Deb Reynolds was a charismatic entrepreneur, lauded as a visionary in Vancouver's local food scene for connecting area farmers with urban markets. Shortly before her business, The Home Grow-In Grocer Ltd. was declared bankrupt in March, she cut off contact with her associates and investors, who struggled to make sense of it all. The event stunned Vancouver's local food community.
Three months later, it's still unclear what happened to Reynolds or the money she collected from customers and investors, estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. A police investigation is underway, although the officer responsible for the case has not returned Tyee phone calls.
However, those involved in the business, many of whom are farmers, have begun to pick up the pieces. As they proceed with cautious optimism, it's an opportunity to learn from what went wrong, but also carefully track and measure their own progress. They hope to convert hard lessons learned into a solid business model for other local food entrepreneurs.
While Reynold's flagship store, the Home Grow-In Grocer Ltd. was declared bankrupt and closed, two spin-off businesses, the Home Grow-In Buyers Co-op and the Home Grow-In Cambie Market, remained open but in limbo. Just a week after the bankruptcy, farmers and customers met to discuss the possibility of moving forward with what had seemed like such a promising venture.
Recently these ventures have re-branded as the VanValley Buying Club and the Local Fresh Food Market, respectively, and are actively seeking business.
The past is something Jerry Gelderman would rather not dwell on too much. "Our focus is moving forward," says the pork and blueberry farmer from Abbotsford. "We're trying to rise from the ashes."
Grand opening slated for end of June
Gelderman has been chairing meetings of the nine farmers and suppliers who have chosen to remain involved in the Local Fresh Food Market (which remains at the same location on Cambie Street and West 14th Avenue.) He admits that it's been a struggle. "Our energy has been spent transitioning through this," says Gelderman. "We have to decide on the business structure, but our primary focus has been trying to get product in the store and keep it running."
Their struggle has been compounded by the fact that it's been a late growing season; a problem for a store for which importing from California is not an option. "Everything is so far behind, fruits are behind, veggies are behind," says Gelderman, who adds that a grand opening for the store is planned for June 30. The next step is determining a business structure and plan. "We are trying to build a business model that could be replicated," Gelderman says. "That was always the thought process going into this."
Darren Stott is an independent business consultant who worked as the director of purchasing for Spud, and is currently helping another local business enterprise -- New City Market -- develop its business plan. He says he believes there is potential for more of these kinds of local food venture in Vancouver.
"If you look at the growth of the Vancouver Farmers' Market, it's just phenomenal and that's replicated throughout North America," Stott says. "People do want to buy direct, and buy from small-scale producers."
It's one thing to have a great idea, Stott warns, but quite another to pull it off. "In my experience, there's a few people who can get it done, and fewer people who can get it done and make a profit."
Missed warning signals
Regardless of Reynold's intentions, it's evident that there were warning signs and missed opportunities by all involved to check the statements that Reynolds presented as fact (including this reporter who wrote about Reynolds last fall.)
At the post-bankruptcy meeting of customers and suppliers, held March 17, there was a general consensus about how the Home Grow-In Buyers' Club had seemed disorganized: delivery started late, the amount of product in the boxes didn't seem to match with the amount of money that had been paid, and those involved in running the box program were told different figures about how many people had actually signed up and paid. "Deb always inflated the numbers to get people to sign up, make it seem urgent," says Alanna MacLennon, who is now the coordinator of the VanValley Buyers Club.
Which is why she's hesitant to give the number of people who have signed up so far for the new club, only saying that they need "at least 200 more members" to make it work financially.
In addition, some of the farmers and suppliers who invested in Reynolds' Home Grow-In Cambie Market gave her as much as $10,000 to help open the Cambie Street store, without signing shareholder agreements. "It was done very quickly," Loren Taves, one of the investors, told The Tyee in March. "In hindsight, it was a bad business decision."
Stott says "absolutely, making sure you've got something in writing," is a key point, but the very first step should be a business plan. "Even if you can't afford an independent consultant to do a business plan, you can do your own research very easily," he says. It's also important, he says, to research the people you're getting involved with, especially before handing money over. "Do due diligence," he says. "Get third-party verification."
"I think the concept is there, the demand is there," Stott says when asked about the viability of Local Fresh Food Market. "The challenge is, you still have to meet the basics of food price, food quality and good location."
Read more: Local Economy, Food
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