In a state with such fertile soils, an ideal climate and abundant water, it’s no wonder entrepreneurs, growers and producers are identifying opportunities and creating cool companies within Virginia’s agricultural economy.
Relay Foods and NoBull Burger are perfect examples of creating something new, while the Shenandoah Valley Beef Cooperative exemplifies building on generational experience and quality, and adapting to today’s food culture.
Relay Foods is an online source for groceries, local and organic products, gourmet edibles and more. The Charlottesville-based company has been operating for five years and sees continued growth on the horizon.
Before founding Relay, Zach Buckner, an engineer, worked as a consultant for a data mining and analytics firm. After a long day’s work, he found himself driving to the grocery store, picking up items for his growing family. It was a time-consuming problem faced by everyone he knew and he was interested in finding a solution. He started researching ways to efficiently get fresh, quality food from the people who grow or make it to the people who consume it.
Relay Foods was born. Buckner grew up in the Shenandoah Valley, which he says is the perfect place to operate a business like Relay.
“With a few exceptions, this state grows and produces nearly everything consumers could want. Virginia is very much pioneering a new way to eat, made possible by the resources and the producers.”
Relay Foods’ first goal is to serve customers by providing quality products at reasonable prices with a convenient delivery system. In pursuing that goal, the company also created opportunities for local producers.
“Because we skip the distributor, a much higher chunk of the retail dollar goes back to the producer,” Buckner says. “Estimates we’ve seen from farmers show they earned 10 to 15 cents on the dollar in the other model, but are keeping more like 60 cents on the retail dollar with Relay. That’s game-changing for a lot of these producers.”
As for the future, Relay is working toward widening and deepening its offerings to customers, adding new categories and expanding its geographical reach.
“The one thing I think a lot of people misunderstand about the move away from brick-and-mortar stores is that this is going to be a much cheaper and better way to get food,” he says. “There are far fewer moving parts in this system. Groceries have lagged behind the move to e-commerce, but we are getting incrementally closer.”
Crissanne Raymond shares Buckner’s entrepreneurial spirit. In search of a better veggie burger, the chef/caterer decided to create her own. It was such a big hit with family and friends that she and her daughters founded NoBull Burger in Charlottesville. Their products are sold in retail stores in Virginia and several other states, and the NoBull Burgers are on restaurant menus throughout the region.
“It used to be where a small sector of people sought out veggie burgers, but we’ve seen that change,” Raymond says. “People are more interested in their health and what they eat, but they still want great flavor.”
That’s the niche NoBull Burger fills. NoBull Burgers aren’t intended to be meat imitations, but instead are a true veggie burger packed with organic and natural ingredients, high in protein, fiber and nutrients.
“These burgers taste great,” Raymond says. “We hear that from meat-and-potato guys and others who aren’t vegetarians.”
Zagat, a renowned restaurant rating guide, ranked the veggie burgers served at the high-end Clyde’s chain among the best in the competitive Washington, D.C., market. Clyde’s sources their veggie burgers from NoBull.
For meat eaters, the beef offered by the Shenandoah Valley Beef Cooperative is some of the best on the market, and Terry Sager, co-op chairman, says customer interest in the origins of their food has been good for producers.
“The local food movement is the biggest trend in food in the last decade,” Sager says. “The opportunities this opens for our livestock farmers is exciting. Whether supplying beef to white tablecloth restaurants or vegetables to local residents through farmers markets and co-ops, the movement in the Shenandoah Valley is growing.”
Sager says the Shenandoah region provides the perfect environment for raising top-quality, delicious beef.
“The Shenandoah Valley’s fertile soils allow for pasturing cattle from March to December,” he says. “The temperatures are moderate, so cattle of different breeds, from Angus to Limousin, can thrive. The valley is home to transportation that allows cattle to be moved and marketed to different parts of the country. Finishing cattle for local sales to retail customers is also possible for many farmers.”