CAMBRIDGE — It has the makings of a scenario straight out of “Portlandia”: A refurbished school bus, painted bright blue with wooden side panels like a '50s surf wagon, furnished inside with a comfy couch and coffeemaker, pulls up to your house and delivers a pork chop from a local, sustainably raised pig, or a Mason jar of locally harvested raw honey, or a log of goat cheese from Vermont.
This is not, however, the creation of satirists, but rather of two social entrepreneurs who believe that their new Watershed Exchange represents the best way of getting top-quality foodstuffs into the hands of customers who want them. “We’re looking to build a local community where artisans and consumers can communicate directly,” says Ryan Schoen, 32, who launched Watershed Exchange in September with Jeremy Stanfield, 34. Their hopes for the new service are far more ambitious, though. “Looking at problems that needed to be solved, we thought a big one was the food system in the US. Food security, quality, availability, health — the list goes on and on,” says Schoen.
He says there are three main problems with the traditional grocery model that he and Stanfield wanted to address. First, says Schoen, “In that model, 40 percent of food goes to waste. Second, only 20 cents on the dollar goes to a farmer or producer. Third is that the average product travels 1,500 miles. We said, How can we create a system that’s better and different?” (The USDA reports that about 10 percent of food is wasted at the retail level.)
Essentially, the partners’ solution is to eliminate the middle man. As such, Watershed Exchange runs something like a farmers’ market on wheels. Schoen and Stanfield deal directly with farmers and artisan producers. The two pay the producers 75 cents on every dollar they take in; their profit comes from the remaining 25 percent. With a negligible delivery charge of $5 and no minimum order (“We’ll deliver one apple,” says Schoen, perhaps a bit hyperbolically), the two are not making money on the deliveries, and the prices are comparable, they say, to those of Whole Foods or similar markets.
You can get bagels from Iggy’s, challah from Cheryl Ann’s, pasta from Deano’s Pastacia, meats from Lilac Hedge Farm in Berlin, milk from High Lawn Farm, ice cream from Shaw Farm Dairy and Batch. A pound of grain-fed, sustainably raised pork chops from Maple Heights Farm costs the customer $12.50 (plus the $5 delivery fee). Eight ounces of Cabot Extra-Sharp Cheddar costs $4; a pound of red onions from Allandale Farm goes for $1.50.
Schoen and Stanfield met while working at an eco-hotel in Jackson Hole, Wyo. Later, both worked for specialty grocer Dean & DeLuca. The entrepreneurs chose Boston to launch the business, says Schoen, because of the concentration of farms and artisan food products in New England. All the goods they carry come from the region. “We’ll never have bananas,” Schoen vows, while Stanfield explains that that’s the whole point of the Watershed Exchange name: “It’s about people exchanging stuff from within their watershed” — that is, colloquially, from within their local area.
From a customer standpoint, the logistics are simple. Order online through the company’s website and the next day your items are delivered between noon and 5 p.m. in an insulated cooler (possibly, but not necessarily, by the big blue bus; Schoen and Stanfield also use their more prosaic personal vehicles for deliveries). If you’re there to unpack the cooler and hand it back on the spot, fine; if not, Schoen and Stanfield will pick it up on their next trip. The delivery area covers most of Boston and many nearby suburbs.
The two partners have been building a customer base through word of mouth and grass-roots marketing efforts such as showing up in the eye-catching bus at parks and farmers’ markets. “I found out about it from a neighbor,” says customer Keri-Nicole Dillman of Medford. Dillman is delighted that Watershed gives her the opportunity to buy farmers’ market-type foods on a convenient schedule, and at reasonable prices. “And the quality is great,” she says.
Watershed is a fairly low-overhead operation. The partners bought the old bus in upstate New York and fixed it up themselves, removing the seats and bolting on the wood panels. They’ve rented warehouse space in North Cambridge from specialty grocer Pemberton Farms. The store provides a “secondary connection,” says Schoen, to certain products, such as beer and spirits, that Watershed doesn’t deal with directly.
If it all sounds almost too good to be true — for $25 (including delivery), you can get a six-pack of Allagash White and a pound of Red’s Best Atlantic monkfish — Schoen notes that “the hardest part is changing consumer habits.”
The average shopper, he says, makes two runs to the supermarket each week. “We don’t think we can replace both of those, but maybe we can replace one.”
Jane Dornbusch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.