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No Time For The Saturday Farmers Market? Harvest Runner Will Go For You

By Janet Rausa Fuller | September 23, 2016 3:51pm

Engineer and Harvest Runner creator Dan Kirsche peruses the produce at Green City Market. [DNAinfo/Janet Rausa Fuller]

LINCOLN PARK — The best-laid plans to live a good life — say, by hopping out of bed on a Saturday morning and heading to the farmers market to fill your compostable bags with grass-fed meat, freshly laid eggs and a rainbow of organic produce — are sometimes foiled by life.

Dan Kirsche found himself at this juncture last October.

The Lakeview software engineer was on vacation, musing over how busy things had gotten at work — he manages three engineering teams at Groupon — and at home with his wife and toddler.

He had been a regular customer at Green City Market, specifically for the grass-fed meat at Meadow Haven Farm (he follows a mostly paleo diet). But now, with a kid and all, he found it difficult to keep that Saturday morning shopping ritual.

“Things started turning in my head,” Kirsche said. “I truly believe people need to be able to purchase their food products on demand. No planning.”

So, he did what any engineer would do: he built a program for it.

Harvest Runner, his on-demand farmers market delivery service, launched in May. It appears to be the first of its kind in Chicago.

There are web and mobile apps that offer quick delivery of all kinds of things: champagne and condoms (together), a cleaning person, even a doctor.

But a shopping trip’s worth of locally grown food from Green City Market, at your door within 30 minutes? Until now, that wasn’t possible, says Kirsche.

“We’re basically supplying the freshest possible food out there,” he said. “The farmers are coming in that morning and we’re taking from their inventory at the market.”

Harvest Runner started with meat delivery, then added fish and dairy in June and produce in July.

Dan Kirsche updates Harvest Runner's inventory on the morning of every Saturday Green City Market. [DNAinfo/Janet Rausa Fuller]

How it works

Customers place orders on the Harvest Runner website, which Kirsche and his business partner, Matt Levy, update in real time on Saturday mornings by walking around to each of the farm stands they’ve partnered with before the market opens at 7 a.m.

Items are priced the same on Harvest Runner as they are that day at the market.

Once an order is fulfilled — as in, hand-picked by Kirsche, Levy, or a third helper — the customer gets an email with a receipt and a link to Uber to track their groceries.

Harvest Runner was one of the first to integrate with the UberRush delivery platform designed for businesses, according to an Uber spokeswoman said.

There’s a flat $5 fee, with no minimum order amount or subscription requirement. Delivery is limited to a roughly 4-mile radius of the market.

It takes 30 minutes or less from when an order is placed to when it arrives. Unless you’re an early bird, it can take nearly as long to find street parking around Green City Market on a typical Saturday.

Because of how farmers markets and Mother Nature operate, it isn't possible for customers (or Kirsche) to plan ahead. Orders can only be placed between 7 a.m. and noon on market days; the market closes at 1 p.m.

“Because the products are so fresh, we can’t take an order from you until Saturday, because we don’t know what’s going to be picked,” Kirsche said.

Harvest Runner is working with four farms, each with their niche: Meadow Haven Farm for meat and eggs, Nichols Farm and Orchard for produce, Nordic Creamery for dairy and Jake’s Country Meats for fish. They provide the goods to Harvest Runner at a slight discount.

“He’s made it real easy for the farmers. We don’t have to do a whole lot, just let him know the inventory,” said Meadow Haven’s Jeremy House, the first farmer to sign on with Kirsche.

House hasn’t yet seen a bump in sales from Harvest Runner, which he said is surprising, but he expects that to change.

“I am a farmer. I’m not a marketer. I know my food is good and it sells itself. But having something like this that can reach out to a different audience seems like it would benefit both me and the customers,” he said.

Adding farmers, expanding the delivery area, opening the service to Wednesdays at Green City Market and perhaps to other neighborhood farmers markets — all are possibilities that Kirsche and Levy are kicking around.

Baked goods from another vendor will likely be added to the product lineup this fall, and berries and stone fruits next summer, Kirsche said.

Dan Kirsche has partnered with Nichols Farm and three other farmers to supply their food for his Harvest Runner on-demand delivery service. [DNAinfo/Janet Rausa Fuller]

Back to his food roots

Before starting Harvest Runner, Kirsche vowed he wouldn’t go into or rather, return to the grocery business. His family owns Hungarian Kosher Foods in Skokie, the largest kosher supermarket in the Midwest.

He studied computer science in college, which came in handy when his family needed him to create a website for the store. Kosherwine.com grew into the country’s largest online retailer for kosher wines. It was acquired by competitor JWines.com in 2013.

Itching to expand beyond the kosher market, Kirsche started another site, blinkbeverage.com, an online distributor of wine and spirits, and ran that for two years until joining Groupon in 2013.

And then he got antsy again, hence Harvest Runner.

“I was still thinking about my grocery store e-commerce background, and I really love the concept of truly automating processes,” he said.

Kirsche said Harvest Runner is more immediate than a same-day delivery service like Door to Door Organics, which offers produce boxes starting at $20 and ships produce from other states in the winter, and more “freeing” than a subscription-based Community Supported Agriculture share. CSA customers still have to physically go and get their boxes themselves.

“I’ve done CSAs. It’s really exciting when you first sign up, but then it becomes a burden. You worry about what’s going to be in it, how to use it so you don’t waste it,” Kirsche said.

Harvest Runner will continue to operate when Green City Market goes indoors, every other Saturday, starting in November.

The irony, of course, is that life is busier than ever for Kirsche.

His wife had their second child six weeks ago and Kirsche, who not long ago was trying to figure out how he could fit the farmers market into his schedule, now has to be there every weekend.

“I guess when you have a passion, you just figure out how to make it work. But I laugh about that all the time,” he said.

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