Family Dinner: An Innovative CSA
Photos by Michael Piazza
“I’m so pumped it’s warm in here. Sometimes, that’s not always the case,” says Erin Baumgartner, co-founder and CEO of Family Dinner. It’s a frigid January afternoon in Somerville, the coldest yet this season. Gray snow clings to the curb; a semi truck rumbles by. It isn’t really warm in here. “Winter can be hard in New England, right? There’s only so many things you can do with parsnips.”
Family Dinner, the CSA delivery company Baumgartner runs with her husband, Tim Fu, is one of around 20 fledgling food businesses renting space here at Foundation Kitchen, a shared culinary workspace in a former Brazilian restaurant at the city’s edge.
Down the hall in the food prep area, we hear an occasional clang of aluminum or whoosh of dishwater as another tenant works, but it’s pretty quiet in the kitchen’s event space on a Thursday, and Family Dinner’s storage space is bare. A reach-in refrigerator stores insulated grocery bags; the walk-in is empty except for a few cartons of eggs. Only the freezer is full, packed with odd-shaped hunks of shrink-wrapped meat.
“We order meats on Monday, but the fish doesn’t get ordered until Thursday because we don’t know what’s coming out of the water. And veggies get ordered Wednesday or Thursday because we don’t know what they’ll be harvesting. Rain will have a huge effect. Cold will have a huge effect on what’s coming out. Sometimes it feels very rushed and chaotic.”
Early on Saturday morning, a dozen employees will fill the room packing polypropylene bags with a carefully chosen array of local foods before setting off to deliver to customers’ homes throughout metro Boston and the South Shore. “Controlled chaos,” says Fu.
Family Dinner is on a mission “to create a community that celebrates local food and the people who make it. So we set out to create a better system, one that works well for customers while providing a consistent demand for small local farmers,” says Baumgartner. “Farmer’s markets are awesome. CSAs are awesome. But they both have pros and cons. They’re both suboptimal. So we’re trying to create a better system. And the way to that system is really paved by data and data science.”
In 15 years at MIT’s Senseable City Lab, Baumgartner worked “using data science to understand cities. So transportation, waste. And I always thought when I was there that it would be really interesting to use data science to better understand the food system, and to visualize the brokenness of the food system … data science, automation and software are the tools that we use to achieve our mission, but the real foundation of our business is the relationships that we build with farmers and our customers.”
The business uses a subscription e-commerce platform to create consistent demand for farmers throughout the year. Customers subscribe to weekly deliveries and opt out instead of opting in, resulting in nearly the same number of orders each week. Demand forecasting allows farmers to know how much to harvest each week and also, earlier in the season, how much to plant. And route optimization solves “the problem of the traveling salesman,” allowing a fleet of drivers to deliver the goods to hundreds of households in the Boston area in just two hours each Saturday. “Without data science,” says Baumgartner, the task “would not be possible.”
Baumgartner and Fu became a couple at MIT—he pursued an MBA while she worked at the Senseable City Lab—but they met years earlier through ultimate frisbee. After successful college careers, Erin played in Boston and Tim in New York. “We were frisbee friends,” she says, laughing. “That sounds like the dumbest type of friends! And then we got married at MIT like nerds.”
From the hand-drawn logo to the casual, intimate tone in weekly newsletters and social media, the company has an appealingly humble and unpolished air that belies its high-tech underpinnings. Weekly recipes are aggregated from mom blogs, NYT Cooking, the Food Network—whatever looks tasty and incorporates the ingredients at hand. They encourage customers to share meals on social media and each small triumph is duly reposted, bad kitchen lighting be damned. There’s no pretense, just a lot of enthusiasm.
Culinary snobbery is anathema to Erin and Tim. “We love eating our own food, getting high on our own supply, ” says Fu. Baumgartner chuckles into her hand. “But we’re also flexible about it. And part of this whole thing and being in the food industry is everyone has to choose their own path and say, you know, ‘I’m an omnivore, I’m vegetarian, I’m vegan,’ whatever, but we still sit at Trina’s [Starlight Lounge] or Parlor [Sports] and have a hot dog or a hamburger from time to time. Our goal is to make the whole system better, but if you knew the backstory of everything and you were dogmatic about your principles, you would never eat again.”
“They just find the best small businesses to partner with, like businesses that I’ve never heard of or farms that I’ve never heard of or farms that can’t get into the city, especially in New Hampshire and Maine,” says Kristina DeMichele, a customer and senior content editor at Cook’s Illustrated. The weekly share encourages experimentation. “I get this set of ingredients and I can challenge myself to cook new things that I haven’t thought of before. And I love the community. Erin and Tim are fabulous, they know me and they repost your stories, if you post a story to Instagram like, ‘I made this with your ingredients’ or, you know, ‘This is my delivery. Look at it, it’s beautiful.’”
The shares are customizable, with vegetarian, Paleo and pescatarian options. One January omnivore share included ground beef from Feather Brook Farms in Raynham; cheddar cheese from Brookford Farm in Canterbury, NH; eggs from Feather Brook and Brookford Farm; baby spinach, baby lettuce mix, carrots, red onions and grape tomatoes from Busa Farm in Lexington; watermelon radish from Brookford Farm; beans from Baer’s Best Beans in Maine; and tortilla chips from Mi Niña. At $85 per week, it’s a generous share for customers used to shopping at Whole Foods or the farmers market. With no perishable retail inventory to maintain, there’s no waste, and costs are kept low.
The share doesn’t replace a traditional grocery run, but rather supplements it. “Customers still go out to the store and buy milk and flour and cereal and whatever else makes their household run,” says Erin. “But I really love the idea of us being a part of that more holistic experience, the part that’s the fun and discovery part. Because if you left me to my own devices, I would cook the exact same thing every week. Even though I love to cook, I get into my routines, so this experience in some ways nudges people out of their routines and presents an element of surprise in their food habits.”
Partnering with Family Dinner allows farmers to stick to what they’re good at: farming. Andrew Rogers, farm manager at Clark Farm in Carlisle, supplies Family Dinner with eggs and microgreens while also maintaining a traditional CSA.
“I can focus on growing food, which I’m better at than the customer service stuff. I run a CSA. We’ve got hundreds of members. It’s great. We do a winter share also. So I’m still producing for some of my customers, but I can produce for more than I have CSA members. And [Family Dinner] has just been fantastic. They’re buying up a lot of product from me, and I don’t have to devote the time to managing those customers.”
Baumgartner and Fu both worked full time when they founded the company (Baumgartner now works part time at MIT) and they have no investors, allowing them the freedom to grow on their own terms while maintaining a personal connection to their customers and producers. They aim to expand the model beyond Boston into Providence, Portland and beyond, but the timeline is loose. “The big blue-sky dream is a nationwide network of small local farms that together are able to fight the big guys, change the system in a hyper-local way and get people great food.”
For now, they’re expanding their delivery footprint incrementally based on demand, while piloting a partnership with a few of their favorite Somerville restaurants, giving their farmers another outlet for their product. In the future, Baumgartner hopes to use the tools and relationships she’s developed to create access to fresh, local food for people who can’t afford to shop at Whole Foods. “If we could partner with SNAP or HIP, when a farmer has a bumper crop, we could help create access.”
“I don’t want to pick on parsnips,” she says. “They’re delicious, but there’s only so many things you can do. But we work with a handful of farmers who are doing a lot in their greenhouses, so we’re getting stuff like really interesting microgreens, like micro-kales and lettuce mixes and stuff like that, even in the dead of winter. You can deal with your mountain of root veggies if you can also have fresh crisp things. Summer is another story.”
This story appeared in the Spring 2019 issue.