When COVID-19 closed restaurants and suspended weekly tailgate market operations, two locally owned e-commerce businesses found an opening to grow by meeting the immediate needs of producers and consumers.
Mother Earth Food, founded in 2012 by Andrea and Graham Duvall, saw its weekly deliveries leap from 300 to 700 almost overnight, with a waiting list at the end of March of 600 and rising. “All of a sudden, we had a lot of displaced vendors and people with product and nowhere to sell it,” says Janelle Tatum, Mother’s Earth’s CEO. “So, we opened our arms and said, ‘Come on in. Let’s get their product up on our website; it gives them an outlet; we’ll sell it to our customers and solve the supply issue.’”
Emily Copus, who launched Carolina Flowers in 2016 for online sales of the flowers she grows on three pieces of property in Madison County, had systems and logistics in place to deliver fresh, perishable products to people’s homes. She also had a building in downtown Marshall with cold storage and lots of space. So, when her customers wondered if she could help them access fresh produce, the answer, says Copus, was yes.
“We had so many farmer friends who had lost their clients and sales outlets, so it seemed like a really good fit for us to work with people we knew on both sides to fill a need,” she says. “I tend to thrive in climates where it’s necessary to move very quickly.”
Within 36 hours, Copus launched an online grocery through Carolina Flowers, added shelving and workstations to the Marshall facility and eventually hired additional staff, notably Morgan Schweigert, who came on board in June as grocery manager. “I’m good at setting up the dominos but needed someone to take the next step,” says Copus. “Morgan has been the driving force behind making it a business that can scale internally and make the ideas profitable.”
Schweigert, who is a hobby farmer herself, says she found a very long to-do list that tapped her logistical skills. “Emily got a running start on this, but Zadie’s is still a business being built from the ground up,” she explains. “Obtaining product, fulfilling grocery orders and delivering them is a very systemic process, and ensuring all the moving parts are working accurately is a huge challenge.”
Andrea Duvall understands that challenge and still marvels at how it came together for Mother Earth. “For the first couple of weeks it was like trying to steer a runaway train,” she recalls. “But then the most immaculate team began forming, people with incredible expertise in building systems and getting it done. Janelle and I witnessed every single day people coming in who believed in our mission and rallied to us. It was incredibly humbling and pure grace.”
Citing the influx of skilled staff culled from other local businesses that had closed, a jump in the number of farmers and producers on the company’s roster and Buchi Kombucha’s offer to employ its trucks to supplement Mother Earth’s existing vehicles, Tatum says: “It was a miracle story in a lot of ways. Everything happened at the same time, but we had the infrastructure, and we had a lot of unused capacity in our warehouse. We were able to quickly shift, put people and systems in place, and Graham is a genius for managing routes.”
Since the pandemic began, the company’s delivery routes have increased from seven to 19, and its list of vendors went from 100 to over 250 to fulfill the orders of 1,100 to 1,300 weekly deliveries servicing about 3,400 total customers. (Mother Earth also delivers to Greenville and Spartanburg, S.C., but Asheville accounts for nearly 90% of the total.) The warehouse is now at capacity, and the staff has grown from seven full-time employees to 18, with an additional 25 part-timers.
‘Where the shift can begin’
Copus rebranded the grocery side of Carolina Flowers as Zadie’s Market in August with its own website and ordering system. Zadie’s offers delivery six days a week, with free delivery zones (there are fees outside of those zones) as well as curbside pickup at Carolina Flowers in Marshall. The business is currently hiring as it anticipates a much-delayed brick-and-mortar home opening in early 2021 in the Old Marshall Jail building.
“When all this started and it was kind of crisis mode for consumers, it made them very open to try new things,” says Copus. Yet the concept itself was not new, Schweigert points out.
“People are already familiar with e-commerce and online shopping, whether it’s buying electronics, books, furniture or clothing. We have a full line of dry goods and household supplies to provide a base for local produce for consumers used to the convenience of getting everything from one place.”
Copus attributes some of the business’s success during trying times to gender. “I think women, particularly women in business for themselves, have had to overcome barriers and adversity their entire lives, so when the world is falling apart, it’s another day at the office we need to adapt to and overcome,” she says.
The mission that shaped and drives both businesses — supporting local farmers and vendors, providing fresh, healthy products to the community and strengthening the local food system overall — is one Duvall remains fully committed to. “When Graham and I started Mother Earth, it was an uphill battle every single day to inspire people to support local farms, be aware of where their food comes from and be willing to pay more for that,” Andrea says. “Then this happened, and I thought, ‘Oh, this is where the shift can begin.’”
This “shift” not only benefits her business, says Duvall, but is boosting community awareness of the overall relevance of resilient local food systems. “Behind Mother Earth has always been the feminine essence of caring for all beings, land and farmers, and how we can work together in a collaborative way,” she says.