In May of 2008, Mikey Azzara hopped in a borrowed truck and delivered a load of just-picked fruit to the Bent Spoon ice cream parlor in Princeton. Thus was his company, Zone 7, born.
By the end of that season, Azzara was delivering fresh fruit and vegetables from 10 New Jersey farms to 15 area restaurants.
Now, as Zone 7 celebrates its 7th birthday, the company’s five refrigerated trucks make the rounds of 120 farms in New Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania, picking up fresh produce to deliver that same day to 300 customers.
In seven years, Azzara’s business has brought more than $7 million in income to its farmers.
Before he created Zone 7, Azzara, who holds a degree in environmental studies from Middlebury College, had farmed in Vermont and in Europe. He later became president of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New Jersey (NOFA-NJ). In that position, he spent five years trying to connect farmers to restaurants, grocery stores and institutions that serve meals.
Then one day one of the farmers told him, “Distribution is the missing link.” The proverbial light bulb went on.
The term “middleman” generally has a negative connotation. People are always saying cut out the middleman.
But in this case, a middleman was exactly what the farmers needed. As the farmer told Azzara on that pivotal day, “We think you are the person to do it.”
Azzara thought for a moment and agreed. The farmer handed him the keys to his truck.
“They really put it in my lap,” Azzara says. “Year One I said, ‘Let’s see if this is gonna fly,’ and we ended up being able to pay the farmers $50,000. It’s hard to believe that now we have a staff of 21.”
That day in 2008, the farmer who lent Azzara his truck also suggested a name for the company, and that name has stuck. The United States Department of Agriculture divides the country into 13 Plant Hardiness Zones. Most of New Jersey is in Zone 7. (Parts of Northwest Jersey are in Zone 6, as is a vertical strip of South Jersey, midway between the Atlantic and the Delaware River.)
Azzara feels that the company has grown at a manageable pace, and he credits his success to more people taking an interest in farming and in eating fresh, local, seasonal foods.
“There definitely are more and more young people interested in farming,” Azzara says. “In some cases, the younger generation has come back to the farm after college and said to their parents, ‘There’s a huge demand for local and organic.’”
Azzara works to connect farms with outlets that include schools and markets, as well as the high-end restaurants that were his initial customers.
Now, he says, “We’re trying to make this as affordable, as accessible and as convenient as anything else. I believe we are getting into the mainstream. Our goal is to make sure this is not just a passing trend.”
To that end, Azzara sees education as key. To celebrate Zone 7’s seventh birthday, he is bringing customers to tour the farms.
And he is inviting farmers and customers to post photos of their produce (and the dishes they make), on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram using the hashtag #zone7turns7.
After seven years, this year-round distribution system works so efficiently that chefs and grocers can provide their customers with ingredients within 48 hours of harvesting.
“We’re simply excited to show this much support to New Jersey agriculture,” Azzara says.
Learn more at freshfromzone7.com
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