story — which is centered on a hunch about local food, two different contests and a business model which, for now, exists only in Birmingham — is a bit longer.
When Jen Barnett and Sam Brasseale, co-founders of Freshfully, worked together on a travel site, they started thinking about where their food came from.
“We were both really interested in eating more local food,” Barnett said. “We had some really foodie friends, so they were constantly talking about this great bacon or that great pork, and we were interested in trying to find it, but we didn’t have the insider track on where to get local food. Finally, I was like, ‘We see cows and we see fields, so somewhere someone is buying and selling this food.’”
But knowing that there are farmers and actually knowing farmers are two entirely separate things.
“You just didn’t know where food came from,” Barnett said. They toyed with the idea of building a site to list of local farmers, but without money the site remained a dream.
Eventually, an opportunity presented itself.
“One night last February, I had done a talk at Ignite Birmingham, but several people had gotten up and talked about food and food in Birmingham and just why Birmingham is the food capitol of the world and all these great things,” Barnett said. “It really started to inspire me that maybe this was the time and place to do something. About a week later, the same guy, Henry McBride, who runs Ignite. tweeted about this new business competition called ‘incubate!(bang)’ where you could enter a new business idea and win seed money and programming time and all this space and stuff to get your business started.”
Four weeks after submitting their proposal, Barnett and Brasseale won the competition.
Freshfully started as a content-only site, but quickly took a different direction.
“The guys who ran incubate!(bang) said, ‘No, you’ve got to sell food on it,” Barnett said. “They said, ‘You’re going to have to be making money right out of the gate, because this is not a whole lot of money and time for you to be successful. You can’t just build it and be ad supported and stuff like that.’ So I was like, ‘Okay let’s just do it.’”
The partners began calling every local farmer they could find listed on the internet and asked, “Do you want to sell your food on the internet?” By the time Freshfully launched, a handful of local farmers were selling their produce online.
As the website expanded, Barnett and Brasseale knew that Freshfully would not remain online-only forever. “The whole time we were planning the site, once we started getting into sales, we realized there would be some component beyond the site,” Barnett said. We kept it loose and open because we knew we wanted to do whatever consumers wanted. … At some point, we were shuffling shrimp through our office park and having people come to pick up seedlings out of a software office, and it clearly was not sustainable. So we were starting to look for new office space, and we knew it was going to have a pick-up and I was like, ‘Well, as long as it’s going to have a pick-up, maybe we should go ahead have a market.’ And then we found the Occupy Avondale contest.”
Occupy Avondale, sponsored by Avondale Brewing Company and Main Street Birmingham, would provide six months free rent in Avondale. “We knew the location was perfect, we loved the neighborhood and we’d already wanted to partner with Main Street Birmingham,” Barnett said. “They have a lot of common goals that we have. We entered that in February and then we found out [we won] a month ago and voilà, a grocery store.”
Freshfully operates on a model that, for now, remains unique to their business. It’s a combination of a farmer’s market, a CSA (community supported agriculture) and a socially conscious grocery store like Whole Foods. Not everything in the store is organic or all-natural (they sell Grapico and Golden Flake chips), but everything is sourced from farms and businesses in Alabama. “We don’t know of anyone doing anything like it,” Barnett said. “We researched it to death looking for competitors.”
Freshfully’s uniqueness is, for the most part, due to the effort involved in its operation. “We call it high touch, our relationship with the farmers,” Barnett said. “I have farmers that call me every day. There’s no way to do it without that. The reason Silicon Valley hasn’t come up with an alternative is because there isn’t a Silicon Valley alternative. You have to call.”
However, Freshfully has always been meant to expand further, even outside of Alabama. “The website model has always been intended to be multi-city,” Barnett said. “The concept behind it was that we could automate all these different processes so that farmers didn’t have to automate the food, so that they could take their time and grow when they wanted to.”
It might take time for Freshfully to expand out of the state, but Barnett and Brasseale are hoping to add new cities later this year. “We are re-launching the site, which is a big deal,” Barnett said. “It will set us up to be able to move in to different markets. So yeah, probably this year, we’ll plan to go into at least two other cities.”
For now, Freshfully makes a welcome addition to Birmingham’s already robust food culture. “Our mission is the same: make more local food accessible to more people,” Barnett said. “But I could never have imagined how involved it would be and ultimately more rewarding. Sam and I have gone from being just purely internet geeks who send each other memes and chat while we’re sitting right across the table from one another to actual human people who go out on farms. It’s certainly made our lives richer.”
Andy McWhorter is a Weld Local correspondent. Send your feedback to email@example.com.