When College of the Atlantic senior Grace Burchard graduates this weekend, she won’t immediately start looking for job opportunities. Instead she’ll be working to grow a startup business that she and COA sophomore Anita van Dam have gotten off the ground this year.
Their business [Re]Produce aims to purchase surplus or imperfect produce grown on local farms that otherwise would be put towards compost or animal feed and process the produce so it can be frozen and sold to food retailers in Portland.
“What we want to try and match is basically what the farmers have excess of and what there is demand for,” van Dam said. “It’s something to really help the community all around.”
Van Dam developed the idea for the startup this fall while taking a COA course called Sustainable Strategies, which helps businesses come up with solutions to sustainability questions. In this course, Burchard partnered with van Dam to take the idea for [Re]Produce to the Maine Food Systems Innovation Challenge at Bowdoin College, where they won first place in November 2016.
Most recently, van Dam and Burchard won the UMaine Business Challenge, an annual business competition where participants compete in pitching their startup to win a package of in kind services that will help them develop their business.
“It’s been great for us because each competition has come with people who can actually help us,” van Dam said.
Burchard and van Dam beat out 45 other participants to win the sixth annual business challenge, securing $5,000 in cash for their business as well as marketing, networking and business plan consulting services.
At COA, van Dam and Burchard are finishing up a 10 week intensive program in the school’s business incubator, The Hatchery. In this program they have been able to talk to business and food system experts to better inform their business, as well as develop working prototypes for their business. Between the support of their professors at COA, and the connections they’ve made through winning the two business competitions, van Dam and Burchard said the experiences have been invaluable in getting their business off the ground.
“Everyone has been super helpful and super supportive which has been amazing,” Burchard said. “That’s just widening our network and the possible people we can get support from.”
Recently the two have been working to develop relations with farmers who they can source surplus or imperfect produce from. They said the reception from farmers has been positive and that they are excited to have an avenue for any excess produce they have while being compensated for it.
For their prototypes, van Dam and Burchard partnered with Jordan Farm in Cape Elizabeth, where they were able to secure 150 pounds total of squash, potatoes and carrots which they then processed and turned into an example of the packaged, frozen vegetables they hope to market as soon as this fall.
With the societal interest in local food constantly growing, van Dam and Burchard are hopeful that by taking food that would otherwise not be marketed, they can help expand access to locally grown produce. By processing and freezing the produce, they are also aiming to have local produce available year round in the freezer section of food retailers.
The two women have identified millennials as their target audience, citing the concentrated interest for local food they’ve seen among their peers. To reach this audience they are planning to focus [Re]Produce in Portland, sourcing from farms in southern Maine and selling at Portland food retailers. Burchard and van Dam have a verbal agreement with the Portland Food Co-op to do a soft roll out of [Re]Produce products this fall.
Over the summer, the two will be working to secure more farmers to source from and retailers willing to sell their products. While their initial plan is to focus in Portland, as their business idea has grown over the last year, they are hopeful that the future reach of their business is able to grow as well.
“Our initial goal was to reduce food waste in Maine, but as we developed the idea we realized we wanted to increase local access to food and help local farmers,” van Dam said. “If our idea works out […] we want to expand to additional areas.”