80 Acres Farms Launches Curbside Pickup as Demand Soars Because of Coronavirus

Retail sales of 80 Acres Farms produce is up more than 300% at grocery stores, and the startup is launching curbside pickup outside its indoor farms in Cincinnati and Hamilton because of requests from nearby consumers who are hunkering down during the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, the Hamilton-based company’s food service side of the business is down significantly because of the closure or limited operations of area restaurants, which are adhering to Gov. Mike DeWine’s shutdown order aimed at limiting the spread of the respiratory illness.

Despite that, “our total business has more than doubled,” CEO Mike Zelkind said. “We are planting more, seeding more – trying to push up capacity because there is such tremendous retail demand. We are totally selling out for retail.”

Zelkind declined to disclose revenue for the privately held firm, which is deemed an essential business and remains open as a food provider.

80 Acres produce – which includes a variety of lettuce, basil and other herbs, microgreens, cucumbers and tomatoes – is sold at local stores, including some Kroger locations as well as Whole Foods, Clifton Market, Jungle Jim’s, Dorothy Lane outlets in Dayton and Giant Eagle stores throughout Ohio.

In addition, 80 Acres products can be ordered for home delivery via the Whole Foods app – if the produce is in stock.

For those close to the farms, 80 Acres has begun offering curbside pickup called Veg Out, which is available twice a week: 4-6 p.m. Fridays and noon-2 p.m. Sundays. The pickup locations are 319 S. Second St. in Hamilton and 4535 Este Ave. in Cincinnati’s Spring Grove Village neighborhood.

A $12 bag includes a selection of three items, while a $20 bag includes about five items. What’s included will vary from week to week.

“We have had many loyal customers over the years request a direct from farm pickup service,” said Rebecca Haders, marketing chief of 80 Acres. “With the current situation, we felt that it was a great time to give it a try. We want to support our community with local, fresh and nutritious foods in this time of need.”

Customers can order online from 80 Acres and text message after driving to one of the indoor farms, where an employee will bring out the purchase and hand it off through an open window. The idea is minimize touches.

“We’re not trying to compete with retail or food services,” Zelkind said. “We’re trying to help people eat healthy, which leads to better immune systems. We are a mission-driven and purpose-driven company.”

Zelkind noted that many people have been stockpiling household staples such as toilet paper, cleaning products and canned soup, which might last them for the next six months.

“So from a retailer’s perspective, they are going to need something to drive traffic back into the stores, not the staples,” Zelkind said. “It’s the highly perishable items – like dairy, meat, baked goods, breads, and fresh fruits and vegetables – that will entice shoppers back.

“As shopping patterns have drastically changed over the past few weeks, we have worked diligently to help grocers fill their shelves in this time of need,” he added. “But for the economy to recover long term, we must continue to provide an uninterrupted supply of fresh produce.”

Despite the uptick in demand for 80 Acres produce, Zelkind shares the concerns of other chief executives about the financial impact of coronavirus.

“We are still a startup and burning cash,” Zelkind said. “Nobody knows how long this COVID-19 will last, and we need to give ourselves a cushion to push through it.”

80 Acres has undertaken austerity measures that include pay cuts for the CEO and the rest of the workforce of 100. The company also has made some layoffs.

“We’re struggling through this and fighting every day,” Zelkind said. “All of our employees took major pay cuts so we could reduce the level of reductions in force.

“Everybody is feeling the pain based on their levels,” Zelkind said. “The more you made, the more you sacrificed. Our senior team took the biggest pay cuts. We’ve taken major steps as a team to do this. We’re working together to get through and are finding ways to support our community.”

Zelkind noted that 80 Acres is in the midst of an expensive construction project to add another indoor farm in Hamilton as the company ramps up production to meet demand.

More than 60% of construction has been completed on the $30 million building, which will encompass 70,000 square feet. JDL Warm Construction of downtown Cincinnati is general contractor for the project, and Open Architecture is handling design.

About 90% of the factory work in the new building will be automated, but 80 Acres will need machine operators, growers, crop scientists and other people on the packing side.

Some of the 80 Acres produce is never touched by a human hand, but all employees wear gloves whenever handling is required.

80 Acres already operates a 10,000-square-foot indoor farm and a 30,000-square-foot farm in Hamilton, where the corporate headquarters is also located. In addition, 80 Acres continues to operate an indoor farm in Spring Grove Village, where the business began.

“This whole COVID-19 thing is pointing out how essential our business is – to not be dependent on long supply chains for our food,” Zelkind said. “We’re growing it right here. This COVID-19 epidemic is proving everything we were saying.

“I think retailers and food service and others will realize we’re living in a completely new world,” Zelkind said. “The new normal will require us to have food security. Having these farms right next to our customers is going to be the new future. We see this demand skyrocketing.”