AT A GLANCE
Location: Canby, OR
Team Members: 6
Founders: Julia Niiro (29), Leah Scafe (32), James Serlin (30), Karl Holl (30), Alex Holl (25), Cory Melanson (32)
Structure: For-profit, LLC Partnership
Traction to date:
• Network of more than 6,500 Seeders, Feeders, and Eaters across the country
• 10 sold-out events in the Portland area
• Mobile app launching summer 2016
• Accepted into ALPHA class of 2016 at Collision Web Summit
Despite the growth of the farm-to-table movement, those operating within it — from food producers to restaurants — often find themselves facing challenges stemming from a lack of connection. Frequently, farmers lack access to channels that would allow them to share knowledge and best practices with each other. Chefs and restaurant owners often struggle with finding the high-quality, locally sourced ingredients they are looking for, or face antiquated systems (for example, some farms still fax price lists to restaurants). At the heart of many of these issues are challenges with communication and connection.
Recognizing this problem, a group of six Millennials banded together to do what this generation does best: use technology to simplify and connect. They created LET um EAT, an Oregon-based company that connects Seeders (food producers), Feeders (restaurants and retail locations), and Eaters (you know, people who like to eat) through its website and social network, and through in-person events in the community and on its farm. The company, which derives its name from the expression the group toasts with at its farm-fresh meals after a long, hard day, is now on a mission to find out what will happen if it can successfully connect key players in “the food revolution.”
THE ORIGIN STORY
LET um EAT started when a group of people came together through happenstance: James Serlin, Cory Melanson, and Karl Holl were all chefs who left their fast-tracked careers to pursue their mutual dream of growing the food that they cooked; Leah Scafe was a former farm-to-table dinner director; Alex Holl, a recent college graduate from the East Coast; and Julia Niiro, a marketing director who left the corporate world.
The three chefs, Serlin, Melanson, and K. Holl, had relocated to Oregon together in 2013 with dreams of opening a restaurant and growing much of the food for it themselves. They purchased a farm that they found on Craigslist — a “mountain of mud” that they quickly learned had been dubbed “Murder Mountain,” a name derived from the special five-part Dateline NBC series about four unsolved homicides that had happened on the property in the ’90s.
Despite the unexpected “character” of the land, the three men managed to turn it into a productive farm, and soon Alex Holl, Karl’s brother, moved there to help with operations. In early 2014 Scafe and Niiro, mutual friends of the farm’s owners, found themselves visiting Murder Mountain more and more frequently as they fell in love with the passion, dedication, and culture that had been created there. They also witnessed — and experienced firsthand — the challenges that those in the local food movement were up against and how hard the work was without a connection to a larger community. With this in mind, in May 2015 Niiro introduced an idea: “We were in Cory’s kitchen, and I just said, ‘What if we start a business? What if we could build the network that you guys need? What if we could farm, cook, and create a community of people like us? There is obviously a huge need for a tool and network based on what we have been experiencing, but it will require all of us to do this.’ Without hesitation the boys said yes, and the next call was to Leah.” The group soon convinced Scafe to join them, and in May 2015, LET um EAT was born.
“Coming together over the fundamental issue of food will give our generation the opportunity to rise up and prove ourselves.”
HOW IT WORKS
Since that time, the group has been experimenting with business models and the best ways to bring the community together around food. They have created an online network that aggregates the Seeders, Feeders, and Eaters in the community; hosted live events through Takeover Dinners, which are meals prepared with the help of community members and hosted at local restaurants or event spaces that they “take over” for an evening; and found financing to purchase a new farm where they all live and work the land in Canby, Oregon, and have begun hosting community gatherings there.
To explain the concept of the LET um EAT social network in action, Niiro offered this example: “A chef friend of ours recently relocated to Portland to open a new restaurant. One of his first needs was figuring out where to source ingredients. He was unfamiliar with the farming community here, so we helped him connect with the farmers and producers that we have relationships with. This is a challenge that we’ve heard of from more than one chef, whether they’re moving to a new city or just going somewhere new for an event: it’s hard to find those people to source local, quality ingredients from. With the LET um EAT social network, Feeders and Eaters will be able to search for Seeders in their region, message them, and create those relationships.”
So far, the company has been self-sustained with the profits from the numerous initiatives. However, the founders are looking to take it to the next level with a soon-to-be-released app that will connect the farm-to-table community nationwide. Speaking to the economics behind the offering, Niiro said, “Maybe we are being naïve, but we have to believe in the idea that if you keep your head down, focus on listening to your community, and build a great brand that does the mission justice, then the money will come.”
Time will tell how the small business grows, or if it will be able to make a dent in any of the myriad problems plaguing the food system. Niiro and team are clear on one thing, however: “Our generation has been described as an apathetic one, and part of that may be that we’re at a loss for how to navigate a world where the pace of progress makes it impossible to keep up. At this point, we are in many ways overconnected and overcommitted, but still incredibly disconnected and isolated. As a generation, we will have to figure out how to embrace what makes us great, which is our ability to easily connect and communicate through technology to solve for what we need: deeper connections to each other and the world around us. Coming together over the fundamental issue of food will give our generation the opportunity to rise up and prove ourselves.”
4 LESSONS LEARNED SO FAR BY THE LET UM EAT CREW
1. STICK TO YOUR VISION
We’re fortunate to have a vast network, and have been talking to a lot of people about our idea and plans for the business, from experienced entrepreneurs and business owners to young farmers and chefs in the industry. Everyone has their opinions and feedback to offer, which is invaluable and very helpful. Believe us, we’ve pivoted on our ideas and approach a great number of times in the past two years. But before we react to what anyone says, we take the time to ask ourselves why we’re doing what we’re doing and what is the best way to accomplish that. It always comes back to the fundamentals and who we’re building LET um EAT for. We have to remind ourselves that ultimately, we’re the ones that know best for ourselves and for our business — otherwise someone else would be doing it.
2. GET OUT OF YOUR COMFORT ZONE
We all came from worlds where we knew how to do what we did and were successful in our own space, but that is no longer the case. It is a daily lesson in humility, curiosity, patience, and taking the time to think things through.
3. IT’S OK TO HAVE FUN
This is something we have to remind ourselves of all the time. When your life is your work, it is easy to feel this pressure to always be working, to the point where even taking a day off makes you feel guilty. Learning the value of working on your business instead of for it is tough, but critical. It is amazing what a few days in the woods fishing will do for you.
4. CHECK YOUR EGO
One of the best and hardest things about our situation is learning to live and work together every day. We all have different schedules, habits, taste in music, and a mix of thinkers and doers. This means a lot of learning to check your ego and learning about how to put each other in positions to succeed. I think of it less like altruism and more like daily “be a good person” training.