Last year we highlighted LINC Foods’ work with Gonzaga University to overcome logistics challenges in order to get local produce into university dining halls. We’re big fans of LINC’s work, not just because they’re a Local Orbit customer – but because co-founders Joel Williamson and Beth Robinette are resourceful entrepreneurs who are developing one of the most innovative food hub business models in the country.
The New Food Economy published an inspiring story about LINC’s work within the Spokane foodshed to build “the infrastructure for truly local beer.” It quotes Carl Sagan: “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” — an on-point analogy for what we’re seeing across local food chains, and the kind of vision and effort it takes to change the way communities eat.
Local beer takes more than a taproom. Just as bakers need flour for bread, brewers need malted grains to brew. The problem is there’s a scarcity of local malthouses—the facilities that germinate grains, so brewers can use the starch to feed fermentation. If you want to make truly local beer, don’t start a brewery. You’d better get busy and build a malthouse.
Here’s an excerpt that focuses on the beginnings of LINC’s distribution business – and their continuing process of asking questions, bootstrapping, learning, experimenting and evolving.
Farming is a way of life in many areas outside the city of Spokane. But here, as is the case in much of rural America, there is very little connection between what people grow and what they eat.
“I drove through seven miles of wheat hills to go to school,” says Beth Robinette, co-founder of LINC Foods, a worker- and farmer-owned for-profit that distributes everything from carrots to meat. And yet she remembers how astonished she was that, despite the fields she passed every morning, she could not get local flour in the grocery store.
Today, LINC Foods, which stands for Local Inland Northwest Cooperative, is in the malting business—but that came about almost by accident. It happened because Robinette met her business partner, Joel Williamson, through their shared interest in social change, which led each of them to the Bainbridge Graduate Institute in Seattle. As they finished their education, they decided to tackle something together in Spokane.
A city council member got a group of people together to investigate how local foods could drive the local economy. There was talk of forming a food policy council. Gonzaga University held a meeting with farmers, and the two were invited to that too, because they were gaining a reputation for being experts in the field, even if their expertise was mostly curiosity.
“We started asking what problems food servers and farmers were having,” Robinette says. She and Williamson thought about forming a cooperative business to help thread the food from farm to institutions and other potential buyers. They decided a small farms conference would be a good place to test the idea. At a lunchtime break during a small farms conference, they announced a meeting of their own, and at the end of a very long day, 35 farmers came to talk and listen.
“We thought that was a good indication that we should do this,” says Williamson. He and Robinette took the most interested farmers and got serious, figuring out what kinds of services to provide growers and buyers. They formed a board and incorporated as a co-op in August 2014.
The early stages were just filling up a Scion in a parking lot with produce, and helping to distribute it, figuring out how to overcome the barriers Gonzaga had for procurement, and seeing what public school districts could purchase.
“We were scrambling, trying to find supply for the demand we had, or meet demand for the supply we had. We learned a lot about what else we needed to do. Learning by doing is painful but it works,” he says.
Soon, LINC Foods started working out of the local food bank, which offered it access to cold storage for free. The food bank appreciated their effort, and had some extra space, so they set some ground rules for collaboration, and the cooperative relied on their infrastructure for two years.
In the meantime, the founders were still busy accumulating knowledge and tools, and were enrolled in a program at the University of Washington in Seattle, the Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship’s Jones & Foster Accelerator. This intensive mentoring process had a prize of $25,000 for completion. The cash was very alluring, an amount that could address the need for their own warehouse space and delivery truck. But the process itself proved at least as useful because that’s where they came up with the idea for the malthouse.
The accelerator forced them to get realistic about business plans. They saw they’d have to pad the financials to support the enterprise through what they predicted would be five lean years. Doing some type of food processing seemed like the way to add value to operations, but once they looked into processing carrots into baby carrots or coins for institutions, or making berries into jams, they realized the equipment was too expensive and the margins were too thin. Williamson, however, happened to be a home brewer. And they were surrounded by all that grain, so how about malting? The potential profits for malt were more attractive. And the panel of mentors at Jones & Foster loved the idea.
Less than a year after they’d incorporated the cooperative, the two went to their membership and proposed starting a malthouse. The idea was received with some skepticism. How would malt serve the cooperative, whose members were mostly growing fruits and vegetables? And did a startup—already precarious—really need another startup stacked on top? Robinette and Williamson were able to state their logical case, and began pursuing the secondary enterprise: a malthouse called Palouse Pint.
Also published on Medium.