Real Food Living and WNC Artisan Foods join the buyers club scene

FOOD SAVER: Kingsport, Tenn., resident Celeste Rutledge offloads produce purchased through Real Food Living Azure Co-op at Asheville's Patton Avenue Kmart. The co-op deal's worth the drive, says Rutledge. Photo by John Coutlakis

Two local buyers clubs have launched in the Asheville metro area with an eye to helping small businesses, families and individuals. For both, the initiatives are about community building.

For over 20 years, Vickilynn Haycraft has ordered quality bulk and natural foods from Azure Standard, a Dufur, Ore.-based company that gives her an alternative to traditional grocery stores without making a huge dent in her wallet.

“[They have] excellent products, especially the ones they grow on their organic farm, and excellent prices — better than are available at retail stores locally,” says Haycraft, who founded Real Food Living, a free consumer advisory service centered on natural foods and remedies, in 1984.

The only problem with the Azure connection was that she could only buy what could be delivered via UPS — a limitation that precluded her from ordering bulk items too expensive to ship.

Looking to expand her access to these products, about five years ago Haycraft began asking Azure to deliver to Asheville. After receiving numerous similar requests from area residents, one of the Oregon company’s trucking partners contacted her in early 2013 about its expansion into Western North Carolina and explained what was required to set up a local drop.

“They said they needed a volunteer drop manager. I jumped at the chance to have Azure deliver here,” says Haycraft, who took on the new duty. “Once we had a drop manager, [Azure] put Asheville on the delivery map,” she says of the October 2013 inception of Real Food Living Azure Co-Op, s0 named because it is part of Haycraft’s overall vision to share information and resources with those who want them.

Since then, Haycraft’s drop-manager duties involve direct contact with the trucking company and disseminating information received from it to local buyers. She also sends the co-op email reminders of order dates, delivery dates and times, and keeps members informed of any changes.

“I offer my time freely to help anyone that needs assistance in placing their order, navigating Azure Standard or if they have any questions,” Haycraft says.

Following her lead, Real Food Living is a completely volunteer co-op and the only co-op in WNC to which Azure Standard delivers. There are no membership charges, no minimums and no requirements to be a part of the co-op, Haycraft explains. All orders and payments are handled directly between the customer and Azure Standard. The only requirement is that members must meet the delivery truck on time at the drop site — the parking lot of the Kmart shopping center on Patton Avenue in West Asheville — and help fellow buyers unload their purchases.

Deliveries occur monthly at a set date and time. Some members place individual orders, while others buy as a family or team up with other individuals to further cut down on costs. There is no limit to the number of people in the co-op, as not everyone orders every month, and if the drop becomes too large, Azure will start a second Asheville drop at another location, she says.

To improve the efficiency of delivery days, members park in a row next to the delivery truck and place a sign with their family name on the back of their vehicles so that orders don’t get mixed up. The collaborative effort has helped make the monthly drop a smooth process, says Haycraft, and, along with frequent communication on the group’s Facebook page, has instilled notable camaraderie among fellow members. “People have made contacts for other services and needs such as eggs, pastured meats, herbs, essential oils, etc.,” says Haycraft.

“I believe we do act as a ‘community,’” she says, “and I’ve seen families step up to help one another when needed, even outside of Azure orders. ”

Pass it on

For WNC Artisan Foods, an Asheville-based cooperative buyers club is just one new aspect of its myriad services. Born out of a desire to help small food-driven businesses to reach the next level, the company was established in October by business strategist Graham Mew, Health FiT Foods founder Chuck Connolly and Tito Micucci, who produces preservative-free hummus and pimento cheese through his small business, Tito’s Specialty Foods.

As the president and director of distribution services for WNC Artisan Foods, Micucci is involved in bulk buying ingredients and parceling them out to local businesses that have purchased various portions of the full order. He also transports foods from these producers to stores in Atlanta, Charlotte, Knoxville, the Raleigh-Durham area and throughout South Carolina — saving time, gas, money and reducing the company’s carbon footprint.

Micucci then uses those connections to pass on bulk prices to individuals — for whom a pound of sugar is more realistic than a 2,500-pound pallet — as well as items by the local producers benefiting from the bulk co-op and distribution, such as Imladris Farm and Hickory Nut Gap Farm. The individual buyers club aims to be up and running before Christmas and costs $50 for an annual buy-in, he says.

“It won’t replace needing to go to the grocery,” Micucci says. “We’re not trying to compete with anybody. We’re trying to create co-community so everyone can benefit.”

According to Micucci, selections will be available on a weekly basis, available to members via a form they can submit via email. In addition to a standard list of products that will continue to grow as the co-op expands, each week an email will alert potential customers to new and seasonal items. Among these offerings are live lobsters, which New England native Micucci’s Boston connections will ship down several times a year.

“It’s all going to be priced below retail, at least,” Micucci says. “We’re not trying to devalue anyone’s branding. Instead, we can help with some marketing and reach people that might not be going to Whole Foods [Market] or Greenlife [Grocery] — in Henderson County, specifically.”

A pickup spot for the co-op has yet to be determined, but it will be in the Hendersonville area, where WNC Artisan Foods is also in the process of establishing a community kitchen.

“It will be limited to 20 people or families in beginning,” says Micucci. “As the ball rolls, we’ll see how efficient and effective it is, then move to 50, and then, who knows?”

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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for ashevillemovies.com and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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