From cyberspace to city space; Online local-foods business to get Vergennes storefront
VERGENNES — In an era when many brick-and-mortar businesses are trying to create an Internet presence, a year-old Vergennes venture is working to reverse that trend — with help from an online fundraising site.
City couple Mona and Jon Sullivan has been operating their online local-food business, Provisionary, out of a 400-square-foot space at 7 South Maple St., just off Main Street.
For the past year the Sullivans have mostly created, marketed and sold gift baskets, some with ingredients designed to become meals based on Mona’s culinary expertise, and all using locally sourced products: meats, vegetables, cheeses, fruits and more.
Their next logical step — figuring in the economics of shipping costs and a spring survey to which 400 area residents responded — is to have 7 South Maple by July become not only where the Sullivans fulfill orders, but also serve as a market and pick-up point for local residents who order goods online.
“To sustain the business here across the whole year and to make us part of the community, and this is the key part, we have to open the door,” said Jon, 36.
And that’s where Kickstarter, a website where ventures can ask the public for financial support, came in. Starting last week, the Sullivans put out a request for $10,000 in funding, with a July 10 make-or-break deadline.
They are offering Provisionary goods and services in exchange for pledges. Those offers include 26 recipes emailed every other week for a year for $15; for $100 two shipments of artisan cheeses, those emailed recipes, and membership in a private Facebook club with expert advice from Mona and special offers (so far a popular option); and for $650 a do-it-yourself pig roast for 20-30 people, plus the recipes and the Facebook group (one taker).
As of 9 a.m. on Wednesday, with 19 days to go, the campaign had raised $6,392.
“The buzz in the community and the response on Kickstarter has been pretty amazing,” said Mona, 37. “More than I anticipated or expected at this stage of the game, so I’m hopeful.”
She said they will use the money raised through Kickstarter for the basics.
“That’s going to go directly into purchasing display coolers and freezers,” Mona said. “There are a lot of details to get this store space customer-ready.”
Jon said the couple could probably scrape together the capital without Kickstarter, but offering products in exchange for funding helps cement the company’s relationship with potential customers.
“If we can’t raise $10,000 in our community to help us start something where everyone tells us that they want, then we’ve failed in communicating our plan,” he said. “By supporting the Kickstarter, you’re saying, ‘I will shop at this store.’ Which is essentially what we want to know before we open it.”
Certainly, the Sullivans seem to have the relevant experience for the venture. Jon worked for 15 years for a digital firm in California’s tech mecca, first in Santa Barbara and then in Palo Alto, before the couple moved back to his native Vergennes in 2012. Mona grew up in and attended college in Santa Barbara and worked in the nonprofit sector after graduation.
But both switched career gears.
“I just decided I wanted to go to culinary school and be an entrepreneur,” Mona said. “I immediately got this job at this hot restaurant with this pretty famous L.A. chef. I worked there while I went to culinary school.”
She worked in other high-end restaurants in Santa Barbara and in Palo Alto when Jon’s company moved. In Palo Alto, near San Francisco, Mona also catered high-profile gigs and admits to having “a pretty good résumé.”
Jon phrased it differently.
“She’s like the DJ chef. You can throw her anything, and she’ll mix them up in front of you and it will be the most awesome sauce you’ve ever had,” he said. “Now the community gets to take part in that.”
Jon said he felt “a little burned out” in the digital realm and wanted “to get back to something that is of the earth” and to his large extended family, which among other things operates Riverfront Gardens in West Ferrisburgh and Otter Creek Heritage Farm in Panton.
“I was feeling like I was so disconnected with reality after working with just digital technology for so long,” Jon said.
The couple moved to Vergennes with the desire to come up with a food-related plan, although Jon stayed with his company for a time and still works at least some time remotely in California.
Over the past few years they batted around several business concepts. In early 2016 Jon took space in the Kennedy Brothers co-working area to brainstorm a different idea. There a retirement planner overheard him talking about the gift-box venture he and Mona were also getting off the ground.
That conversation led to an order of 25 food gift boxes at $99 each, and then more. Mona and Jon began to see more potential in Provisionary.
“Then we said, all right, this could be a real business. By the time we were done he ordered 75,” Jon said. “That kick-started the business originally. Someone who was successful already believed in us.”
The idea of packaging Mona’s expertise, recipes and ingredients for specific meals soon followed, as did the brick-and-mortar concept of a local foods storefront — which they note will contain locally produced goods not now available in Vergennes on a daily basis without a drive to Middlebury or Burlington.
Mona said free-floating concepts came together for Provisionary.
“There’s always been these ideas, and now we’re finally finding ways to intertwine these ideas,” Mona said.
Now, online ordering and tutorials — which Jon’s digital expertise can make happen — can combine with that knowledge and availability of goods at a central location, Jon said, to provide a whole new service, all based on the local Vermont products that he and Mona have hunted down.
“You can be in your bed on Sunday night shopping for your weekly meals at our store,” Jon said.
And, he said, those meals will be delicious.
“This idea you can cook just like these professional chefs in these beautiful restaurants, you may need to learn a little bit of this or that technique,” Jon said, “but the reality is that it is something Mona can teach you with a small video online.”
More information about Provisionary, including a video produced by Ferrisburgh filmmaker Finn Yarbrough, is available at www.kickstarter.com/projects/vergennes/provisionary-vermont-local-foods-….
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