After nine years of steady growth, 9 Miles East Farm stalled, and its owner had to find new customers, fast, or lose all that momentum.
Over the past nine years, Gordon Sacks, co-owner and founder of 9 Miles East Farm in Northumberland, New York, has built a meal and produce distribution network that started with residential customers and expanded into catering and pop-up markets at workplaces in Boston and New York. With the pandemic, he faced a choice: retool his business model or lose nine years’ worth of growth. One year later, 9 Miles has doubled down on residential delivery through new partnerships with apartment complexes, and expanded the farm’s reach to include New York City suburbs. Sacks has also had to gauge what the workplace will look like post-pandemic: He is betting that most offices will shift to a hybrid of remote and in-person work in the long-term.
If you had called me at this time in February of 2020, I would have just driven an insulated refrigerated box truck from upstate New York to the Boston metro area. I would have met the 9 Miles team somewhere in the suburbs, handed them a bunch of meals prepared in our on-farm commercial kitchen, and the team would be on their way to the offices of big companies in the Boston area.
We have a 29-acre vegetable farm outside of Saratoga Springs, New York and a decent-sized commercial kitchen. We don’t in any way pretend that every item of food that we prepare was grown on the farm. “Impossible” is a strong word, but that would be extremely challenging and prohibitively expensive. So we don’t pretend that at all.
We use our own ingredients in season and really as a way to minimize food waste. If I have a really beautiful cucumber that we harvested on the farm, we’re going to sell it in a bag of fresh vegetables. If we have a perfectly good cucumber that’s got character in its appearance—let’s just say it’s cosmetically challenged but a perfectly good cucumber—we’re just going to peel it and chop it up and put it in salad.
That obviously all changed on March 14, 2020, and nobody went to work in offices anymore.
Courtesy of Gordon Sacks
Fortunately, 9 Miles East Farm also had a subscription meal delivery operation. So we were taking those same meals and delivering them to the homes of people in upstate New York and in the Boston area. We were very fortunate to have that sort of seesaw effect there.
We’ve always delivered to homes. That was actually the very first thing we did. But the proportion of the operation that it constituted was relatively small. If you think about efficiency—it’s a lot harder to deliver to 1,000 homes than it is to deliver to 100 offices. So we looked at the efficiency of the workplace and said, “Let’s focus our growth efforts here.” But when that efficiency went away because there was nobody there anymore, we said, “Let’s serve them where they are.” It’s kind of a full circle.
One of the things that has helped growth in residential areas is partnering with real estate companies—sometimes it’s a property manager, sometimes it’s a building owner—to be a tenant amenity. It’s much better for us to deliver 20 coolers to one building than going to twenty different houses. It’s a little bit more like the workplace model that we remember so well. That’s a benefit for some people more than others—but for us, if our mission is to expand the audience for healthy local food, this is a very logical way to do it. Many of our residential and workplace customers otherwise wouldn’t attend farmers’ markets due to work commitments, personal commitments, family commitments, or other factors.
Courtesy of Gordon Sacks
I did lay off some people when the pandemic was first declared. That was challenging, certainly more so for them than for me. Since then, we’re back up to about the size that we were pre-pandemic, around 42 people, though we had to retrain the same people to do slightly different things; some work at a café that opened in June 2020. But you’re not stopping to chat at houses, you’re leaving a reusable cooler on the porch and moving on to the next one. There was more of a personal connection that we’ve lost in the pandemic. I don’t believe there’s a technological replacement for it.
We’re looking at pandemic recovery as a sort of long-term change. Before, we saw our growth primarily in urban cores. We’re not focused that way anymore. We think that the future for many types of companies is a lower-occupancy office environment. You will eventually go back to offices, but you might only be there two days a week or one day a week.
We’re very much interested in the expansion going on in the suburbs, both on the residential side and the workplace side. For example, we’re now serving a building in Norwalk, Connecticut, where people who don’t want to live in New York City anymore are moving.
The early days of the pandemic were terrifying from a business standpoint. I had dozens of people who I feel very responsible to for their livelihoods. And it wasn’t at all clear that we were going to survive. One year out, I feel a combination of PTSD and relief and optimism, I’d say roughly a third, a third, and a third of: Oh my gosh, that was awful, but thank God we survived, and look at these cool opportunities that are opening up now that we didn’t see before.