In a Pandemic, a Farm-to-Restaurant Distributor Pivots to Home Produce Delivery

Upstate Farm has started delivering subscription boxes of fresh produce around New York as the pandemic continues. / Photo courtesy of David Nagy

After more than 30 years of bringing fresh ingredients to chefs at high-end restaurants in Manhattan from farms in the Hudson Valley, Jan Greer and Michael Kokas, a husband and wife produce-delivery duo, have had to pivot. No longer do upscale restaurants require the giant butternut squashes and crisp winter radishes they provided.

“We woke up like everybody else and our world had changed,” Greer says. Seemingly overnight, coronavirus had altered an entire industry. Restaurants were shutting down or going to take-out only, seriously impacting the deliveries Kokas and Greer did through their business, Upstate Farms. But Kokas came up with a plan.

The spark was a family need. The couple’s son and his friends, who live in Brooklyn, were worried about getting fresh vegetables as New Yorkers initially rushed from their homes to stock up for the citywide lockdown. So Kokas decided to bring them some fresh produce. Figuring there were probably many more locals who would also benefit from this service, Upstate Farms started to advertise their new subscription boxes by word of mouth and on social media. The couple revamped their website that Friday, and by Sunday, Kokas was completing his first delivery.

He was not the only one to come up with the idea. This trend of farms delivering subscription boxes to locals during the pandemic has also appeared in California, and TimeOut has published a list of favorite NYC distributors and farms that are delivering straight to customers, as well. The risks of a shopping trip to the grocery store has produced an alternative business model for local farmers and distributors. Right now, a trip to the local bodega or grocery store—especially in packed New York City—garners fresh anxiety. While shelves are still stocked, crowded aisles make the six-foot rule nearly impossible.

So for more than two weeks now, Upstate Farms has been delivering food boxes overflowing with fresh seasonal produce to Hudson Valley residents on Fridays, Brooklynites on Saturdays, and offering a pick-up service at their own farm in Tivoli, N.Y., on Sundays. A box of seasonal produce can feed either two or four people, depending on the size selected, for four weeks, according to the website. The large box delivered to Brooklyn is $272 and the medium goes for $177.60 (or $44.60 per week, as the site points out).

“We’re just trying to pay our bills here and help people out,” says Kokas.

Upstate Farms mostly relies on networks of friends to spread the news about their new business. When she first started out, Greer says she would go door-to-door selling foraged mushrooms to chefs. Selling straight to the consumer, particularly when that involves internet orders, is new to her. “We’re from more of the old school of relationship building,” Greer explains.

“We’re boomers,” Kokas adds. “We call it the interweb.” Yet their updated website’s interface is good enough to allow customers to place box orders. And the orders have been rolling in.

People have been tagging their delivery boxes on Instagram, thanking Upstate Farms for their help. “Skipping the grocery store for the next month with the help of @upstatefarmsny” writes @jennifergardnerofficial. The account @lyneacrescabin in Roxbury writes: “I have to give the biggest thanks to @upstatefarmsny”—for delivering to her parents, who are not nearby. Upstate Farms, she writes, “went above and beyond to make it happen!”

Now, each Saturday, Kokas drives a big white truck to curbside stops in Brooklyn neighborhoods, making home deliveries to at-risk customers along the way with the help of two other workers.

Upstate Farms delivers to pick-up areas around the Hudson Valley and Brooklyn in a big white truck, making home deliveries along the way. / Photo courtesy of David Nagy

The quick curbside pick-up option came as an especially welcome amenity for Sebastian Naidoo, 49, a resident of Bedford-Stuyvesant. After returning from an international work trip, Naidoo felt like it was a good a time as ever to start eating vegetarian.

While sequestered at home, Naidoo has enjoyed the look of the produce: brightly colored eggplants, yellow beets, fennel, collard greens, fresh eggs. “It completely changed the way I dealt with cooking during the lockdown,” Naidoo said, noting the freshness and diversity of the vegetables. “I was kind of dazzled by them.”

Naidoo received his second box from Upstate Farms last weekend. When he arrived at the pickup location, the masked workers were handing down boxes from the truck to customers. Despite the tense atmosphere in the city and lack of close, personal interaction, the atmosphere felt friendly to Naidoo. “I could see the smiles in the eyes of people,” Naidoo said.

Back at their farm, Greer helps with the local drive-through. “People are looking scared,” she said of those who come up the driveway to get their weekly box.

On a folding table, the team at Upstate Farms sets out cardboard boxes filled with things like Misato Rose radishes, fennel, purple potatoes, Castel Franco chicories, and butternut squash. They write each customer’s name on a box in black marker. This week, Upstate Farms began offering items like fresh dairy, local frozen meats, and grains—all staples that are in high demand around the US.

According to Glimpse, a consumer behavior analytics company, fresh fruit internet searches have risen 50 percent in the past five years; eggs, 33 percent; 77 percent for frozen beef; and a whopping 358 percent increase for ultra-heat temperature milk, 395 percent for flour, and 424 percent for bulk dried beans. And the pandemic surely hasn’t stifled these searches. There may not be a restaurant demand, but people still need to eat.

Greer says Upstate Farms’ work is about more than food. “This is a community that is being built around food,” she says.  While New Yorkers can’t be physically present with friends, neighbors, and even family members to break bread, Greer says she feels like they’re all connected through shared food.

“There’s a lot of New Yorkers out there who need this right now, and we’re doing our little part,” Kokas says. “It’s in our genes. This is what we do, this is what we’ve been born to do somehow.”