Beyond Produce: Other Edible CSAs Bring Mixed Results

by Sarah Henry on April 22, 2011 · 30 comments

in baking,berkeley bites,farmers' markets,food businesses,sfgate site

Would you buy a box of bread, cheese, chocolate, wine, olive oil or jam from a local artisan on a regular basis?

In Berkeley and beyond, budding food producers are incorporating the community food model in their business plans. But they are having mixed success. Indeed, whether this concept can become financially feasible outside of the fruit and vegetable box remains to be seen.

“The jury is still out on if this is sustainable, long term,” said Cindy Tsai Schultz, co-founder of Fresh Bite, a baked goods start-up that began with a community supported approach, but has since put the idea on hold.

Community supported food began with CSAs or Community Supported Agriculture, which has proven mutually beneficial for farmers and consumers. It’s a popular way to buy local, seasonal, organic, sustainable vegetables, fruits, and herbs directly from a small-scale farmer through a subscription or membership system, and it offers a direct connection between producer and purchaser. From an economic standpoint, a CSA provides growers with upfront funds and a known demand, an important buffer in the risky and unpredictable business of farming. (Subscribers pay a regular weekly fee, typically in the $20-$55 range, depending on the size and mix of the box.)

Full Belly Farm was one of the first farms to offer a CSA in Berkeley. Another farmers’ market regular, Riverdog Farm, also offers a subscription veggie box program. Eatwell Farm and Terra Firma Farm are also popular CSA programs offering weekly pick-up at central locations. Capay Organic Farm (whose CSA is known as Farm Fresh to You) delivers to your door.

Other perishable CSA purveyors include Soul Food Farm (chicken and eggs), Marin Sun Farms (meat) and Massa Organics (rice), which partners with produce CSAs to provide its products.  Bellwether Farms and Cowgirl Creamery have cheese clubs, which essentially work in a similar way to CSAs. (Find a long list of CSAs that deliver around town here.) Berkeley also boasts the community supported kitchen Three Stone Hearth.

But a review of recent start-up community supported food initiatives reveals the challenges of making such a model cost-effective.

Pandora’s Box, a community supported bread seller, had short but sweet success before calling it a day. Fresh Bite began as a baked-good community supported business, but quickly morphed into providing complete meals, following consumer demand.

Cindy Tsai Schultz and Terry Betts of Fresh Bites.

The new business is the brainchild of two moms, friends Terry Betts and Cindy Tsai Schultz, who have six kids between them and so know just how challenging it can be to get a healthy dinner on the table. But building a membership base proved too onerous for the nascent company, which opted to put the weekly subscription on hiatus to concentrate on its wholesale line of baked goods, available at Monterey Market and Star Grocery. Their seasonal, savory and sweet eats will also be available at the new farmers’ market opening in May on Wednesdays at San Pablo and Solano Avenues.

Another local business that tried a community supported element up until recently was The Xocolate Bar store on Solano Avenue, where once-a-month members received handmade chocolates and truffles featuring seasonable, sustainable organic ingredients. The effort has also been discontinued. “Even in Berkeley there’s still a lot of education you have to do with eaters around a subscription,” said Malena Lopez-Maggi, co-owner of the chocolate shop. “It’s a really hard sell. I’d suggest other businesses interested in this kind of model partner with an existing CSA instead of starting their own.”

Some local businesses have made the model work. At Vintage Berkeley, wine buffs can walk in and pick up a monthly six-pack (six mostly red wines for $60), curated by owner Peter Eastlake and Vine Street store manager Brent Fraker. A more traditional subscription wine club is also available, and the store has about 200 wine lovers signed up, which helps the staff negotiate better rates with wine distributors. And in a new, symbiotic relationship, Vintage on Vine Street has just begun serving as the East Bay CSA pick-up spot for the Fatted Calf Charcuterie.  “We just figured it was a good fit,” said Fraker. “People who like artisan salumi, duck confit, and pork terrine are probably going to want to drink some wine with their meat. It’s working out really well.”

Dafna Kory, maker of the popular preserves INNA jam says that 25-30% of her business comes from people who sign up for her seasonal subscription (starting at $60 for six jars). Kory, like others who provide this option to their customers, likes to include something special for folks on her subscription list, this spring it’s a limited edition organic kiwi jam. “When it works, the community supported model can really help you plan and grow your company,” Kory said. “It’s an important part of my business and it’s a show of support from customers who invest in you when you need it most.”

This post originally appeared on Berkeleyside and was cross posted on SFGate.

You might also like:

Jam Maker Dafna Kory Turns Hobby Into Thriving Business
Q&A With Locavore Jessica Prentice of Three Stone Hearth
Urban Homesteader Challenges City on Sale of Edibles

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{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

Diane {Created by Diane} April 22, 2011 at 9:06 pm

I will have to look into the csa box more in my area.
Looking forward to seeing you at campblogaway!


Sarah Henry April 23, 2011 at 8:15 am

Nice to see you here, Diane, and I look forward to meeting you next weekend too.


nancy Olin Heldt April 23, 2011 at 8:43 am

If you haven’t already check out Pop Up General Store: Founded by Christopher Lee and Samin Nosrat, Pop-Up General Store is a group of professional cooks {nearly all of them current or former Chez Panisse cooks} making the foods they love to eat. They Pop-Up every two or three weeks so that you can get your hands on some.


Sarah Henry April 24, 2011 at 6:30 am

Hi Nancy,

Yep, have both been to and written about the Pop-Up General Store, which you can read about right here:


Elliot April 23, 2011 at 11:12 pm

I think as far as concept the subscription based food model (pertaining to healthy food) is a mixed bag. On the upside, it helps the local economy and cultivates healthy eating. But on the downside, the food is very expensive (for the common American) and it is largely overlooked because of that. A perfect balance would be amazing, and would attract lots of business, a food revolution of sorts.


Sarah Henry April 24, 2011 at 6:32 am

Nice to see you here, Elliot, and you raise valid points about some of the obstacles for making this model work beyond the produce box.


NoPotCooking April 26, 2011 at 7:09 am

I think it’s an interesting idea, but it requires people to change how they think about cooking. It no longer is “what do I feel like making?” but “What do I have I can use?”
NoPotCooking´s last [type] ..Chicken with Polenta and Spinach


Sarah Henry April 26, 2011 at 7:28 am

Really good point, NPC. I actually like to look and see what’s in the fridge and pantry and what I might be able to concoct, but that’s not how all home cooks like to roll.


Sheryl April 26, 2011 at 7:10 am

I like the concept and the idea of supporting the local community. Whether or not I’d do it would depend on a few factors like price, consistent quality and availability. But if it helped make my life easier (and healthier), that would be a very big draw.


Sarah Henry April 27, 2011 at 9:33 am

Good points, all Sheryl.


Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart April 26, 2011 at 7:44 am

Boy, you really want to see operations like this succeed, but I can see how it would be a tough go … especially in this economy. I know some folks who tried the CSA thing with fruits and veggies, but after not too long, even that couldn’t survive here in Colorado.

A childhood friend’s son is starting a little CSA. They home school, and he has this whole plan. It’ll be neat to see how he does.


Sarah Henry April 27, 2011 at 9:34 am

Keep me posted, Roxanne. I’m all for these edible entrepreneurs finding their niche and making a decent living.


Ruth Pennebaker April 27, 2011 at 6:55 am

I love the idea of this, but think it would be hard for disorganized types like my husband and me to plan well enough to take advantage of it.
Ruth Pennebaker´s last [type] ..Reading is Ruining My Life


Sarah Henry April 27, 2011 at 9:34 am

That’s honest of you, Ruth, and quite possibly how a lot of folks feel.


Jennifer Margulis April 27, 2011 at 8:08 am

I love their idea. If they bring it to Oregon, I would definitely sign up!!


Sarah Henry April 27, 2011 at 9:35 am

Assuming loads of regular CSAs in Oregon, right, Jennifer? What kind of other food artisans would you be willing to support this way?


Alexandra April 27, 2011 at 9:07 am

Interesting post! Here on Cape Cod, fish csa is an option. I did not sign up because I shop at the local fish store in summer and like to patronize it. I wanted to sign up for the veggie one, but they are all in another part of the Cape and I cannot fight traffic to pick up.
Alexandra´s last [type] ..Oyster Shells &amp Defeat of Article to Prevent McMansions


Sarah Henry April 27, 2011 at 9:36 am

Convenience and old-fashioned customer interaction, as you note here, Sandy, are two factors folks weigh up in signing on (or not) to such things. I think a fish CSA is super cool and know there have been mixed results in CA with this model too.


Susan April 27, 2011 at 10:36 am

It’s not local per se, but for awhile I subscribed to the monthly Tasting Box from Each month, they choose six products to feature from their pool of small artisan food producers. You also get a map showing where in the country your items come from and sometimes they enclose recipe suggestions. I think that model is a great way for small producers to gain exposure even if they can’t get a critical mass from the local community.


Sarah Henry April 27, 2011 at 2:32 pm

Hi Susan, thanks for letting me know about the tasting box, which I hadn’t heard of. Interested folks can learn more here:
Curious to hear what kinds of artisan goodies you received.


MyKidsEatSquid April 27, 2011 at 12:46 pm

Like others, I’m wondering about pricing. It seems like food in general is getting more expensive. Do any of these CSAs have wiggle room with their pricing–I guess I’m wondering if they’re going to raise their prices as the costs for all goods are increasing?


Sarah Henry April 27, 2011 at 1:46 pm

The cost of food certainly in the news a lot these days, it’s true, and that may explain why some of these specialty community supported food models didn’t fly. But then some are doing quite well, so I’m sure there’s more to it than straight economics.


Casey@Good. Food. Stories. April 27, 2011 at 6:01 pm

If these out-of-the-box CSAs can’t make it in the Bay Area, I wonder how they would ever find success in other parts of the country. I know there are artisanal ice cream memberships in my area, but the price is so prohibitive… of course, I just make my own.
Casey@Good. Food. Stories.´s last [type] ..Happy Birthday- Bakery- One Year in Business


Sarah Henry April 27, 2011 at 6:28 pm

An artisanal ice cream membership? Wow, remind me again exactly where you live, Casey?


Stacy (Little Blue Hen) May 3, 2011 at 9:10 am

My CSA (which, as Sarah knows, I adore) just got chickens and is preparing to add on an optional egg share I’m excited about, and you can pay online to add the farm’s jam to your share from time to time. Added-value items I could get behind, but most other products you mentioned don’t get used up fast enough at our house to justify a subscription. The CSA tried a partnership with a local tea shop last year, and while I like the company, I don’t drink that much tea.
Stacy (Little Blue Hen)´s last [type] ..weekend in brief and the cookbook winner!


Sarah Henry May 3, 2011 at 10:31 am

Hi, Stacy, thanks for chiming in and sharing your own experience with a CSA. Makes sense in terms of the add-on products, you really want to buy items that you use on a regular basis to make it worthwhile.


Jane Boursaw May 4, 2011 at 4:10 pm

I think it’s a great idea. I mean, it really goes back to the Olde World notions of sharing sourdough starter and helping each other thresh wheat. It’s time we got back to those methods of shared sustainability.
Jane Boursaw´s last [type] ..Three Osama Bin Laden Movies Already in the Works


Sarah Henry May 7, 2011 at 11:11 pm

It seems to be an increasingly popular concept, Jane, shared sustainability, that is.


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