FOOD

From tech to table: 5 purveyors of fresh produce online

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Indoor farms and online fruit stands spoil consumers for choice in a contactless age. Images courtesy of FUTURE FRESH. Illustration by ZOE SABANDAL

Before the pandemic, part of my weekend routine was swinging by two to three different grocery stores with my mom. Amid racks, stands, and chillers, I examined the color and texture of bunched up kiat-kiat while at the other end, my mom shifted her focus between two different piles of carrots before deciding which would be better for her specialty pancit bihon.

Today, produce shopping has become about tapping, clicking, and scrolling through browsers in different hues of greens and reds for an experience of choice but also less contact. While I’m robbed of the autonomy to select my usual assembly of lettuce, oranges and carrots in person, the shift to digital has made it possible for necessities to become more accessible online, as rising health concerns have made people increasingly conscious of what they eat, what it’s made of, and where it comes from. On a recent foray into the new delivery website of industry pioneer Dizon Farms, I skimmed through time-saving produce bundles packed together and labelled according to the dish that you can make with them — pinakbet, chopsuey, ginataan, among others. I managed to easily procure all the ingredients I needed to make Sinigang in Dizon Farms’ curated bunch of kangkong, white radish, tomatoes, and three different kinds of sigang.

Also quick to respond to this digital wave is Lazada’s new platform for fresh produce merchants: Lazada Fresh. Initially an idea in late 2019, “The lockdown in 2020 accelerated our team's efforts in working with sellers that needed an avenue to continue their businesses while providing consumers with convenient access to fresh goods,” Carlos Barrera, COO of Lazada Philippines shared. Setting up this online marketplace strictly for fresh food granted shoppers the convenience to quickly segregate the fruits and vegetables on their to-buy lists from Lazada’s plethora of miscellaneous items. Currently, their population of over 1,000+ produce sellers continues to grow by the day. By displaying different brands, Lazada users are presented with a wealth of options — enabling them not only to shop Enoki mushrooms online, but to choose specifically who to buy Enoki mushrooms from.

Another platform player, ZAP, originally providing loyalty points systems to brick-and-mortar stores to encourage in-store visits, shifted to a new strategy: building quick websites for food brands and restaurants that have shifted to delivery or in-store pickups. Among them: King Chef Dimsum, Viking’s, Sugarhouse and Take Root.

The focus is on onboarding many smaller shops, giving them an online presence, like a mom-and-pop fruit stand in Banaue, which Alfonso Manrique, ZAP’s Business Development Manager, hopes to take to the web.

He shared how the personal relationship between individuals and their local neighborhood fruit stand endures. Personally, a part of me still hesitates to buy kiat-kiat that I’m not able to touch, see, or even smell before I place them in my basket. “The trust really needs to go both ways,” Manrique said. Through the order forms on the webpages they set up, customers can input their preferences — such as ripeness — in the notes section, he explained.

While these experiences illustrate the efficiency of tech when it comes to the ease of shopping, direct-to-consumer startup Future Fresh takes it all the way back into the supply chain. Maintaining their own indoor farms, they are able to offer an exclusive assortment focused on non-native plants with unique flavors. Co-founder Derya Tanghe lists their produce with a sense of ownership. “So, we have products that people may not be familiar with including our arugula, our type of baby kale, our type of spinach, and especially our type of microgreens,” he told CNN Philippines Life on a call.

I confirmed this myself when I sampled their fast-selling loose-leaf Salanova lettuce mix, built around a variety with a natural, well-rounded sweetness that only Future Fresh grows. “The cool thing about Salanova lettuce is that it’s easy to prep, easy to eat, and tastes great,” Tanghe mentioned. On its own, Salanova lettuce’s crisp flavors ranged from nutty to bittersweet. After adding some chicken and shrimp to my salad, I sprinkled some of their radish microgreens which offered a different and slight peppery taste that I was pleasantly surprised with but hadn’t encountered before.

(From left) Future Fresh’s Butterhead Lettuce (250g for ₱200), Frisee Lettuce (250g for ₱200), Oakleaf Lettuce (250g for ₱200), and Crystal Lettuce (250g for ₱200). Photos from FUTUREFRESH.PH

Future Fresh, which is operated and run by a multidisciplinary team of agronomists, farmers, and business leads, wants to reimagine the next generation farming in Southeast Asia.

“If the Philippines doesn’t have that much arable land left and Manila’s got like 22 million people, how will you be able to feed them good quality produce for years to come?” Tanghe said.

Future Fresh designed their indoor hydroponic farms using vertical racks — allowing them to grow their signature varieties year round and control the weather and environment even as the enclosing building is in a dense part of Quezon City. To eliminate produce wastage, their team summarizes orders and cuts only what they need on the day of delivery, preserving maximum freshness. They also take care to grow only what they need. Sometimes when you visit the website, some varieties are marked sold out. In case a customer orders something that has just run out, a customer service representative will send a message to figure out a swap that’s close in price or flavor, and to make sure someone is around to receive the order, packed and sealed in reusable ziplock bags that allow it to keep in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.

Future Fresh has become a benevolent middleman between farmer and customer, answering customer questions that range from highly scientific ones like “What temperature is your farm controlled in?” to the more practical “How long can this last?” or the perennial “Is this organic?” To which Tanghe explained that their produce is what he likes to call post-organic. “We can’t use the term ‘organic’ because we don’t grow on soil. We grow indoors to avoid spraying pesticides or herbicides because we’re not open to outside climate externalities,” he said. The result is a clean, crisp bite to all their produce. “But the nutritional value is way up there.”

They are also set to build the country’s largest indoor farm and triple their capacity and offerings by May. “Maybe fruiting crops like strawberries and specialty tomatoes,” Tanghe said. They also just launched spearmint and watercress on a limited release, available twice a week.

Speaking of specialty, Aba Pardes Hydroponics sells premium boxed selections of tomatoes, mustard greens, herbs and lettuce supplied to 5-star hotels and using Israeli agricultural technology, seeds and cultivation techniques, from ₱95 up to ₱2,000+.

For these fresh produce purveyors, the end mission is to connect people at both ends of a transaction. Manrique of ZAP called it a farm-to-customer way of doing business. “Our goal is to, one day, be able to connect with vendors on a producer level," he said. “We want our clients to keep as much profits as possible and at the same time have the convenience and technology to make it all work. That’s the space we’re trying to fill.”