Can a Fraser Valley company revolutionize the grocery food chain?

Local companies receive $1 million grant to kickstart direct farm-to-plate website

An Abbotsford-based web start-up thinks it can overhaul how Canadians shop for food – and it has received a $1 million grant to make it happen.

The idea is relatively simple: a website – DirectFood.store – that allows farmers to sell directly to your average person while giving consumers the ability to getting local produce, meat and other staples delivered to their home.

But executing that concept in a cost- and environmentally efficient manner means navigating a series of logistical challenges requiring super-high-tech quantum computers.

The Mission companies behind the plan – i-Open Group and its subsidiary Wisebox Solutions – have been involved in e-commerce for a decade when COVID-19 hit at the start of this year. Conversations had been percolating about how to put that know-how to work connecting the Fraser Valley’s farmers with residents, but when the pandemic took off, the idea took on a new relevance.

At the same time, millions of dollars in grant money overseen by the Vancouver-based, government-funded Digital Technology Supercluster program were directed to go towards programs and ideas that could immediately help address the consequences of the pandemic.

The Directfood concept, which offers a way for residents to get their food without having to set foot in a crowded grocery store, had obvious appeal.

“We fast-tracked it because it was a COVID response solution,” said Raymond Szabada, i-Open’s President and CEO.

For the consumer, DirectFood.store is simple. Like other e-commerce sites, one browses a range of products, add them to a cart and pay.

Farmers, meanwhile, sign up on the site and list their products for sale. And delivery is free for orders over $45, with DirectFood partnering with Richmond courier company Novex Delivery Solutions to deliver everything within a day of purchase.

It’s after a consumer confirms their purchase when things get interesting.

Because when you have many different customers, wanting many different food from many different farmers, how do you figure out what goes in what truck, and what route that delivery truck takes?

Many modern delivery services, like Skip The Dishes, operate on a labour-intensive model in which each order requires one trip. That’s a costly model for consumers, and it’s also not great for the environment.

Grocery stores, meanwhile, have begun to deliver. But the food still has to take a roundabout route from farm to the store itself, where orders are assembled by workers before going out for delivery. The grocery supply chain itself, and the logistics that go into it, is a feat of modernity that has been refined over more than a century.

So, to compete with grocery stores, DirectFood and Wisebox are turning to another marvel of the 21st Century: quantum computers. The logistical challenge of figuring out the most efficient route for deliveries (or pickups) is similar to the Travelling Salesman Problem, a math challenge that is too complex for standard software.

By using quantum computing technology, Wisebox can optimize its routes and minimize the fiscal burden of delivering food to customers.

And because the plan essentially eliminates the grocery-store step in the supply chain, Szabada and Wisebox Solutions CEO Colin Schmidt say DirectFood should be more environmentally friendly than the traditional grocery model..

For farmers, the site provides more than a new way to reach customers. The project is using i-Open’s Agrilyze farming analytics tool to directly link the consumer experience to the farm. When someone reviews a food on the DirectFood portal, the farmer who grew that can know where in their fields that food came from, and use that information and the customers’ feedback to influence future decisions.

The portal has also set up a process whereby farmers with surplus food that might otherwise go to waste to offer discounted rates to non-profit organizations that feed people in need.

“This is going to allow farmers to support charities, charities to get the lowest price possible that is still fresh food,” Schmidt said.

The DirectFood.store portal is already open and selling in the Fraser Valley and products from several farms are already online. The idea is that food won’t travel more than an hour from farm to consumer, and the companies expect to begin offering delivery into Vancouver soon, with the eventual goal of operating between Squamish and Hope.

There are also plans in the works to expand the model and the concept further afield, and Schmidt says more regions will be added and there is a partner in South Carolina.

One of the core ideas behind the project is that of food security – an issue brought to the fore when grocery stores were hit with shortages in the spring and as COVID-outbreaks hit tightly-packed food processing plants.

Schmidt says overhauling how residents get their food can be a key way to alleviate the impact of this pandemic, and provide more resilience going forward in both the short- and long-term.

“Were hoping to create a business model that is less susceptible to COVID’s impact as well as a business model that alleviates the pain points that come up in food distribution channels due to COVID.”

“I think the biggest challenge is changing people’s habits,” Schmidt said. “Just simply the awareness and getting people to think ‘Hey, where and how do I buy my groceries?”

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