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Local Startup Looking to Shake Up the Food Industry

Local Startup Looking to Shake Up the Food Industry
Image courtesy of Wikimedia

Jacob Wong

Now, more than ever, freshness defines the food industry landscape. In this age of GMOs and chemical additives, the average consumer equates terms such as “organically grown” or “no added preservatives” with “high quality.” There may be an element of truth to this understanding of freshness, but quality produce goes beyond grocery store labels according to UCSB graduate Albert Chen.

“A lot of people have taken food for granted,” said Chen, who graduated in 2017 with a mathematical sciences degree. “People don’t even know where their food comes from, first of all, and that’s just silly when it’s such an important part of our daily lives.”

Chen’s passion to educate the public about what makes food truly fresh led him to establish Loca Fresh delivery service in 2017 along with his associate Cameron Dennis. Dennis is a fourth-year political science major at UCSB. Loca Fresh’s business model is relatively straightforward. Customers order fruits and vegetables of their choice on the company’s website, and then the produce is shipped to their door directly from the Santa Barbara Farmers Market when it opens every Tuesday and Saturday.

Both co-founders see Loca as a chance to redefine the way produce reaches the consumer. “What we’re really doing is trying to connect farmers directly to their customers,” Dennis said. Both co-founders view the current system, which often results in produce traveling hundreds of miles before reaching the local grocery store, as a waste of California’s extensive farmland. As Chen put it, “we figured that if there’s so much great food growing here, why is it so hard to get our hands on local, fresh produce?”

Chen and Dennis also criticized the current food transportation system for providing consumers with food that isn’t as nutritious as it could be. “A lot of the produce we find in grocery stores is actually picked before it’s ripe, so it’s not actually at its full potential healthwise and tastewise,” Chen said.

The two co-founders are quick to point out that there is evidence backing their assertions. Chen and Dennis both point to the large body of scientific research linking travel time of food to nutrient deficiency, as well as their own informal studies of freshness. “We actually would hold tabling sessions to get people to compare [locally grown and store-bought] food, like do a blind test to see which one tastes better,” Dennis said. “People can tell the difference, especially with the grapes. The grapes are bomb.”

Chen and Dennis have done their research and know the market well which are practices that they attribute to their involvement in UCSB’s Technology Management Program. The two met at a mixer held by the program in the Fall of 2016, where they discovered their mutual passion for food and their desire to change the way the industry worked. After connecting, the pair entered the program’s New Venture Competition. In this competition, teams of students formulated and pitched their own business models which local investors evaluated.

Although Chen and Dennis lost the competition, the experience got them in touch with an investor who liked their idea and gave them seed money to get Loca up and running. Now over a year later, the pair credits their experience in the program as one of the most significant influences over Loca’s inception, specifically citing the mentorship they received from investors.

“We learned a lot in that class,” Chen said. “A lot of the mentors [in the program] are professionals and they’ve done it before, so they have a wealth of experience to share with us.” Dennis added, “most of the mentors volunteer their time, like, they don’t have to do this. Definitely makes me want to give back when I’m successful.”

While Loca Fresh is a for-profit business in name, Chen and Dennis see their operation as much more than that. The pair constantly stresses the educational aspect of their work, but they also recognize the unique access this gives them to the surrounding community. Both co-founders acknowledge that refocusing consumer spending habits from grocery stores to locally-sourced food isn’t easy. They have accordingly reached out to a wide base of farmers and Santa Barbara residents alike and made many friends along the way.

“The people we’ve met have been amazing,” said Dennis, who also teaches yoga to students in I.V. every Wednesday as a form of community. He calls it a form of community outreach.

“The farmers are the sweetest individuals I’ve ever encountered. We’ve been invited to lunches for farmers who just got their citizenship,” Dennis said. “It’s just been so humbling to be part of this greater community where it’s beyond meeting the customer. It really feels like we’re doing something greater than ourselves.”

For now, Loca’s operations have remained fairly local. The company website states that it serves customers in Goleta, Santa Barbara, and Montecito. However, both Chen and Dennis have their sights set on greater things.

“Eventually we would hope to expand to some of the markets near LA such as the Santa Monica Farmers Market and eventually the Bay Area,” Chen said. “But that’s still a far ways away.”

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