The Neighborhood Harvest delivers on its promise to deliver and disrupt

August 13, 2020

Other News

Don’t call John Stein a disruptor. Those who know him best describe Stein as a gentle soul who avoids self-promotion and harsh words. The Baker’s Crust and Neighborhood Harvest CEO they see is always ready to rally behind an innovative food product or service that makes money while making a difference. Mistaking his edge-free persona for passivity could be written off as small-picture thinking.

Stein co-founded The Neighborhood Harvest in 2015 with Thomas Vandiver, a former William & Mary Raymond A. Mason School of Business student, and Baker’s Crust chief financial officer, Eric Coble.

The idea to form a company sprouted from a breakout session during a Sustainability/Green Supply Chain class taught by Stein and Coble. Vandiver was Stein’s student. Their big idea, a greenhouse that lets sunlight in and allows basil to grow hydroponically year-round, got Vandiver a good grade and two great business partners.

In the beginning there was basil. Simple and sustainable. Stein and his partners were hooked.

They named the company Smart Basil LLC and built an 18,000-square-foot greenhouse in Suffolk selling hydroponic basil to Sysco, supplying local restaurants and food service.

Their basil business boomed until the market tanked due to a shift in import and trade laws.
The company responded by selling hydroponic micro-greens and lettuces to grocery stores where their products became part of the national supply chain.

Stephanie Fowler is director of public relations and marketing for The Neighborhood Harvest. According to Fowler, the grocery store path was neither optimal or aligned with their mission. “Seeing our greens, greens that were fresh and gorgeous when we harvested them in our greenhouse, looking lackluster in the grocery store coolers, was a bit of a disconnect. In that equation, you just can’t control what the delivery conditions are like or how long your product sits on a shelf. That’s when we stepped outside the national supply chain to reach our customers directly through the regional food shed. Remember the romaine lettuce scares?” says Fowler. “This model insulates us from crops that are affected by those conditions.”

At the intersection of the trend toward home delivery and community supported agriculture, Smart Basil became The Neighborhood Harvest.

If Stein wouldn’t choose disruptor to describe his impact, what would he call The Neighborhood Harvest?

“I would say that The Neighborhood Harvest is a contributor to the local food shed, positioned to become a household name. We deliver an expanding list of products including nutritious, freshly harvested local lettuce and microgreens. I think of us more like a partner who forged relationships with local farmers and small businesses that produce, grow and prepare top-quality food items within our local community and throughout the state.”

When Pandemic 2020 hit and quarantine life stuck, The Neighborhood Harvest leveled up as a first responder to meet the increased need for meal delivery through its Virginia Beach-based Harvest Kitchen. This arm of the business was already crafting house-made snacks, appetizers, and quick meal solutions for delivery to its customers. As many area restaurants were closing, Stein turned to beloved chef Andrea Di Carlo, known from the original La Bella Italia restaurant, to create classic savory sauces and Italian dishes such as spinach lasagna, eggplant parmesan, and chicken parmesan. With this move, The Neighborhood Harvest succeeded in taking worry off the table and gave customers around Tidewater, and up to Richmond, the opportunity to order prepared foods, grocery items, and their favorite Italian meal ­with the peace of mind in knowing everything was safely grown, prepared, handled, and delivered.

The Neighborhood Harvest became “The Farmer’s Market Delivered to your Door” and “Your Favorite Italian Restaurant Delivered to Your Door.”

The Neighborhood Harvest is leaving its tracks all over Virginia for customers seeking products sourced responsibly, and meals prepared and delivered fast and fresh. “Whatever we do, we source the best quality vegetables and meats, and ingredients we can find, some of which we grow ourselves,” says Fowler. The expanding list of farmers’ market items include local milk, organic produce, grass-fed beef, pasture-raised meats and eggs, hydroponic lettuces and fresh-baked bread from local bread partner Baker’s Crust.

Last month, Jewish News and Stephanie Fowler of The Neighborhood Harvest spoke.

Jewish News: What have you learned about customers? What unique need do you fill? Who is your dream customer?
Neighborhood Harvest: Early on we identified our ‘recurring’ regular customers as people who love Farmers Markets and people of all ages who care about what they eat and take good care of themselves. Our customer understands that their favorite thing at the FM might not be there every time they go because this is a seasonal market. We also appeal to people with specific nutritional needs who want to know the source and stories behind the food. Most often, our customers value convenience. And as you advance in age, or in your career, it’s harder to get out and get to every single market. That’s where we come in. We go to the Farmer’s Markets and love meeting other vendors and farmers who become our partners.

JN: What sets TNH apart from Hello Fresh or other delivery services?
NH: The only thing we have in common with other delivery services is wheels!! Our harvest to delivery is a day or two, much faster than grocery store chains. That’s how we ensure the freshest product possible. You know exactly where your food came from and how long it’s been sitting. When you get other products, you have no clue how long it’s been sitting on the shelf. You may pay $1 more for a bag of our lettuce but it’s entirely possible it will last for two weeks in your fridge and still be crisp and crunchy.

Even our delivery is different. Your food is delivered to your neighborhood in bags with your name on it. Everything has been hand-counted just for you. We hear all the time how helpful our customer service people are when people are trying to navigate the new dishes and the seasonal produce. A huge part of our business is keeping customers motivated as we grow. One very strong engagement tool on social media is fast-motion videos featuring healthy ingredients to prepare salsa, salads, and lightning-fast lunches.

JN: If John Stein were a Netflix original, what genre would best describe him? What about Thomas Vandiver? Comedy? Romance? Drama? Adventure? Horror? Science Fiction?
NH: “John is definitely an adventure story with a central character who is a romantic at heart. He’s both spun up and laid back, kind of like a quirky Matthew McConaughey character. Maybe with a little Woody Harrelson thrown in. Thomas is an action film with a down-to-earth, but sarcastic central character, like someone Mark Wahlberg would bring to life. Practical, too and yet he’s still so young. Both have vision. John is the big-idea guy with industry expertise. Thomas is hands-on, sets goals, and executes. In real life, they’re very complementary characters.

JN: What’s next? What special needs you hope to fill for people seeking organic, healthy and freshly prepared food?
NH: One unique response on our part has been developing the Harvest Kitchen in Virginia Beach. Right now customers can order many of the classic dishes chef Andrea made popular at La Bella. We are also working on Mexican dishes like chicken enchiladas and Mexican rice. On our FB feed, we get a lot of requests for vegetarian and vegan meals and are excited to meet that demand.

Seafood is our next big category. The coastal area is ideal so we’re working on ways to bring the freshest, healthiest fish sourced responsibly. We’re still perfecting details like packaging. Salmon is first on the list. It should be ready by fall 2020.
John Stein’s roots as a culinary trailblazer date back to 1993, when research led him to meet with wheat farmers in preparation for his first mission-driven partnership. Together with a French pastry chef, he conceived the first Baker’s Crust, located at Hilltop in Virginia Beach, fusing a high-end deli/cafe with a rustic European style bread market, thus introducing artisanal breads and pastries to the local market. Breaking bread in true European fashion lured local diners, top chefs and restaurateurs, ushering the kind of growth that led to multiple locations, while surviving several zigs and zags along the way.

“At first, I didn’t love that word.” says Stein, referring to the disruptor label. “But disruption of the national food chain is exactly what we do.”

- Lisa Richmon

Letter to the Editor