Online grocer focuses on bringing local foods to west Vancouver

By Cami Joner, Columbian retail & real estate reporter

Published:

 

Hearth of Vancouver

What: An online grocery business that aims to provide access to locally farmed and produced foods and home goods to underserved west Vancouver communities at affordable prices.

Owners: Heather Lehman and Laura Cole.

Web: Hearth of Vancouver

Owners of a west Vancouver grocery startup want their customers to be more than just thankful for food.

They should also know where it came from, say Heather Lehman and Laura Cole, who started the Hearth of Vancouver two years ago with a goal to provide convenient access to fresh groceries on the west side of town. The small online business began by selling local produce and a few essential pantry items.

Today, the grocery company fills orders and delivers produce, meats, grains, baked goods, dairy foods and cleaning products to about 30 customers per week. Many of the products are local.

"We try to create ties between rural Clark County and our community," Lehman said.

Based in the Fruit Valley neighborhood, Hearth of Vancouver does not have a storefront, but a residential-area storage and processing facility. The company's deliveries are focused on west Vancouver neighborhoods, an area with few brick-and-mortar grocery stores.

"There's very little access to food in west Vancouver, nor any desire for the larger grocery stores to come here," said Lehman, who was originally a member of the Vancouver Food Cooperative, a nonprofit collectively owned by about 320 members.

Lehman said the Hearth of Vancouver's objectives are similar to the goals of the cooperative: filling a need for more healthy food options on the west side, a so-called "food desert" that lacks full-service grocery stores within walking distance.

Hearth is a for-profit business, launched after Lehman became discouraged with the decision-making process of the cooperative model.

"Trying to get a group of people to come to consensus takes a long time," she said. "With 68,000 residents in west Vancouver, we feel there's enough room for lots of (grocery businesses)."

Lehman and Cole have spent the past two years gathering a supply chain of organic and pesticide-free produce suppliers for Hearth. In all, the business is supplied by 18 local farms, among them, Hunters' Greens in Brush Prairie, Storytree Farm in Vancouver, and both Inspiration Plantation and Four Peas in a Pod Produce in Ridgefield.

"Our business now is getting to the point of being solvent and paying for itself," said Lehman, who estimates she spends about 10 hours a day running the business.

In the summer and fall, that means driving to the local farms to pick up produce, which is then brought back to the company's headquarters for processing.

Lehman estimated the business moves between 600 and 900 pounds of produce per week during peak season. "It's pretty dirty right from the farm," she said.

Lehman said she and Cole modeled Hearth of Vancouver's concept after the "hyperlocal" food movement that allows individuals to invest directly in the way they consume, while supporting local growers at the same time. The effort also promotes better nutrition.

"The nature of food, especially produce, is that the older it is, the less nutritious it is," Lehman said.

She added that Hearth of Vancouver's low overhead costs help keep the company's food prices comparable to products found in major grocery store chains, which have large footprint stores to staff, stock and maintain.

"Think of the electricity costs alone to have all of those coolers and lights," Lehman said. "It's an enormous burden that is handed over to the consumer."

Pop-up grocery

Lehman said future plans for Hearth of Vancouver include a pop-up grocery store model that will operate for one day a week in at least three different west Vancouver locations. The company is getting ready to test the concept, one that involves parking a food-loaded van or truck in neighborhoods with a shortage of nearby grocery stores.

Lehman expects to launch the pop-up business in early December as another solution to providing west Vancouver residents with access to groceries right in their neighborhoods.

"This changes some of the behavior we all grew up with, where you just drive for miles to the store," she said.

Cami Joner is a Columbian business reporter. 360-735-4532, http://twitter.com/camijoner or cami.joner@columbian.com.