Mike Hughes says his love of networking is a big factor in both his employee benefits job and his new business.
In the midst of a buy-local and farm-to-table craze in Grand Rapids, Mike Hughes decided to start a side project. The employee benefits specialist began Doorganics, a company offering weekly door-to-door delivery of organic fruits and vegetables.
“I was reading entrepreneurial blogs and I wanted to be a part of it — I had an itch,” said Hughes, 32.
“It’s a natural tie with what I’m doing: The reason health insurance is going up is poor health habits. It all starts with wellness, and good eating habits are a part of that.”
Hughes had heard about door-to-door delivery of fresh fruits and vegetables in other cities, but found an absence of the service in Grand Rapids. And so Doorganics was born in the summer of 2011. The first day, 15 customers signed up. By the time the first delivery was scheduled, the number of customers had nearly doubled, and now the customer base is more than 100.
When he first began to travel to local farms to test the waters, however, he received a lukewarm reception from the farmers.
“They didn’t know if it was legit,” he said. “They were unsure if we would just add crazy markups to the products.”
Before long, however, Dave Lundberg of Ingraberg Farms came to his aid. Lundberg, and Ingraberg Farms, had been one of the first to start the local farm-to-table movement. Hughes said Lundberg took notice of his door-to-door delivery idea and knew it had been successful in larger cities.
“Farmer Dave took a huge interest,” Hughes said. “Without him and the connections, we wouldn’t be here.”
Despite the slow start with finding suppliers, Doorganics now uses between 15 and 20 different farms, and Hughes said each delivery has at least one item from local farms — in the summer most, if not all, products are local. The delivery for the week of Jan. 28 included local basil, among an assortment of Fuji apples, grapefruits, kiwis, carrots, Cremini mushrooms, lettuce spring mix, red potatoes and Roma tomatoes.
“A lot of small farms are popping up,” Hughes said. “We’re always looking to expand our network and looking to help.”
There are two sizes of orders available in the Doorganics system: A small bin can feed a family of three for a week, while the larger size will feed four to five people.
Produce is delivered to the Doorganic warehouse near the corner of Michigan Street and Fuller Avenue NE several times a week — nearly daily during the summer. Hughes said the location is exactly what he needed because it’s mostly cooler space.
The networking part of his “day job” at Coleman+Hughes helped him ease into the business of looking for farms to supply Doorganics. Hughes joined his father in the employee benefits business in 2005.
“That’s my favorite part of the jobs,” Hughes said. “I really enjoy meeting with business owners and learning their stories.”
The chance to go into business with his father but still be on his own as a consultant allowed him scratch his entrepreneurial itch. But that itch intensified as the years passed, and then the Doorganics chance opened up.
He said a lot of his existing connections came together and were interested in helping him succeed in his new venture.
Hughes sees his work at Doorganics as an extension of the bachelor’s degree in communications he received from Michigan State University. He is heavily involved in the MSU alumni association as the president of the MSU Club of West Michigan. On top of his two jobs, Hughes is in the middle of planning the annual Spartan Tailgate, which will bring Michigan State football coach Mark Dantonio, athletic director Mark Hollis and NFL quarterback Kirk Cousins to town.
Starting a new business has furthered his education.
“I look at it as I’m getting my MBA,” he said. “I’ve built (Doorganics) from the ground up — no franchise — overcoming little obstacles you don’t think exist.”
One of the major obstacles Doorganics had to endure in its first full year of operation was the major drought of the 2012 growing season, which hit farmers hard. And with the first farmers market of the year in the spring, Doorganics already had lost about 30 percent of its customer base.
“We had a few really challenging months,” he said. “But I feel really good that we’re standing after 2012.”
Last August, Doorganics won an award from Grand Rapids-based Open Systems Technologies. The firm’s Think Big contest awarded $5,000 in technology services to each of three firms. Doorganics used the money to work with OST consultants to identify a better online merchandising system. Hughes said there were no canned solutions for the kind of website his company needed, and the work would have cost his company upward of $20,000.
Prior to the new website upgrade, which just went live mid-January, everything was done manually through emails and Excel spreadsheets, and items and skip-dates occasionally were missed. Now orders can be customized, as well, with options to add items such as meats, cheeses and coffee from local producers. The website even includes a section for recipes submitted by customers and bios of the farms that supply the products.
“Our customers will love it,” Hughes said of the new online system at doorganicsgr.com.
Huges is focused on making his customers happy. He takes it personally if he gets a complaint letter, call or email. He said although 90 percent of his customers are generally happy, he still takes the other 10 percent seriously because “we want everyone to like us.
“I owe something to all my customers,” he said. “That’s my name; I’m hurting my reputation if I don’t make them happy.”
The already buzzing sustainable- and “buy local”-conscious community in Grand Rapids doesn’t hurt, Huges said.
“It’s grown so much since 2002. From East Hills to Wealthy Street, the local movement is crazy,” he said. “I’m bashful to say that I’m a part of this great community.”
That community is about to get a huge boost from the Business Journal’s announcement that the new Downtown Market has been named Newsmaker of the Year, Hughes said.
“The Downtown Market will help bring a ton of awareness to the local first mentality,” he said. “The more we can do to help, the better. There are so few people who shop that way, currently.”
He said the market will help give the “little guys” an avenue to success with access to commercial kitchens and store fronts.
Hughes isn’t a fan of the phrase “pay it forward,” but he loves the philosophy. He believes in helping the community and that life always comes full circle.
Doorganics has donated more than 1,000 pounds of leftover produce to God’s Kitchen, a Catholic Social Services agency in Heartside that provides free meals to the hungry.
“You’re goal should be to help others,” he said. “That’s why I enjoy networking so much. We all have the potential to be successful, and if you’re willing to help someone else attain it, it’ll come back to you.”
He said without the help of countless people, his life wouldn’t be the same.
“I respect the help,” he said. “But I have a lot of help to repay.”