There is a growing demand around the world for sustainable, responsibly-produced food. A global survey found that 53 percent of people would be more likely to purchase products or services from a company with a good reputation for environmental responsibility. However, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for consumers to sift through the barrage of marketing claims to find the truth. Luckily, there’s now a smartphone app that can help.
Foodwaze is an online food guide that provides first-hand information about the sustainable practices, sourcing, and quality of local food businesses. Since February of 2015, they have been visiting restaurants, cafes, markets, farms, and other food businesses around the country to find the best sources sustainable, nutritious food.
Food Tank had the opportunity to interview Daniel Stein, the “marketing guru” at Foodwaze, about how their guide is changing the way we shop and eat.
Food Tank (FT): What was the impetus that led you to start Foodwaze?
Daniel Stein (DS): At Foodwaze, we all found ourselves facing the same struggle of trying to feed our families nutritious, sustainable food that is accessible and affordable. We all share the value of supporting local businesses that are making an effort to build a better food system and would constantly find it difficult to identify these businesses. Also, when we would finally find businesses that source ethically, we would find it difficult to verify that the products they claim to source are either sustainable themselves or in fact making it to the retailer. This point has been made abundantly clear by articles like “Farm to Fable” from the Tampa Bay Times.
We decided to create a platform where sustainable food businesses could be located and then verified by real people visiting them, talking with owners, chefs, buyers, producers, etc., and validating their claims with farmers and producers of their sources. The idea to create a mobile app was inspired by the growing generation of smartphone users and the trend to connect with food via technology.
FT: How does Foodwaze serve consumers and businesses?
DS: Foodwaze is promoting businesses that are making an effort to source sustainably and build a better food system. We do this without taking any money from businesses. We will not advertise for them nor allow businesses to alter or adjust the information. It will be the merit of a business that is promoted. For consumers, we are providing them with accurate, updated information regarding where their food is coming from. We are funded by subscriptions from app users. For US$4 per month or US$25 annually, users will have full access to content. The app itself is free, and all of the listings themselves are free, so anyone can log on to the website and see what restaurants are listed, but they will need to sign up to get the full details on practices, sources, and to be able to interact with thumbs ups and comments.
For businesses, we will also use social media as a tool to feature them and promote them nationally. With programs like #MarketMonday and #FeatureFriday, we hope to make sustainable food a cool thing that will receive lots of attention.
FT: What does Foodwaze look for when evaluating businesses to list on the site? How does the verification process work?
DS: Foodwaze is looking for businesses that are making an effort to source sustainable food. We identify restaurants and markets through word of mouth and through the farmers that are loved in every community. We then follow up with those suggestions by visiting the business. While there, we will make purchases, question wait-staff, other staff, and management if possible, to find out whether or not employees are aware of practices and what those sustainable practices actually are. Then we will talk to chefs, owners, and managers to understand more deeply the sustainable practices that business is taking. Finally, we will follow up with producers to verify the claims and close the loop.
We take the approach that every community is different, and therefore the metric for understanding what type of business should be listed on Foodwaze is going to be different. For example, a coffee shop that sources from a local roaster who is sourcing directly from coffee growers in South America has a certain level of appeal. But in a city where 100 coffee shops are doing the same thing, it is going to be difficult to find the value of Foodwaze for any of them. Therefore, we will look further into understanding how the businesses are standing out and making an effort to be a sustainable business. Do they offer food in addition to coffee? Where is that food coming from? Is it organic? How about their energy usage and paper products? That being said, if the same coffee shop was located in a city or rural town that had no other coffee shops to speak of, or just a few, the metric is then much lower. A prime example would be Washington, D.C. versus Baltimore. Two completely different cities with different standards. So Mom’s Organic Market is a featured listing on Foodwaze because they are committed to spreading awareness of sustainable food in Maryland and Baltimore, where sustainable food is much harder to find and access.
FT: How many businesses are currently listed on the site? How many states are covered?
DS: Currently, 300 businesses are listed on Foodwaze as “Places.” That means a location you can go to and purchase sustainable food products. In addition, there are well over 500 businesses listed at “Sources,” a business that produces sustainable food and is linked to a “Place.” We have visited the vast majority of these businesses personally and have written their stories of sustainability. We have covered 21 states so far and hope to have listings from every state in the country as soon as possible.
FT: Tell us about your crowdfunding campaign. What is your goal?
DS: The crowdfunding campaign is called The Foodwaze Challenge. The idea was to create a campaign that inspired people to pledge support on behalf of their state and their local sustainable food economy. Since our company is founded in Virginia and the vast majority of our listed businesses are in Virginia and the D.C. metro area, we thought it would be great to get people to come out and say, “Hey, our state has an amazing local food economy. Let’s raise some money from (insert state) and get Foodwaze to visit all of our restaurants, markets, and farms.” We believe that people all over the country are demanding to know what’s in their food. We are redefining the way people search for sustainable food. We want a grassroots movement of sustainable food lovers to come out and seed Foodwaze with a US$25 pledge, and, in return, we will give them a five-year subscription. This will enable us to get out to their community and build the platform there.
We were originally going to run our campaign through Indiegogo, a well-known crowdfunding platform. However, while attending the Food Tank Summit in D.C. a few weeks ago, we were approached by Eileen Gordon Chiarello, the founder of Barnraiser and a panelist at the Summit.
She made a pitch to us to leave Indiegogo and bring our campaign to Barnraiser. Their mission is to support Good Food Businesses. We obviously share the same mission, so moving our campaign made perfect sense. Our relationship with Barnraiser is only just beginning, though. Since we have reliable content on hundreds (and soon thousands) of Good Food Businesses, we are going to work together in the future, integrating some of that content into their Discovery Platform, which seeks to raise awareness of Good Food Businesses all over the country.
Our real goal for this campaign is to raise US$100,000. On the campaign page, you will see that the goal is US$25,000. The idea was to set the minimum goal at something attainable, to show the country that people are showing up and demanding to know what’s in their food. More people are likely to contribute to something they know will be successful. So we are hoping that once people see our minimum goal is reached, they will be more inclined to throw their US$25 pledge into the mix. Of course, we always welcome individuals who have more to pledge and have created a few different rewards for doing so. As of May 2016, we have raised US$16,000.
US$100,000 is just a tiny bit of what is truly needed to make Foodwaze a nationwide platform. The core of Foodwaze is technology and people. We need to pay programmers to keep evolving the technology and humans to keep visiting real businesses. Eventually, we will have “Foodsters” all over the country, visiting restaurants and telling the story of sustainable food businesses everywhere!
FT: What do you see as the future of Foodwaze? How can Foodwaze transform the way we eat?
DS: We believe that the future of food is sustainable food. The future of Foodwaze is providing people with the information they need to give informed consent with their food dollar. People want to support local and support small farmers and restaurants, but they want to know that what they’re doing is going to help the planet and the future generations as well. So our vision is that by creating awareness of Good Food Businesses and their practices, and creating a platform where reliable information is accessible, we will actually help to drive the demand for sustainable food up. People will likely make the best decision if they have the opportunity to do so. Foodwaze is creating that opportunity.
Furthermore, the platform is capable of fostering relationships between producers, retailers, and consumers. Evrim Dogu, co-owner of Sub Rosa Bakery in Richmond, Virginia, says, “Foodwaze isn’t just for someone traveling. It can also help business owners find out who in their neighborhood is sourcing ethically. It will create the opportunity to connect with those businesses and figure out how to make the most efficient use of the food system and the local farmers.” This is critical, since it will open doors for a market-driven platform that enables consumers to access sustainable food while giving producers a way to reduce costs and buy more local, sustainable food. In essence, if the demand for sustainable food goes up, and the ability to sell it goes up, then ultimately the cost will go down. More young farmers will be able to find a market for their product and more retailers will have successful businesses. As it stands right now, not enough people can find sustainable food businesses easily, trust the information, and make the best choice with their food dollar.
Eventually, we will have a more detailed rating system for restaurants, which takes many things into account, such as geographic region, socioeconomic demographics, the presence of other sustainable food businesses, and so on. This system is in the infancy stages and will be tested in Charlottesville, Virginia, where Foodwaze is based. Foodwaze will partner with farms and business owners to ensure that this certification and rating system are relevant and understandable for the community.