FORT COLLINS - Locally produced food has long been on the minds of diners in Fort Collins. But only recently has it been so abundant on their forks. In large part, LoCo Food Distribution is responsible.
Elizabeth Mozer opened the business two years ago to close the gap between producers of fresh wares and the marketplace for consumers to enjoy them. She experienced firsthand the effects of that hole while trying to extend her family's eat-local philosophy to the concession offerings at the Lyric Cinema Cafe, which she owns with her husband, Ben.
"We were running all over the place to find things," she said. "I would go to Greeley to meet the farmer's daughter from Fort Morgan to buy popcorn. Then I'd be running to Windsor for cheese. Going here for this, there for that - it was getting kind of silly. So we started talking to a lot more folks about how to bring more local foods to the mainstream marketplace."
Ultimately, Mozer would become that conduit. Instead of calling 10 vendors, scheduling 10 separate deliveries and cutting 10 checks to build an inventory of food from the area, restaurants and grocers can simply mine LoCo's catalog, and the company does the rest.
The company has a 5,000-square-foot warehouse in Fort Collins and employs nine - an assortment of delivery drivers, sales representatives and administrative staff. It distributes products grown or processed by vendors within a 400-mile radius - the standard for "local" defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture - to customers in Fort Collins, Denver, Boulder and everywhere in between.
LoCo's vendor radius allows it to tap into the renowned fruits grown on Colorado's Western Slope, the grains and beans of Western Nebraska and Kansas, and the fare from Southern Colorado and Wyoming.
"The reality is most of our products come from here along the Front Range," Mozer said. "Those producers are the closest. They're the people we know the best."
Getting products to market with LoCo's help has enabled some vendors to grow, giving a boost to small businesses in the region.
Rogue Edwards, owner of Westminster-based Bolder Beans, said he sometimes lost about three hours every time he delivered pickled green beans and other veggies to grocers in the Denver metro area before teaming with LoCo.
"When you start multiplying that by the number of stores that we were in, the amount of time I was spending in my car delivering products was pretty staggering," Edwards said. "I've been able to recover those hours and focus on my business."
As a result, "It's enabled us to grow exponentially," Edwards said. Now his products are in 125 stores, and there's scarcely time to celebrate adding a new customer, when before, one new store meant high-fives all around at Bolder Beans.
"(LoCo) is a nice bridge between producers, the suppliers and the vendors," Edwards said. "It's someone who can see the big picture, almost like a quarterback."
"We are a transportation business. We are a logistics company. But primarily, we're a relationship-building company," Mozer said.
LoCo's business network paid huge dividends last year for a Greeley farmer LoCo does business with. His community supported agriculture operation was endangered by a storm that destroyed 80 percent of his crops. Through its network of vendors, LoCo was able to supply the farmer with the type of local produce his CSA customers were accustomed to.
"He was able to get it at wholesale and still put his margin on it so he was able to make at least something that year and rebuild," said Alex Cousins, local food specialist at LoCo. "Really, there's no other safety net like that for farms. I was tickled to see him breathe a little bit after thinking his entire year was ruined."
Besides a handy network of producers, LoCo delivers fresh products that chefs value.
"That flavor profile is so much brighter when you get it fresh," said Amelia Mouton, owner of Restaurant 415 in Fort Collins, one of LoCo's customers. "When it sits in a warehouse a while and gets all funky, it's not the same product at all. The colors, the flavors, the textures - it's like opening a present every time a little, local gift shows up from LoCo."
Mozer emphasized the freshness factor of dealing with a local food distributor using Noosa Yoghurt as an example. It is produced in Bellvue, just west of Fort Collins, and LoCo distributes it to Albertsons stores and several other locations. While a larger distributor totes the product to its California distribution center, only to have it return to states that it already has passed through, such as Utah and Colorado, LoCo takes Noosa straight from the producer to the store.
Consequently, it tends to have a longer life before expiration in customers' refrigerators and on Albertsons shelves.
Products such as Noosa, Bolder Beans, meat, cheese, locally roasted coffee and others that are available year-round are LoCo's bread and butter, according to Mozer.
"We consider the seasonal produce kind of the top of our cake," she said. "The rest of our stuff has to be a sold, year-round basis of products."
Any number of challenges can arise in a small circle of vendors such as the 130-140 that offer about 2,000 products in LoCo's catalog during peak season. Equipment failures or scheduling problems in Fort Collins' three commercial kitchens, breakdowns in producers' ingredient supplies and labor limitations such as those coming from immigration enforcement against agricultural workers in the area are a few that Mozer said occasionally arise.
"There are challenges 'round the whims of Mother Nature and growing some of our seasonal products, and then with processors and folks that make things as well," she said. "Just because things aren't as mass-produced and things are so fresh, there can be some issues in consistency of production."
But LoCo has weathered some surprises quite well. When Grant Family Farms' operation was interrupted by bankruptcy last year, one of the area's larger suppliers of produce disappeared. Its timing between seasons made the adjustment manageable, Mozer said.
More often, the challenges facing LoCo are the type it welcomes, such as pairing a vendor with a customer based on their product preferences and price points.
"I can go to chefs, and if they want the best, most beautiful micro-grains, I can bring those to them, but they're going to be expensive," Cousins said. "Jax Fish House can afford it. But for the Rio, for instance - which relies on big quantities of six ingredients - we can offer some competitively priced items."
Mouton of Restaurant 415 said LoCo has dialed into something innate and given consumers an avenue to savor it.
"Local food creates this real sense of community," she said. "You're helping your neighbor by buying from LoCo directly. You know them. You know where your food comes from, and they want it to be good. The farmer and I are not disconnected."
Cousins points out that the eat-local phenomenon isn't new, it's just back.
"It's not a revolution," she said. "It's a renaissance. We're going back to how it was and celebrating that."
And behind that resurgence is a set of values that tends to be associated more with social awareness than with success in the business world.
"Social consciousness, environmental consciousness and the economic bottom line: They've all got to work together," Mozer said. "We have to be a viable business so that we can continue to support the things that are important to us."