How can we encourage community investment and food system innovation for the long-term?
Local and regional food commerce continues to grow and emerge in communities and localities across the Commonwealth. New business enterprises and community initiatives have been incubated and expanded to meet consumer demand and community interest in local foods. These businesses and initiatives include food hubs, cooperatives, produce auctions, online farmers markets and Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs), urban and community gardens, food policy councils and working groups, Buy Fresh Buy Local chapters, crop mobs and gleaning clubs, farm-to-school, university, hospital and institutional procurement programs.
Challenge of Start-up and On-Going Capital Needs
Even with the growth and excitement around local foods and emerging retail agriculture, there is still a need for more community support and investment in Virginia farmers, food-based entrepreneurs, and durable food system infrastructure to create sustainable local economies and more direct linkages to Virginia grown foods. Access to start-up and on-going capital remains a challenge for beginning and established farmers and entrepreneurs.
How can we encourage community investment and food system innovation for the long-term? Certainly, voting with our wallets and food purchases is the best way to invest in Virginia farmers and food entrepreneurs. There are existing models of where community members have personally invested in a business enterprise such as food cooperatives, community supported agriculture (CSA) operations, and buying clubs to provide capital and help the venture succeed.
Community Supported Restaurants: An Example from the Green Mountain State
There continue to be new and emerging models of community supported investment that leverage existing capital resources and garner additional community capital for start-up or expansion purposes. One new model is community supported restaurants (CSRs). I first became aware of the term CSRs in Ben Hewitt’s 2009 book, The Town That Food Saved. In the book, he describes how Claire’s, a local restaurant in Hardwick, Vermont, through a unique ownership structure sold 50 shares to the public. For each $1,000 share in Claire’s, the shareholder received one $25 dinner credit per month and was repaid with soups, sandwiches, and related meals until the investment requirements were satisfied in full.
I know I know you’re saying to yourself, “Virginia is certainly not like Vermont and the state codes for business structures are probably different. However, like Vermont, Virginia has many innovative farmers and food entrepreneurs that are trying new technologies and business strategies to stay competitive and engage customers.” I was reminded of the entrepreneurial spirit of Virginia food business owners through a recent newsletter of A Bowl of Good Cafe.
Emerging Local Goodness: A Virginia Community Investment Innovation
As part of their vision for global inspiration and local goodness, A Bowl of Good Cafe works closely with local farmers and food artisans to support the local economy and community-based business practices. The cafe and catering business is located in Harrisonburg and is in the process of opening a second store. Their newsletter outlined their effort to raise capital to pay a local craftsmen to design and build tables with an international flare for the second store.
The option of working with a local Virginia-based craftsman will cost A Bowl of Good Cafe more money than using an off-the-shelf or imported product, but will support a local craftsman, use local wood, and stay consistent with their community-based business principles. Here is an excerpt on their idea for community involvement and investment in their second store.
“Our budget for building out this second store is very tight, so we have had to be creative in our thinking on how we can stay local on this. Here is what we have come up with: we are trying to find 100 people who are willing to buy $200 of gift cards (split in any denomination). These cards could be used at any time after the second store opens and in either location. Essentially, this fronts us a chunk of money, so we can have beautiful, locally made tables… AND support a local craftsman.” ~ Katrina Didot, Owner, A Bowl Of Good Cafe
Out-of-the-Box Thinking and Other Models
These stories from Vermont and Virginia are just two examples of out-of-the-box thinking and creativity for small business development and community investment. There continues to be interest throughout the state in innovative ways to further strengthen Virginia’s food system, raise capital for small and mid-scale food processing and manufacturing, and tangibly support Virginia’s farmers and entrepreneurs. The 2012 Virginia Farm to Table Conference that is planned for December 5 and 6 at Blue Ridge Community College in Weyers Cave, Virginia, will explore community investment and other food system development strategies and models.
If you have other examples of community supported investment innovation, please drop us a line or share a comment.