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Matt Raboin shows how Brix Cider, his family’s year-old farm-to-table restaurant in Mount Horeb, Wisconsin, has transformed into a community food hub to provide groceries to about 160 local residents while helping area farmers reach customers. Photo by Matt Raboin

Farm-to-table restaurant steps up as community food hub in pandemic

By Lisa Kivirist

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. But what about when life gives you a COVID-19 pandemic that forces you to close your business doors? Take advice from Marie and Matt Raboin of Brix Cider and pivot, in their case reinventing their cidery and cafe into a regional food hub and community food delivery service.

“We celebrated our first anniversary of Brix on January 31, 2020, and we were one of the first restaurants in Dane County to close due to COVID on March 14, before the Governor’s stay-at-home orders,” said Marie Raboin, who operates the cidery and local food café just west of Madison in Mount Horeb. Up until then, she and her husband, Matt, had successfully navigated that unpredictable first year in business, building a strong reputation of commitment to community, quality ciders, and local food.

Sure, numbers and data should play an important role in running one’s business; however, true entrepreneurs like the Raboins also learn to listen to their heart and intuition. “I remember on that last day the café was open, Friday, March 13, feeling things were weird and wrong. Crowded places like ours would be high risk,” Raboin shared. “We did not want to be a potential new story of outbreak.”

The Raboins made the decision to close after business that night, which meant canceling a popular band scheduled to play the next day that was sure to bring in crowds and profitable cider tap sales. “We could not in good conscience stay open Saturday night when it would be standing-room-only and encouraging crowds.” Raboin remembers going to bed the night they made the decision to close thinking this could be the last time they might make any money for a long time and maybe forever.

Sometimes a good night’s sleep and fresh start the next day can fuel new perspectives. The Raboins and their two young kids spent the following day hiking at a state park and taking some time to step back and rethink things. Amidst the crisp spring air, they formulated the plan to reboot Brix as a regional food hub offering weekly community food delivery and pick-up. By the next day, Sunday, they had the online store up and running and took their first box orders that week.

Food delivery customers can order these locally produced shelf-stable products (and more), bottles of Brix cider, and locally sourced meat, dairy products, eggs, and produce. Photo by Matt Raboin

“For us, it was a natural pivot given our existing relationships with area farmers and having worked in the local food system for years,” explained Raboin. With their established strong commitment to buying from area farms, the Raboins already purchased from over 20 farms locally, which readily provided their supplier base for the online store.

Online Store Start-Up

Building off their existing core farmer base, the Brix online store focuses on key essentials that area folks would need during the stay-at-home orders. From staples like meat from area farms and bread from a local bakery, customers can order exactly what they want with a minimum order of $30. Produce and staples are supplemented via Co-op Partners Warehouse, which can bring in storage crops like parsnips and radishes from Tipi Produce and Organic Valley milk and butter.

Direct Brix sales make up about 10 to 15 percent of total online orders, including bottled cider and frozen cookie dough so customers can bake this café favorite at home. When a business such as Brix quickly reinvents, other elements of the enterprise also need to rapidly evolve. On the cider side, Brix’s profit margins historically have been on-tap sales at the cidery. To accommodate delivery, they can only sell bottles, which adds to production cost.

The ordering system works on a weekly calendar with customers making purchases by noon every Tuesday. The Raboins then place orders with the farmers and vendors, receive the items on Wednesday, and pack boxes and deliver on Thursday. About half the customers pick up on-site with contactless pick-up and the other half receive free delivery within a 10-mile radius of Mount Horeb.

“We quickly learned efficiencies in packing the boxes as this was all new territory for us at first,” recalled Raboin. “The first week, we had 35 orders and it took us 14 hours to pack them up. Now we’re averaging 160 weekly orders and it takes us eight hours.”

Community Commitment

The driving force behind the online store comes from the Raboins’ dedication to their employees, farmer-suppliers, and local community. The new labor required for the delivery model enabled the Raboins to retain employees who wanted to keep working during the pandemic. They also have a commitment to support their farmer suppliers, many of which are also close friends. With most of their farmers already losing business via other restaurant closures, these online sales could help make up for that.

“Before everything COVID happened, restaurants were probably 90% of our meat sales,” said Chloe Dolan. She and her husband, Michael, run Seven Seeds Farm in Spring Green, Wisconsin, a seventh-generation farm raising organic, grass-fed beef, pork, and chicken. “We didn’t have a way to let everyone in the area then know we have these products and they are accessible. Brix has majorly bridged that gap for us. We are able to reach new customers through the visibility and reach they have developed with their restaurant.”

Brix’s commitment to farmers started way before the current COVID crisis. Marie and Matt would approach farms and want to buy what they had a lot of, what they were struggling to sell. “Many chefs will say ‘I want 10 animals worth of bacon’ and nothing else,” Dolan explained. “But at Brix, they came to us and said, ‘How can we help, what do you need us to sell?’ It takes special people to not just recognize what a farmer needs, but also care enough to follow through even when it’s the harder thing to do.”

Additionally, this business reinvention enables Brix to continue in new ways to support their community. “Brix grew to be a community gathering place, somewhere for people to go to connect and be together,” Raboin said. “If we would have just completely shut down, there would be a real gap and folks would have nowhere to go.” Granted, this is a totally different scenario than the café, but the deliveries now still enable people to feel connected to each other and their farmers.

“It is more important than ever to support our local businesses, especially the independent restaurants, farmers, and dairies that do not have big corporate bank accounts to fall back upon,” added Grace McLaughlin, a new online ordering customer. “Buying through Brix helps us strengthen our local food web, reduce pollution, and make sure our small businesses survive. We have run out of our own home-grown organic onions, potatoes, and carrots so it is great to be able to replenish our stocks without the need to visit a large grocery store 25 miles away where much of the produce is shipped from hundreds or thousands of miles away.”

Even with all of these good intentions, the economic side of such a community food delivery service remains a challenge. “If we were to have shut down the whole operation, we would end up in the same financial place that we are now,” mused Raboin. “The bottom line is, most customers still do not want to pay a truly fair price for food and I can only mark things up so much. I can see why food hubs fail.” Committed to fairly paying farmers remains her priority, even if it means hurting her own bottom line.

Looking to the future and the eventual reopening of the primary business of the cidery and café, Raboin plans to survey customers to assess interest in continuing the community food delivery as a secondary income source. In the meantime, a voluntary portal for tips and donations when folks make their online orders significantly aids the cash flow.

Amidst all the uncertainty, the Raboins still prioritize fun with a twist of creative marketing as they support fellow farmers. Their latest brew bears the name “QuaranTEAn,” uniquely brewed with Dream Tea from Sacred Blossom Farm in Mondovi, Wisconsin.

To learn more about Brix Cider and see their community food delivery set-up, see brixcider.com.

Lisa Kivirist manages the MOSES In Her Boots project. She is the author of several books, including her latest, Homemade for Sale, about crafting and selling farm-fresh food under cottage food laws.

 

From the May| June 2020 Issue

 

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