Harvest Express Brings Online Grocery Service to Detroit
[Corrected 11/26/12, 9:21 a.m. See below.] Jenile Brooks was born in raised in Detroit, and she always knew that one day she’d be back.
Brooks headed East after high school and eventually settled in New York City, where she was working as a film producer. It was in that capacity that she finally returned to the Motor City last year. She was in town working on a documentary about Detroit’s “food desert.” Though Detroit’s lack-of-grocery-stores situation isn’t quite as dire as some national media outlets have claimed, it is true that there are too many neighborhoods where the only groceries within walking distance are found at a liquor store. “While working on the film, I learned there are less than three grocery stores per 10,000 people in Detroit,” Brooks adds.
That got her thinking about the larger question of food access. She was a customer of Fresh Direct, an online grocer that services metro New York City. The Fresh Direct model works, she says, because New York is densely populated with people who have relatively high incomes and no cars. How would that model work, she wondered, in much less dense and less affluent Detroit?
“Fresh Direct wouldn’t consider Detroit because of the perceived buying power of Detroiters and what it would take to maintain a store,” Brooks explains. “By operating online, we can take a minimal capital investment to prove that it works and then expand it throughout the city.”
In January, Brooks plans to launch Harvest Express in five Detroit ZIP codes encompassing the neighborhoods of Midtown, Downtown, Woodbridge, Corktown, and Indian Village. Online groceries are a somewhat risky proposition in a city known for high rates of poverty and relatively low rates of home Internet service, but Brooks already has the support of two partners, one of whom is Jared Saverino, whose family owned Phil’s Market for generations. She’s also lined up some seed money from the Enterprising Health accelerator. [An earlier version of this paragraph mistakenly said Saverino's family owned Holiday Market in Royal Oak. Holiday Market is where Saverino currently works. We regret the error.]
“Getting people to change behaviors is always a tough sell,” Brooks notes. “But our research has shown that a lot of people are interested, and they’re already shopping online.”
Brooks plans to use the same “just-in-time” processing model as Fresh Direct, meaning Harvest Express will keep dry goods stocked in the company’s warehouse on the North End and will coordinate perishables with wholesalers, many located at Eastern Market, on a daily basis depending on what customers have ordered. Brooks says as long as a customer orders by midnight, they’ll get their groceries delivered the next day. She compares Harvest Express’s prices with those at Trader Joe’s, and plans charge a $4 delivery fee per order or an annual membership fee of $99, which would cover delivery charges for a year.
Brooks wants to highlight local farms and food manufacturers, so Harvest Express will offer detailed information to customers about who’s producing the food it carries. “The goal is to source locally as much as possible,” she says. “Those kinds of partnerships are perfect for promoting on the site. You’ll always have a name, a face, and a backstory.” To help personalize the experience, the Harvest Express website will also be able to suggest products based on a customer’s dietary restrictions, save shopping lists, and remind regular shoppers if they’ve forgotten an item that they usually order.
Brooks says Harvest Express is putting the funding from Enterprising Health, a business accelerator for startups with solutions to improve health in Detroit and the surrounding communities, toward launching the beta test in January. (Interested customers can go to the site and enter their email addresses for more information.) “I feel pretty confident, but I think the hardest sell will be the initial upfront trial,” she adds. “Once people trust us, I think we’ll be successful in developing long-term relationships with our customers.”