December 21, 2018 Jeff Smith, Communications Director
All photos copyright Taste the Local Difference
Today marks one of the biggest days in the history of Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities, an occasion when we are announcing the sale of our local food marketing company, Taste the Local Difference, to the venture capital firm Boomerang Catapult. The sale means TLD – and its talented CEO Tricia Phelps – will have access to the capital and business management expertise needed to expand the company across the state and nation within the rapidly growing movement of sourcing food locally.
“We worked incredibly hard with the crucial support of countless people over the years to grow and strengthen TLD. For a nonprofit to start and incubate a program that becomes viable in the marketplace is something really special, something to celebrate,” says Groundwork Executive Director Hans Voss. “We’ve always been a creator of ideas, and here’s one of our very best ideas taking off. Boomerang Catapult has an impressive track record of success, and I am confident TLD will thrive in this new structure. I couldn’t be happier for Tricia and TLD – and ultimately for all the farmers and food entrepreneurs who will benefit from TLD’s success.”
TLD’s roots go back 17 years, to when Groundwork (Michigan Land Use Institute at the time) published a report titled The New Entrepreneurial Agriculture: A Key Piece of the Farmland Protection Puzzle. The premise was that farmers, farmland, and the rural landscape we love were at risk of disappearing because developers could pay farmers more for their land than farmers could earn through the limited market options available at the time – largely bulk, global commodity markets that provided untenably low prices to farms.
We used our communications expertise to elevate a trend emerging across the country: small farmers were pursuing an entrepreneurial way of doing business that also provided health, quality of life, and economic benefits to communities. A pillar of the strategy was growing a more diverse set of crops and selling to local consumers. We now call that way of business “the local food movement.”
In the early aughts, the New Entrepreneurial Agriculture idea was nearly radical (even though it was how farming had long been done in the past), and looking back at it, the Groundwork team’s vision seems stunningly prescient as local food has become the hottest food trend in the nation.
Also prescient, the Groundwork team saw that for a local food movement to thrive, a key piece of system infrastructure was needed: marketing services for local food producers. Such an innovation would serve farmers and small food entrepreneurs, who were expert at growing and creating great food but weren’t visible to buyers like grocery stores, hospitals, schools, and everyday consumers, explains Diane Conners, who was involved in TLD in the early days and today is senior policy specialist at Groundwork. “Remember,” Conners says, “in 2000 you could probably count on one hand the restaurants that touted locally grown radishes or beef on their menu, and there wasn’t a school anywhere that was purchasing from a local farmer.”
Groundwork created what was essentially a marketing agency and named it Taste the Local Difference. The first project, launched in 2004, was straightforward and useful, a directory of farmers that showed what they grew and where they were located. “We created a master list of farmers and I called every single one in our original five-county area,” recalls Conners.
Over the years, TLD services expanded to include both hardcopy and online directories of farmers and producers, marketing consultation, market tests, surveys, brand development, brand awareness, and directly connecting producers to markets. Many people within the northern Michigan food and farming scene credit TLD for being central to creating one of the strongest, most vibrant local food economies in the nation, despite the area’s small year-round population.
“Today, TLD’s core local food marketing mission is unchanged,” explains Phelps, who joined TLD in 2014 and was promoted to CEO in 2017. “The strength and legitimacy of that mission is what has led to TLD’s expansion in Michigan in recent years, including into 47 counties in southeast Michigan, northeast Michigan and the Upper Peninsula.” The company has also built an enduring reputation as an innovator and leader in the marketing of local foods.
Phelps often meets with farmers and talks through their business fundamentals. What are they already doing well? How would they like to grow? What are the possible end markets? “If they want a larger direct-to-consumer base, I’d talk about how to push out brands on social media and through blogs,” Phelps says. If it’s the retail market the farmer wants to sell in, Phelps makes those calls to open doors.
“What TLD has done is legitimize the farm-to-table movement. I don’t have to work going in the door into these restaurants and businesses anymore,” says Doug Paulus, of Kammer-Paulus Farm, in Onaway. “Before I’d have to do all the legwork, the explanations, the whole sales pitch about why buying local made sense, and then pitch my own farm. Now, I only need to go out and find the right fit.” His sales numbers affirm the message: the farm has doubled sales for two years in a row.
As a testament to the strength of the TLD concept and respect it commands in the market, Phelps receives dozens of phone calls and emails each year from people asking that TLD offer services in their area, including from consumers, farmers, and other producers. “I think it’s important to expand organically,” she says. “I wouldn’t enter a new market without multiple unsolicited requests from different stakeholders.”
TLD refers to the people it does business with as partners, and in 2015 the company had 644 partners. Today, TLD has more than 1,750. That kind of rapid growth—growth that tracks the surging local food movement in Michigan – illustrates why Groundwork concluded it was the time to sell TLD. To take advantage of the rapidly expanding local food market, TLD must be positioned for growth. It needs capital for personnel and technology. The management team needs direct access to more traditional for-profit business expertise and mentorship.
“Groundwork is great at starting things and moving them forward,” says Casey Cowell, Founder of Boomerang Catapult. “It’s very effective at that, and they started up TLD, but now the concept is proven, and the next step is determining how to scale.” Helping companies rapidly expand is precisely Boomerang’s expertise.
Groundwork Board Chair Roger Newton says, “From the very beginning when I learned of TLD and its mission, I envisioned that educating the public about the importance of local food from the standpoint of having higher nutritional value and being affordable for all was a terrific idea. And the TLD directories would provide a means for local farmers to work more easily with one another, collaborating to grow and deliver healthy local food. The possibility of seeing TLD expanding to different localities across Michigan and the greater Midwest now can become a reality with the financial and business guidance and support of Boomerang Catapult.”
Not surprisingly, as TLD fully immerses in the for-profit culture of a venture capital firm, the focus will be on growth. An important piece of the strategy will be using the web to increase reach and efficiency and help food entrepreneurs sell direct. “Once we assess that and make a plan and test it, we will look at how to roll that out regionally,” Cowell says. After that, the plan will likely involve taking the TLD approach and packaging it for other parts of the country. “Many areas are ripe for this.”
As Phelps contemplates the days ahead and the value that TLD brings to the market and to the world at large, she pauses and thinks for a moment. “There’s another thing,” she says. “The natural beauty of this area is so important to our quality of life … we won’t have the rolling hills and farmland without successful farmers. That’s our goal, to help farmers and food entrepreneurs build successful, well-connected and thoughtful businesses.” The value she expresses goes straight back 17 years to the tagline on The New Entrepreneurial Agriculture report … “A Key Piece of the Farmland Protection Puzzle.”
When Voss pauses a moment to think about TLD in the broader scheme, he, too, emphasizes the importance of authenticity and mission. “TLD is a company built on supporting growers and strengthening local food systems. That’s inspiring. That’s creating real value for people and communities. Our world needs more of these kind of mission-based companies.”