A couple of years ago, a data nerd and consultant-turned-small farmer named Julia Niiro was in New Orleans, drinking whiskey with her mentor. She was explaining her latest project to him: Let Um Eat, an idealistic (now disbanded) Oregon food collective that threw farm dinners as a way to connect “seeders, feeders and eaters.”
“He told me, ‘Let Um Eat’s kinda squishy, huh?’” she remembers. “I said what do you mean? He said, ‘Connecting seeders, feeders, and eaters—kinda squishy. Nice idea, but squishy. Don’t you wanna do something that actually makes a difference?’”
Niiro took that comment as a challenge. The result: Last month, she quietly launched a Portland food delivery system called MilkRun, a startup that gathers food from local farmers and artisans and delivers it straight to those eaters’ front doors. Think of it like a CSA or a version of Blue Apron or HelloFresh, only hyperlocal.
And unlike CSAs and Silicon Valley-based apps, users choose what they want each week. There’s no minimum order, you order what you want when you want it and there’s never a delivery charge.
So how come you’ve never heard of it?
“A year ago, I approached all of these farmers and suppliers, and said, ‘Hey can I put your name on a list and get milk from you, Garry [of Garry’s Meadow Fresh Jersey Milk], and deliver it to 10 school teachers each week to see where this goes?’” she says. Back then, everything was handled on paper and via Venmo.
Those Portland teachers liked this new arrangement. They sang MilkRun’s praises to other teachers who in turn told their friends who, in turn—you get the idea. Now that it’s proven doable—MilkRun now serves 500 users—Niiro’s ready to take her project public.
In addition to Garry’s milk, new users can choose between a wide variety of edibles and drinkables, from Chicken Scratch Farm free-range eggs, Smith Teas, DeNoble Farms carrots and baked-that-morning-bread to Lion Heart kombucha, Rucksack coffee and sausages, chuck roasts and ground beef made from grass-grazed cows living on Niiro’s own farm, Revel Farm, and processed at Revel Meat Co., the meat-packing facility run by her fiancé, James Serlin (Revel's also co-owned by Old Salt's Ben Meyer.)
All you need to do is make your order by 7 p.m. on any given Monday, put out an ice-packed cooler on your front steps on Thursday morning and sometime between 7 a.m. and 2 p.m., your food will arrive. Arrangements can be made for porchless apartment-dwellers.
So how’s Niiro making all of this work? By being her own middleman. When that mentor suggested she research why other delivery start-ups were failing, she discovered that it was because they were spending 80 percent of their operational costs on packaging California produce in fancy boxes and then paying to have those boxes shipped to Iowa, Louisiana, or New York.
And since Revel Meat Co. already has delivery drivers on the road on Thursdays, she asked herself, why not have them make a few additional stops to individual Milk Run users—a scheme that also happens to keep MilkRun’s product line affordable.
“Our goal is to build an experience for both the supplier and the customer so we can match people in local communities based on their needs,” says Niiro.
That’s definitely not squishy. Crunchy, maybe, but not squishy.