Every Tuesday, 100 Mile Market driver Rob Litwiller leaves Kitchener, Ont., at 6 a.m. with an empty refrigerated cargo van, returning seven hours later laden with chilled meat and just-picked vegetables from nearby farms.
The next day, he's again on the road at 6 a.m., this time to Toronto to deliver what he picked up 24 hours earlier based on orders from restaurants, hotels and small retail grocers with an appetite for fresh, local food. By day's end, he is back in Kitchener for another round of pick-ups and deliveries on Thursdays and Fridays.
Despite the proliferation of farmers' markets and community-based local co-operatives, food industry observers say a dependable link between producers of farm-fresh products and local customers is often lacking. Becoming an efficient middle man is the strategy behind 100 Mile Market Inc., a new Kitchener-based venture.
"There are some fantastic producers out there and there is a big demand for local food, but there is a gap in the middle," says veteran sales and marketing executive Chris McKittrick, co-founder of 100 Mile Market with former tobacco farmer and business professor Albert Knab, and Paul Knechtel, the former president of Knechtel Corp., a family-owned grocery chain sold to Oshawa Group in 1990.
Conceived in 2007, 100 Mile Market has been on a growth spurt since its official launch in January, 2009. This June, the company recorded sales revenue of $100,000 and expects to hit $200,000 by December, according to Mr. McKittrick. The business model – buying from producers and selling to retail clients, all within a 100-mile radius – operates in Toronto and London, Ont., with a Kingston hub to be added shortly.
"These kinds of companies are emerging to address a gap between demand for local food and the delivery of the product," says Queen's University geography professor Betsy Donald. "For the longest time, there was so much pent-up demand [for local food] Farmers were trying to deliver it but they did not have any way of getting it to the consumer."
Rising demand for local food puts 100 Mile Market "in the right spot at the right time," says Rob Hannam, president of Synthesis Agri-Food Network, a Guelph, Ont.-based consulting company.
So far, 100 Mile Market has partnered with more than 135 producers who supply more than 1,400 fresh food products to about 100 clients, including chefs, caterers, and a large Toronto convention centre.
"We are a niche," Mr. Knechtel says. "We aspire to be a big niche. We believe that the local food movement today is where organics were 10 years ago."
Already, 100 Mile Market is starting to get noticed, winning an Ontario government award in May for agri-food innovation. The company now has 13 employees, including a four-person sales staff.
The co-founders have not turned a profit yet, but predict they will by year-end.
At Langdon Hall, an upscale country inn near Kitchener with its own vegetable garden, executive chef Jonathan Gushue once scoured the countryside for top-quality meat, dairy products and vegetables for a menu that sometimes changes twice a day.
As a client of 100 Mile Market for the past year, he now has a new work routine.
"It has allowed me to be in the kitchen where I need to be," says Mr. Gushue who, on one particular day, has orders coming in from 10 different farmers and meat processors from 100 Mile Market.
The arrival of 100 Mile Market is also changing some farm operations.
At Carron Farm in the Holland Marsh area of Ontario, owner Jason Verkaik plans to add new specialty crops, such as purple-topped turnips, heirloom carrots and four new varieties of cabbage, tapping 100 Mile Market's expertise in distribution and marketing. Having a go-between with a variety of restaurant clients allows Mr. Verkaik to focus on his specialty crops without having to worry about maintaining a distribution network for each individual client.
Looking ahead, 100 Mile Market's three co-founders are cooking up plans to extend the business's reach, including a possible deal for local-food kiosks in a grocery chain and special deliveries of preordered produce to Toronto-area homes and offices.