Cathy and John Franklin were vacationing with family in Arizona one year ago and watching television when former President Donald Trump advised citizens to avoid groups of more than 10.
As the couple watched the president and Dr. Anthony Fauci address the Covid-19 threat, they felt the weight of the coming shutdowns.
Back home in Pasco, the Franklins ran the Local Pumpkin, a community supported agriculture (CSA) business delivering weekly boxes of locally-grown produce and food to about 600 customers in the greater Tri-City area.
Food shortage fears triggered an almost instant surge for Local Pumpkin. Two hundred people signed up the next day. Within a week, its customer base doubled to about 1,200.
“We’re in Arizona going, ‘Oh crap,’ ” John Franklin recalled. “We had to figure out a waiting list. We couldn’t quite ramp up fast enough.”
Responding to demand
The Franklins adapted quickly, adding a third delivery day and a third packing day to their weekly schedule. They delivered more than 25,000 boxes in 2020 and saw revenue double to more than $1 million. The company has 20 full- and part-time employees.
“It was kind of a wild ride,” John said. “From a business standpoint, we were the opposite of shut down.”
He credits a thoughtful approach to growing the business with helping meet the explosive growth.
“We had the infrastructure more or less to handle it. By God’s grace, we were set up to do it. It kind of fell in our laps.”
How it all began
The Franklins started Local Pumpkin in 2014. John had a business background, including owning software companies and working as a manager for Basin Disposal. Cathy is a counselor who stayed home and raised their five children, including home-schooling. She had a long-standing interest in healthy eating.
The couple both enjoyed farmers markets but family life kept them from going as often as they wanted. When they could, they had to visit multiple markets to find all the produce grown in the Mid-Columbia.
They were familiar with CSAs, which typically entail a farmer delivering a box to subscribers each week. The Tri-Cities needed one that could leverage the bounty of the region without being a side business for a busy farmer.
They started with what John called “awkward” conversations with vendors at the Pasco Farmers Market. Most gave him odd looks, but a few were interested enough to do business with him.
A notice on Facebook produced the first 25 customers.
For the first summer, the Franklins bought produce at the farmers market and boxed it for customers at their kitchen table, with help from their kids. They spent more than they charged, but it served as a good pilot for the business.
By the second year, Local Pumpkin had doubled to 120 customers. The kitchen table wasn’t big enough anymore. Local Pumpkin rented a grange hall in Pasco one day a week where family and friends helped them pack boxes. They paid supporters in produce.
When the customer base grew to 300, the couple eyed the old barn behind their home in unincorporated Franklin County. They took out a home equity loan to fix it up with a concrete floor, insulation and air conditioning.
In the first years, customers received boxes with whatever produce Local Pumpkin sourced that week. The Franklins tried to select items with broad appeal and even surveyed members about their preferences, but the results were all over the place.
“Some people love beets, some people hate beets,” John said.
As it added more vendors, including prepared foods and meats, customers got more choice in what came in their boxes. But one message was clear: Customers wanted year-round deliveries, not just seasonal one.
It partnered with Organically Grown, an Oregon company, to keep it provisioned with organic products throughout the year.
Software lets customers treat Local Pumpkin as a store, choosing what they want from its website. And they’re no longer confined to produce.
Local Pumpkin offers dry goods, soup mixes, bakery and fresh dairy and meats. In March, it added Prudhoe Bay-caught salmon from Alaska. The Walla Walla vendor needed a new outlet to sell after its regular roster of restaurant customers dried up.
In January, it added yet another new feature. Customers shop for items using a point system.
Local Pumpkin is still a CSA and emphasizes its connection to the 30 farmers and 15 other vendors that supply it. But today, the Franklins said customers can use it for more than produce.
“Some customers use it so much I don’t think they go to the store very often,” John said.
After the wild ride of 2020, the couple is grateful to see the business that started as a labor of love grow. They want to move out of the barn, add deliveries to Prosser and implement a healthy food line up.
“We decided for 2021 to keep doing what we’re doing and expand where we can. But we’re staying put on the property,” John said.
Daily and Monthly NewsSign up now!