April 18, 2016 11:59 AM

By arming local farmers with on-demand logistics, a new food startup aims to make local produce more cost-competitive.

Cost and logistics present major impediments to the availability and growth of Lafayette’s local food economy. Organic farms and local makers abound in Acadiana’s fertile food culture, but gaps in the local farm-to-market network have kept the heretofore cottage industry in the niche.

With a proposed local produce commercial center, Lafayette-based food logistics entrepreneur Zack McMath aims to close those gaps and lower costs through the same instruments of scale that make conventional produce more accessible.

McMath’s facility at 1811 N. University Ave. near Carencro, doing business for now as McMath Food Group LLC, will provide a drop-off point for local farmers and producers of value-added goods — e.g. bread makers, salt makers, jelly makers — that will serve to cut down transportation

time and costs for the typically shortstaffed, under-capitalized businesses. The location will also serve as an e-commerce fulfillment center for the same vendors, enabling stores of food to be managed electronically in the same fashion as food distribution giants like Capitol City Produce in Baton Rouge.

“It’s the same way everybody does this. They [customers] know what the inventory is, and they know that that’s what they can buy,” McMath says. “That doesn’t exist for local food growers right now.”

Restaurants and retailers will be able to view stores of organic and locally sourced goods in real time, placing orders for precisely the quantities required.

Currently, local farmers and artisans travel the area’s restaurants and retailers on routes, checking in store-side on a weekly business to sell whatever they’ve brought with them. With McMath’s help, the facility eliminates the guesswork and consequent waste that comes with a route-based distribution model. Vendors don’t have to guess how much kale or satsumas to pick, pack and deliver. They can deliver as produced and allow the customer to order on demand.

McMath previously worked for M&M Food Sales Co., a large vending distribution company owned by his family, serving as an operations manager. Part of what he offers to potential client-vendors is experience marketing and distributing product to institutional customers like prisons, hospitals and schools through contacts made via his family business. Scale customers like that typically shy away from organic and local produce due to higher prices. If McMath’s concept succeeds, he can work to make the costs competitive with conventional vendors and land more lucrative, higher-yield contracts for local farmers and food artisans.

To be sure, some of McMath’s concept is imperiled by the ambiguities of Louisiana’s out-of-date food laws. He’s worked extensively with the LSU Ag Center in Baton Rouge to navigate the more prickly definitions as laid out by the Department of Health and Hospitals. These well-intentioned laws often grind concepts like McMath’s to a halt before the ideas get too big.

For now, McMath sees a green-light to get his distribution and e-commerce center off the ground with other services in the offing. He readily admits the margins for his passion enterprise are potentially thin but he sees his warehouse as something bigger than a place to store food. It’s about anchoring a new industry.

“So here’s a building. Now you can create the economy that uses this building,” says McMath. “I could do a whole lot that would probably make a helluva lot more money with 7,500 square than organic produce. But this is what I want to do.”

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