Back Pocket Provisions, makers of the most delicious Bloody Mary Mixes around, are on a mission to make life more delicious, healthy, honest and fun by helping small farms succeed. On today’s show, we talk to Founder and CEO Will Gray about the inception of his business and the ways in which it has grown since then. He touches on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on his business and tells us about the unique way that Back Pocket Provisions has built a market for seconds in Virginia. Next, Will tells us why “imperfect” fruits and vegetables are the perfect ingredient for his product and runs us through the planning cycle he has developed with local farmers and grocery stores. He goes on to share his ideas around how the artisan food space can support farmers by seeing them as partners to consider rather than a cost to be minimized. We talk about Will’s plans for the future and Back Pocket Provisions’ focus on being good listeners and good partners to small and big farmers well into the future. Tune in to hear all about Will’s vision and to get inspired by his contagious enthusiasm to build a better world.
Get to Know Will:
Name: Will Gray - Founder, Back Pocket Provisions
Location: Richmond, VA
Years in the food industry: 15
Favorite Food: How could anyone ever pick just one? I think it's tough to beat the perfect BLT. That'll need still-warm-from-being-outside-in-your-garden heirloom tomato; some variety of butterhead lettuce; and bacon cut thick enough to be crispy on the outside and still have a bit of chew. All on sourdough, mayo on both pieces of bread, extra salt and pepper. Also, wine.
Least Favorite Food: Canned tuna. Can't do it.
The last thing I ate and loved: My wife Jen and I had dinner at Grisette in Richmond last week to celebrate being fully vaxxed (we sat at the bar! Remember bars?!). They did a gnocchi Parisienne with ramps and asparagus, bacon lardons, and raclette, and I got, like, in my feelings about how delicious it was.
Key Points Mentioned in this Episode:
Introducing our guest, Will Gray.
The story of how Back Pocket Provisions started and how it has grown.
How the pandemic impacted business.
The way in which Will and the team at Back Pocket Provisions built a market for seconds.
Why “imperfect” fruits and vegetables are the perfect ingredient for the product.
The planning cycle with farmers and grocery stores.
How Will sets strategic goals each year and brings local farmers into his plans.
The different growing groups and how the collaboration process works.
The ways in which Back Pocket Provisions helps farmers to mitigate risk.
Why Will describes his business as being a social enterprise although it is for profit.
How the artisan food space can support farmers by seeing them as partners to be accounted for.
Which business adaptations that were sparked by the pandemic Will will continue to implement.
What is next for Back Pocket Provisions.
Links Mentioned in this Episode:
Click Here for Full Transcript:
[0:00:00] Will Gray:
I know that the Bloody Marys aren’t the entire answer but I do think that if we can start to mobilize the artisan food space and the sort of good food autonomy and look at some ways that stop farmers and more broadly, suppliers as a cost to be minimized and rather as a partner to be accounted for if we want to change the way the success looks, we probably need to change the way that we compare those numbers.
[0:00:29.7] Georgiana Dearing:
Welcome to The Virginia Foodie Podcast. Where we lift the lid on the craft food industry and tell the stories behind the good food, good people and good brands that you know and love. If you’ve ever come across a yummy food brand and wondered, “How do they do that? How did they turn that recipe into a successful business?” then we’ve got some stories for you.
[0:00:56.0] Georgiana Dearing:
Hello and welcome to episode 20 of the Virginia Foodie. Thank you for being here. Today, I’m talking with Will Gray from Back Pocket Provisions, a maker of Bloody Mary mixes in Richmond. Will and his team are on a mission to make life more delicious, healthy, honest and fun by helping small farms succeed.
I met Will a few years ago at a show and I’ve been hoping to talk to him about building a Virginia-based business from local tomatoes. After all, Virginia ranks 10th in the nation for tomato farming, producing just half of what number nine, North Carolina contributes to the tomato economy.
Back Pocket also calls their company a social enterprise and in today’s conversation, Will shares how their intentional approach to collaboration impacts not just through tomato supply but their relationship with farmers and their plans for future growth.
Through their line of specialty Bloody Mary mixes, Will’s found a product that supports his company’s pursuit of a new food system that works better for everyone. That’s a brand message you can hear loud and clear.
I’m with Will Gray from Back Pocket Provisions. Hi Will, thanks for coming to the podcast.
[0:02:20.8] Will Gray:
Yeah, thanks for having me, I’m excited to be here.
[0:02:22.7] Georgiana Dearing:
Will, first thing, can you explain a little bit about your business to our listening audience.
[0:02:28.2] Will Gray:
Yeah, of course, I’m the founder of Back Pocket provisions, we’re here in Richmond, Virginia and we’re a for profit social enterprise with a mission of making life more delicious, healthy, honest and fun by helping small farmers succeed. One of the ways that we do that, which is I think what we’re going to talk about today is by turning locally grown fruits and vegetables into a line of award-winning Bloody Mary mixes.
[0:02:55.7] Georgiana Dearing:
Well, I definitely know you for your Bloody Mary mix. I think you gave me a sample at a real local RVA event and I was very pleased to have that, it was great.
[0:03:06.3] Will Gray:
Good, that’s what we’re going for.
[0:03:07.6] Georgiana Dearing:
I have tons of questions for you but my first thing is a lot of craft brands start as kind of a side gig, where are you on your journey as a food manufacturer? How many employees do you have in that kind of thing, how big is Back Pocket right now?
[0:03:23.2] Will Gray:
We started as a side gig. I am full-time, I made the leap in 2019 after we first kicked-off in the summer harvest of 2015, I think. I am still the only full-time staff. Tray manages our outfit in Charlottesville, he works about half-time doing everything from farmers markets to bookkeeping and we have four or five depending on the time of year, other folks that work events and in store demos back when that was a thing.
Right now, we are in the sort of transition time, even if this wasn’t at the tail end of a pandemic, this is the sort of transitional moment as we start to staff back up, I have the big “everyone wants to hang out outdoors” season.
[0:04:11.3] Georgiana Dearing:
Yeah. I was going to ask you, how did the pandemic impact your business? I mean, 2019, you probably didn’t know what a rocky time you’re heading into when you said, “I think I’m going to do this full-time.”
[0:04:23.1] Will Gray:
Thank goodness I don’t have healthcare or any sort of – yeah, exactly. No, but honestly, with so much luck and gratitude, we’re doing very well and we’re very busy. Operationally, the core of our business is based around personal relationships with small farmers and producers near us. Which means that while there’s no part of a global pandemic that makes me want to say, “I told you so” but we didn’t look – we didn’t have to learn a really hard lesson about how fragile global supply chains can be.
We’re already trying to do something a little bit different. We didn’t have to do quite as much, we still had to do this sort of adaptations and pivots to match our customers but our day in/day out was a little bit more shielded from this, many of our colleagues in the space. I feel very lucky for that to have bene the case.
[0:05:14.9] Georgiana Dearing:
Tell me a little bit more about your relationships with farmers, I see a new site that that you turn delicious but ugly fruits and vegetables, tell me a little bit more what you mean about that?
[0:05:26.9] Will Gray:
The goal in designing products is to create new opportunity for small scale farms. Not just more opportunity, although that’s wonderful and important, but we were trying to find new things that were accessible to the smallest farms and still relevant to sort of mid-scale agriculture.
One way that we found we could do that is by building a market for seconds. Seconds are like fruits and vegetables that are the wrong size and shape, maybe for a farmer’s market shopper or maybe for a grocery store buyer but for a Bloody Mary maker, that’s like secret ingredient.
Honestly, one of the funny things that we’ve learned is that way more often than I expected, the imperfection, this is a podcast so the “imperfection” the thing that’s wrong with the tomato is that it’s too ripe. Because it’s perfectly ready to eat today, it can’t wait on the shelf for you to pick it up at the local market, it won’t travel well.
It’s been kind of funny, for us, that’s our most important speck when we’re talking to farmers is it’s like, send the stuff that’s ready right now. We’ve been able to make little sort of operational decisions to try to support that. Folks can – a small farmer can take their stuff to market, they can sell through everything they’re going to sell on a Saturday and know that on Monday, everything that’s left, they’re going to ship to us or for a wholesale grower selling to a grocery store, they know that they’re going to send their wholesale route on Thursday, they don’t have another truck until Monday and so everything in the middle that they might not have a home for, we want it.
[0:07:12.8] Georgiana Dearing:
Wow that seems like a complex network. Is it difficult to source that way?
[0:07:19.3] Will Gray:
Yes, absolutely. I sometimes joke that it is either the really good idea or the really stupid idea in the center of Back Pocket Provisions. I’m a proud operations nerd and for me, that’s what makes it fun. It is logistically complicated, it is not the easiest solution but I think because of that, we’re able to do things a little bit differently and create a planning cycle that brings a lot of value to us, works really well for our farmers, sets us apart on the shelf and when everything goes perfectly, like the customer is never the wiser.
It is our mission and our decision to source seasonally, that’s our problem to solve and so in a perfect world, everything still runs smooth, the customer just orders and is none the wiser, of course, it never goes perfectly and I do have to admit, I’ve absolutely tried, especially this time of year, this is the toughest time when we are the furthest from harvest but it’s warm outside and people are starting to be like, “I do want a Blood Mary.”
I might gently push you towards the different thing, I’ll be like, “Yeah, I know that you want the Bloody Bangkok, I see that but I think your customers are really going to enjoy the Bloody Bomb.” It’s a harder way of building a supply chain but it’s a way of building a supply chain that serves all of the partners and not just those at the end.
[0:08:43.7] Georgiana Dearing:
Yeah, you kind of touched on something there, which was sourcing like, if you’re trying to sell year round, how far away are you drawing these tomatoes and how are you going to scale this business?
[0:08:56.9] Will Gray:
Yeah, that is a very, very good question. Suffice to say, I won’t bore you with the long version because that would require quite a few glasses of wine to get through, I think. To the question of our sourcing radius, we started as being, like we said, Virginia grown, when the reality was, I mean, it was like 30 miles or less because it was farmers that we were friends with and we didn’t – that much.
We grew into across Virginia.
Virginia has excellent biodiversity of grow zones so we can start in the sort of warmer sandier climbs, east and the sort of roll with the season all the way up into the mountains and get pretty long tomato season and we just started last year is 2020, right? I still can’t get the dates right.
We just started piloting through a group of local food hubs like local food aggregators called the Eastern Food Hub Coalition and we just started dipping into north and South Carolina to do some Carolina grown collaborations, we’re hoping that’s an exciting sort of long-term development plan.
[0:10:04.5] Georgiana Dearing:
We’re talking in May and you're talking about the season not being ready yet for Virginia tomatoes. Will that Carolina connection extend you a little bit earlier in the year to getting tomatoes?
[0:10:17.1] Will Gray:
Yeah, the sort of wave at the cycle works to some extent is we start on our end and we say, “These are our strategic goals or these are our sales targets for the year.” Then, now it’s the offseason, we go out to our farmer network and say, “What do you have, what would you need to be able to grow this?” and we put together a production plan to make sure that our goals and their goals are supporting each other.
[0:10:44.2] Georgiana Dearing:
Yeah, because they got to put it in the ground, right?
[0:10:47.0] Will Gray:
Exactly, we’re done with that, that was three months ago because that’s when their cycle is turning. This time of year, it’s like, we look at the processing and say, “Okay, are there enough days, are there enough hours in this timeframe to juice and kettle all of those tomatoes into something?” and then we go back to our financials and say, “Where the heck are we going to find enough money to buy all these tomatoes that we’ve committed to?”
That’s the cycle and so a partner like we’re working with Grow Food Carolina in Charleston, shout-out Grow Food. They might be able to get started in June whereas maybe for us, we’re normally looking for mid-July in Virginia. Not to just have the first tomatoes but for there to be enough tomatoes that the growers have extra because we’re basically in the market for the extra tomatoes.
[0:11:39.6] Georgiana Dearing:
Okay, no one’s really planting a field for you?
[0:11:43.6] Will Gray:
No, certainly not a field, we do production plan with folks so we have particularly our smaller growers, we’ve made a commitment to them to purchase in accordance with how they want to grow as often X pounds a week and we have folks that really want to engage differently.
For some people, the value is that they can go to market, sell everything that they can possibly sell and then send us a text message that says, “I have 47 pounds of tomatoes, do you want them?”
[0:12:14.3] Georgiana Dearing:
[0:12:15.5] Will Gray:
Then for some folks, the value is being able to say, “We’re going to send 250 pounds every Tuesday” and then for midscale growers, it’s often like, “We want to send a pallet, that’s the only thing that it’s worth it for us to send, let us know if you want the pallet.”
We try to meet each sort of those growing group, where they are and try to find a way to make that plugin to our operations.
[0:12:41.9] Georgiana Dearing:
I was starting to go, if you’ve been in their business base on just the leftovers, this is going to be really hard to scale but one thing you did say is the benefit is if someone is planning a percentage of yield, right? They know that the less pretty ones can go into that percentage and so you're actually helping them get more out of that crop than they would have because they’ve got stuff that wouldn’t sell or go with less cost, price or something, I’m starting to venture into farming things that I don’t know about.
[0:13:15.4] Will Gray:
That’s it, the thought on our end is farming is such an incredibly risky business for something that’s so important and one of the roles of manufacturing should be to try to mitigate that risk. The goal is that like, we work with a bit of shine farms here in Richmond for example, that’s a very small outfit and as they’re trying to grow and maybe move from not just on farm and start to move into wholesale, it’s a really big jump and so this way, they can mitigate some of that risk for them because they know that they’ve got us.
They know that either that we’re going to buy consistently and on time in the same amount or that we can be flexible and they can say, “Hey, we got a great opportunity, we have nothing for you but next week we’re going to have extra.”
[0:14:01.7] Georgiana Dearing: You know, it’s funny. I’ve seen some of these deals being made in farmer’s markets but at the chef level, where a chef is looking for particular kinds of ingredients and I just remembered particularly seeing herbs and then Shishito peppers and it’s like, “I’ll give you what I have now” and they’re like, “Okay, so next season can you talk about how much you can put in for me” you know? Now, this is that next step with manufacturing saying, “Okay, I have this need, can you provide this now?” and as that relationship builds, you can start figuring out the comfort level of your producer.
[0:14:37.3] Will Gray:
That’s exactly right. That’s my background, I worked in food service until I came to this space and for me that was often the most fun part. You get that creative outlet of what’s the best thing we could do with the ingredients that we have available. One of the reasons why we went into Bloody Mary mix is that there is often a very healthy market for seconds of what are called paste tomatoes, tomatoes with a very low moisture content.
I just love them because they cook down into sauces really well and really well often means quickly but they don’t have a lot of water but where there wasn’t a lot of market for seconds is like big ugly heirloom tomatoes like big hunk in Cherokee Purple with all the crepe red, which are beautiful and they’re like the darling of a farmer’s market when they’re nice but when they’re not nice, they’re notoriously hard to sell, they rupture, they get frost damage, they’re very finicky.
They often work with the chefs wanting to work with because they have so much water in them that it takes a really long time to cook them out and so we came at it from the – we want to be in the tomato water business. We can hopefully snap up these stuff that doesn’t have a home rather than competing with awesome chefs that are already doing their part to make the local food system go.
[0:16:00.0] Georgiana Dearing:
Yeah and these Heirloom, they’re full of flavors so you know, I can see where your mixes get a really distinctive flavor. Definitely not the Clamato of my grandfather’s era. We mentioned like chefs, where are you selling now? I know that you’re in retail and you do some direct to consumer, where are you selling this mix when you talk about planning to get the money for these tomatoes? Where are you selling?
[0:16:31.5] Will Gray:
It is a healthy mix of everything, let’s say. Particularly here in Virginia, particularly for the next couple of years following corona virus because so much market shifted, so many customers shifted from food service to retail or just trying new things. We work with about a 150 wholesale locations, mostly independent retail. That’s everything from tasting rooms where they’re making cocktails with our stuff.
Grocery stores, we’re being sold as a pantry item, farm stands where folks are selling us tomatoes and then they are bringing in our Bloody Marys back to the farm stand. There’s all sorts baked into there and we love our restaurant and bar business. It is quiet right now, I’m sure it will come sort of roaring back soon enough and then beyond wholesale, yeah we do four full-time farmers markets in Richmond and in Charlottesville and we offer direct shipping to your home via our website or to your business via Fare.
[0:17:33.6] Georgiana Dearing:
I was just going to ask, are you using something like Fare to reach those other independent grocer gift retailers.
[0:17:41.9] Will Gray:
Yes, we just started in March, we’ve been very happy so far and to your listener, if you are an independent retailer, check us out. We will give you the special link, we will give you the hook-up.
[0:17:52.0] Georgiana Dearing:
That sounds good. I’m going to circle back to another thing you said in your introduction because I want a bit of an explanation, although I think the explanation is embedded in what you talked about, your relationships with farmers but you said, “We are a social enterprise” and tell me what that means to you as the brand owner.
[0:18:14.4] Will Gray:
I love that question. When I say that we are a social enterprise, I mean that at least in our case we’re for profit privately held business entity. We advance our goals through, through sales and through revenue but rather than optimizing for shareholder return or optimizing for net profit, which is the sort of traditional purpose of a corporation, we optimize for our mission and so for us, we have a very peculiar business model.
Some very smart people would say a broken business model in which we want to keep our cost, like our cost of goods sold, we are not trying to push that down as low as possible. We’re in fact kind of trying to pick that up like that’s our mission. We serve the farmers that make up our cost, so we are using the tool or like the structure of for profit business but rather than just pointing it at net profit, we’re trying to point it at a little bit more of a holistic group of stakeholders.
The farmers that make this all happen, our staff and our team and our partnerships and enough profit to keep growing and keep expanding that impact.
[0:19:28.3] Georgiana Dearing:
Oh my goodness, you’re the second person that I’ve interviewed where we’ve talked about this and I am going to venture onto thin ice myself on this one but listen for it, the interview with Sarah Delavan. She’s a good food CFO and she talked about cost of goods sold and we talked about the fact that like the brands that I worked with, I think sometimes are trying to artificially keep their pricing down a bit.
It makes sourcing difficult when really, if you’re trying to change a food system and make sort of equitable pay all the way across the board, you know the farmers and other producers need to be getting more, you know? I mean there’s two ends of the food system here. We certainly had seen it in the pandemic, the issues with the service industry being sort of not in any kind of a safety net and then I think farming is on that same end. It’s really difficult to be earning a really healthy wage in farming.
[0:20:34.4] Will Gray:
Absolutely and it is an extremely complex problem that I would be thrilled to be able to spend our life’s work trying to unpack. I know that the Bloody Marys aren’t the entire answer, but I do think that if we can start to mobilize the artisan food space and the sort of good food economy and look at some ways to stop farmers and more broadly suppliers as a cost to be minimized and rather as a partner to be accounted for.
If we want to change the way the success looks, we probably need to change the way that we compare those numbers.
[0:21:10.3] Georgiana Dearing:
Oh my goodness. Okay, so I’m inspired now. I think you’re going to hear from me a whole series on really the economy of the good food network. I think it’s important and I don’t know enough so I think I’m going to use this to educate myself. I think I need to do that but yeah.
[0:21:27.0] Will Gray:
I love it, we’ll have a couple Bloody Marys and wax progressive economics. That sounds great.
[0:21:32.2] Georgiana Dearing:
Yeah, I think you will. Yeah, that does sound really great and now I’m trying to get back to being serious podcast business here. You mentioned tasting rooms, I thought that was really interesting because we’ve had quite a boon of distilleries in Virginia. I was at a new one just a few weeks ago and was sad that there wasn’t enough to put in my tasting, so they need to be – they’re early on, they’re early days in their ABC license and so I imagine that there’s going to be some really interesting cocktail opportunities coming through that.
I guess that was just a big of a segue but you know, you talked about being on the cusp of coming out of the pandemic and I don’t know if this is too early for me to ask this question but are there things that you started to do and learned to do in the pandemic that you hope to carry forward? Were you accelerated into something that you think is going to really enhance what you’re doing with Back Pocket?
[0:22:34.9] Will Gray:
There are sales and production-y pieces of that but I think that for me, I learned a whole lot about management during the pandemic. It was certainly the most, being an entrepreneur particularly a solo entrepreneur can be really, really isolating anyway in the best of times and I think I came out of the pandemic with a new appreciation, perhaps this will sound obvious to every form but a new appreciation for how critical teaming is.
Not just because like you need the capacity to get all the work done but because we need other people and other ideas and other perspectives to carry us through the day and also how hard that is. How difficult managing, again, I speak only to my own experience but trying to lead the values based business is hard because I recognize that I am in many ways, I am forcing my values on people. I am saying that it is non-negotiable that people care about a thing that I am very passionate about.
I think I learned a lot about amid trying to make mission based cocktail mixes after you know, Black Lives Matter protests and such a summer of violence and trauma and diseases. It is a very humbling experience I think to see how far I personally need to come as a manager to be a part of this better food economy in the future as much as I look forward to talking about cost of goods sold, it will take a lot more than Excel spreadsheets, I got a healthy dose of that this last year.
[0:24:12.7] Will Gray:
Whether or not any of us were ready for it.
[0:24:14.7] Georgiana Dearing:
Yeah, I like that. It’s going to take more than Excel sheets, yeah that’s a good – yeah, very good. Well, I need to know what’s on the horizon. Have you thought about what’s next? Everyone has been in survival mode but you certainly are forward looking, what’s next for you?
[0:24:33.8] Will Gray:
The farmers hat on, spring has come. It’s the growing season waits on no one, so to some extent, I am thrilled by that that the – like we have – we need to turn 48,000 pounds of tomatoes into 45,000 bottles of Bloody Mary mix like one way or the other. That’s next, that starts in earnest in the coming months. We’re going to keep working on growing our wholesale footprint here in Virginia and beyond and we’re going to keep trying to be good partners and be good listeners and find new ways to help small farms build the businesses they need in order to keep creating the fresh wonderful ingredients that we all need.
[0:25:16.2] Georgiana Dearing:
Well, I just love your vision. I love that you’ve really taken this stand in the ground and I don’t think that you’re necessarily forcing your values as much as owning them, which is a really good brand management quite frankly. It’s like you kind of know who you are and that is fine. That’s going to position you right in that space you want to be in, in the market and I think likeminded people will find you and to help them, can you tell people where they can find you?
[0:25:45.4] Will Gray:
Yeah, of course. Find us on social media. We’re on Instagram and on Facebook at Back Pocket Provisions. You can find us online from your computer or mobile device at www.backpocketprovisions.com. We don’t have a physical address but check us out at farmer’s markets in Charlottesville and in Richmond.
[0:26:07.9] Georgiana Dearing:
When are they? Can you name them?
[0:26:09.6] Will Gray:
In Richmond, we’re at the South of the James farmer’s market, which is now a Thursday evening market and you’ll also find us at the brand new rebranded big RDA market, which is the Saturday market in Brian Park.
[0:26:23.6] Georgiana Dearing:
[0:26:24.6] Will Gray:
Yeah, right? Speaking of brand management, there’s outsourcing stuff going on and in Charlottesville, the Charlottesville City Market will return to face-to-face market this Saturday. We will be there, we’ll be there all season so come find us and then we’ll also be at the Meet Park farmer’s market on Wednesdays.
[0:26:42.5] Georgiana Dearing:
Oh that’s great. Thank you for that and then all of those independent grocers can find you on Fare, is that right?
[0:26:49.2] Will Gray:
Yep, find us on Fare and if you’re just thirsty for a Bloody but maybe not, looking for case purchasing, we also have a list of all the restaurants and retailers near you where you can find our stuff.
[0:26:59.2] Georgiana Dearing:
Oh that’s great. Well thank you, I mean I think I could talk to you for another day or two but we have to end somewhere, so thank you for telling your story and sharing your vision for your company. I really enjoyed it.
[0:27:12.3] Will Gray:
Of course, thank you for the space and for the time.
[0:27:15.8] Georgiana Dearing:
Thanks for listening and if you want to learn more about how to grow your own food brand, then click on “grow my brand” at vafoodie.com. If you’re a lover of local food, then be sure to follow us. We are @vafoodie on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. Join the conversation and tell us about your adventures with good food, good people and good brands.