Slow Growth Making A Big Impact
May. 30, 2018
Pictured: Wen-Jay Ying, Founder of Local Roots NYC
By Lydia Serrano, Slow Food USA
Wen-Jay Ying founded Local Roots, a unique farm-share based in New York City, after her relatives moved away when she was twenty-five. Seeking community and a sense of family, she found both through her work with a local food justice non-profit where she focused on CSAs. “I love how CSAs reconnect us to our food and people who grow it, and how they build personalized connections between people in New York City.”
She soon realized that traditional CSAs weren’t always convenient for a New York lifestyle so she set out to create a model that was more suitable for urban dwellers. In the process of growing Local Roots, Wen-Jay also tailored the idea of what socially responsible success and growth can look like for a small business.
Local Roots’ growth has always been directed in a very grassroots and community-driven way. “When building my business, I thought about the impact I wanted to have on the community and about providing access to great food while supporting local farmers. These became the foundation for my decisions around growth instead of just trying to make money.”
Wen-Jay knew early on that to run Local Roots how she wanted, it would need to be self-funded. “I haven’t had to take on any investor capital for Local Roots ever. I wanted to do everything myself and I am grateful to be able to grow this business in the ways I choose.” This includes a different measure of success. “If you do get funded by investor money, then you need to be so much more focused on the bottom line. I’ve seen lots of companies leave New York City because of the financial pressures of investors.”
Instead, Local Roots is built upon the goals of providing a positive impact on community and geting food to fellow New Yorkers. “One measure of success is hearing how many New Yorkers want to be involved in our mission. 'I’m your number one fan, how do I help out even if I’m not a farmer?!!’ People submit their family recipes to inspire others with new dish ideas, nutritionists share advice on the healing properties of foods, local artists have illustrated how a local food system can help the environment...I see this growing.”
Community engagement is crucial to Local Roots’ success. “It’s important to empower community members because the food system can only be healed through a collective effort. At Local Roots, we want New Yorkers to know they play an equally important part in our food system as the farmers that grow our food. This movement to eat better, cook more, support local farmers is a collective effort. Growing the business through empowering others, community engagement, and word of mouth referrals are aligned to the Local Roots spirit. I’d rather focus on making our members happy and have them spread the gospel of Local Roots rather than spending all my time lowering costs and thinking of just the bottom line. Pure profit and ignoring our community and other values would simply compromise the quality of our product, the customer service we offer, and attention to detail.”
Scalability is another measure of success that food businesses should consider carefully. “It can be challenging, in part because of the logistics of food distribution. Scaling doesn’t always mean more financial success. There are lots of factors and moving parts in order to create a supply chain that results in a high-quality product from farm to NYC kitchen, and the costs add up. Produce is fragile and very sensitive to many factors and they can easily get damaged. Delivering produce within NYC is a huge obstacle in itself; traffic jams, closures, rush hour, lack of parking, etc. I’ve seen other food distribution companies try to scale too quickly and then go out of business because the logistics are so detailed, so it’s important find a way to safely scale that guarantees a high quality product, meets the demand of customers, while also keeping the farmer’s best interest in mind.”
Local Roots’ aim is to evolve the traditional CSA model so more people can support farmers and get healthy food. “CSAs are an amazing way to get food. In New York however, we go out to eat a lot and have small kitchens—often in a one person household—so the traditional model is too much food. And commitment is an issue whether it’s traveling in summertime or inability to make a six month commitment. That’s why Local Roots is based on a three month commitment, covering each of the four seasons with orders taken year-round. We’re a one stop shop not just for veggies but also fruit, pasta, fish, cheese, and dairy, all produced within two hours of New York City and sustainably grown.” Other features include convenient pick-up locations throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn in addition to home delivery done on bicycle to keep your carbon footprint minimal.
Ultimately, Wen-Jay is passionate about trying to inspire other small businesses to rethink how they measure success. “You feel like you need to compete how everyone else competes. It’s scary to think outside that box but to change, we need to evolve the way we view success.”