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MilkRun’s selection of items is curated, limiting the options to products from local farmers.

Alexander Basek
December 04, 2017

Online grocery shopping and delivery has had more reinventions than Taylor Swift’s discography, but it hasn’t been around all that long. In 2002, not long after the death of famous flameouts Webvan and Kozmo, FreshDirect launched in New York City. Since then, the business has continued to add more players, some more successful than others. Between Instacart, Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods, and services like Blue Apron and HelloFresh, there’s no shortage of options for getting groceries to your door. Many of the legacy grocery chains have variations on the service as well, including Fred Meyer and Safeway, both of which allow shoppers to buy online and pick up their groceries at a participating store. In short: it’s difficult to stop shallots from arriving at your doorstep, irrespective of whether you want them.

So, instead of one of those options, why did I order my groceries last week from a tiny startup that accepts personal checks and includes a typewritten (as in, on a typewriter, clackity clackity ding!) note with every delivery?  Because they, and not any multi-million dollar Silicon Valley startup are the future of grocery delivery.

The delivery service in question is called MilkRun. Unlike Instacart or a traditional grocery store, MilkRun’s selection of items is curated, limiting the options to products from local farmers. Here in Portland, that means the vegetables come from places like Gathering Together Farm (my favorite CSA in the city); the coffee is roasted in a garage in Moalla, Oregon; even the bones for dogs come from one of the last remaining USDA slaughterhouses in the state.

Obviously, this is not the place to get cereal with marshmallows in it. Nonetheless, the roster is impressive. MilkRun stocks ramen noodles from Umi, the country’s first organic fresh ramen noodle maker; the fish comes from a purveyor, Fishpeople, that codes their products so you can track the life of the fish; the bread comes in part from a bakery that only turns out naturally leavened loaves. It’s very specific, for sure, but the access and pricing (about the same as what you’d pay at a farmers market) make it worthwhile from a practical perspective.

MilkRun acts as a middleman between these local producers and customers in town. You make your order by the end of the day Monday and it arrives in a cooler that Thursday.

Philosophically, this feels so much better than using a service like Instacart. They’re not quite analogous—Instacart has your personal shopper get items from the store, while MilkRun delivers a much narrower type of food, and there’s no crushingly awkward interaction with the delivery people—but both target a buyer who has more money than time and wants to buy very specific things.

What feels best about it is the connection to the local community. Customers get to buy local products and support their local farmers. It beats using an app to text with an underpaid gig economy drone wandering the aisles at Whole Foods, not least of which because the money is staying where you spend it, rather than requiring $650 million dollars of investment to bring you a quart of milk.

MilkRun has plenty of scaling to do before they will compete with the likes of Amazon. The limited volume that these purveyors can provide means that it could be replicated from city to city by scrappy entrepreneurs, and not easily crushed under the thumb of a competitor with superior access to venture capital. I hope that means the idea is given time to be refined and tested in other markets, since I don’t know if they feel as strongly about the sourcing of fish in landlocked states. But, for grocery delivery that truly does think globally and act locally, MilkRun is hard to beat.

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