Online marketplace Chow Locally looks to transform local food shopping

Chow Locally co-founder Christopher Wharton discusses ordering local food from his website with a customer at the Phoenix Public Market. Chow Locally has evolved from a volunteer project to an award-winning business dedicated to transforming the way people buy local food. (Stephanie Snyder/DD)

After launching its website four months ago, Chow Locally, an online marketplace for local food, has evolved from a volunteer-driven project to an award-winning business that is looking to revolutionize the way people buy local food.

The “ for local foods,” which allows shoppers to view food available from about 20 Valley farms and vendors, preorder their selection online and pick up the products at a nearby farmers market, was recently named Next Great Business by the National Bank of Arizona and awarded $10,000, said co-founder Christopher Wharton.

“It was a pretty good victory,” said Wharton, adding that Chow Locally won by more than 1,500 votes. After submitting a 90-second promotional video into the competition, National Bank of Arizona selected 10 finalists and opened up voting to the public for two weeks to determine the winner.

Using the prize money, Chow Locally plans to develop a citywide community-supported agriculture program that would allow customers to not only order specific products through the website but also offer the option to purchase boxed ready-to-cook meals that include local ingredients, nutrition fact sheets and recipes with accompanying video cooking demonstrations.

“We’re trying to make it as utterly convenient as possible to be able to use local foods and be able to eat in a healthy way,” said Wharton, who is also an assistant professor at ASU’s School of Nutrition and Health Promotion on the Downtown campus.

At the end of the day, the meal boxes will be delivered to businesses where customers work – providing workplaces with the option to set up a prepaid payroll deduction program for the meals – and will also be sold at the three farmers markets where Chow Locally distributes orders weekly, Wharton said.

After its initial launch Chow Locally exclusively distributed products from the downtown Phoenix Public Market, but quickly expanded to the Ahwatukee Farmers’ Market and Scottsdale Old Town Farmers’ Market.

Cindy Gentry, the founder and executive director of Community Food Connections, the nonprofit that operates the Phoenix Public Market, said she was approached by Wharton to establish a mutually beneficial partnership between the market and Chow Locally.

“He is a very progressive thinker; he’s a friend of mine and he talked about how it could really help lift up Chow Locally to a lot of customers at one time,” Gentry said. “It’s a draw to get new customers to the market who might be coming to pick up a box, but they’ve never been there before.”

Latoya Wilson, 32, of Phoenix, said she started using the website after seeing Chow Locally featured on the news and made sure to include her parents and brother in her visit to the Phoenix Public Market.

“The quality is really good and they know a lot about where the food comes from,” said Wilson, a massage therapist. “It’s been a great experience. It’s starting to be more important to me and my lifestyle to pay attention to my health and this is a great way to do it.”

Gentry said the partnership has also helped increase the transparency of the market because Chow Locally offers additional information and video footage of vendors the business collects products from to ensure the farm has acceptable growing practices.

“Knowing that if Chow Locally has verified a farm and if we’ve done our best to go out and verify a farm, then we really are not only walking our talk, but we’re telling truth in advertising that we’re a true producers’ market,” Gentry said.

Wharton and co-founder Derek Slife, a former software engineer for Insight, combined their mutual interest in eating locally and individual knowledge of nutrition and working with ecommerce to develop the company, which has grown to include two part-time employees.

“It’s a way that we can hopefully grow the demand for local food,” Slife said. “Once people see how easy it is and see that it’s an alternative to driving down to the grocery store – that you can get something that’s fresher, that’s better for you, that’s better for the local economy, better for your health – by just going to a website, double-clicking and picking it up the next Saturday.”

By taking a small commission of each order made on the website, Wharton and Slife have been reinvesting the majority of the company’s profits into expanding the business. The ultimate goal for Chow Locally is to turn the business model into a “franchise” by exporting the model to other locations, Wharton said.

“We’ll start to expand and go Valley-wide and if we can continue to prove out the model, at least in this area, then we can look to see well can we actually move this to other areas in Arizona,” he said. “Can there be a Chow Locally L.A. or a Chow Locally Boston?”

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