Jesse Leadbetter’s agricultural roots run deep.
He grew up spending summers on his family’s farm in Missouri and attributes his innate passion for agriculture to his grandparents — part of a generation who knew and respected not only farmers and the farming community, but also how the depth and width of those relationships impact our food.
“It’s only taken one generation for us to become completely removed from farming and food production,” Leadbetter says from the taproom at Lenny Boy Brewing, where his company, Freshlist, is headquartered. “We need more people to feel connected to their food.”
Leadbetter created Freshlist to do just that, leveraging the power of technology and direct relationships to create a more efficient and transparent supply chain.
With Freshlist, Leadbetter created a custom-built online order platform that allows chefs to order locally sourced ingredients and have them delivered directly to their restaurants. To date, more than 150 chefs throughout Charlotte have signed on to use the platform, and the company is now beta-testing a local grocery deliver service for consumers.
As much as this is about creating connections between people and the food they enjoy, it’s so much more for Leadbetter.
In 2013, he found himself in a place familiar to a lot of entrepreneurs: He felt drawn to pursue a more meaningful career. He started Soulshine Organics, an urban farm, with friends in 2012. He then launched Freshlist to transform the lives and legacies of other local, sustainable family farms and farmers — and in the process, revolutionize Charlotte’s food economy.
Farming looks nothing like it did when Leadbetter’s grandparents were active farmers. In 2016, the number of farms in the U.S. declined by 12,000, the USDA reports. At the same time, there has been a rise in large, corporate farming and a decline in smaller family farms that can’t compete on pricing strategy or market placement. The USDA also reports that the average age for today’s farmer is 58 years old; that age has been on the rise for 30 years.
Millennials (those born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s) are changing the game for the farming industry. Millennials “love things like organic farms, small-batch jams and artisanal cheese,” Forbes reports. “This shift — by millions of people — could change the marketplace forever (don’t forget — they will be teaching their children to eat this way, too) as power is shifted from large mass-market companies and brands to ‘the little guy’ selling online or at the local corner store.”
To that end, Freshlist tackles that shifting mindset by creating direct connections with farms and farmers. The shorter, more transparent supply chain is supporting a whole new generation’s direct connection with their food.
Freshlist’s agile approach has allowed the company to fit the needs of the market. The first phase supported local chefs in the process of sourcing more locally grown foods, while maximizing time and energy efficiency: No longer do chefs have to drive to a farmers’ market or sift through emails or text messages from dozens of farmers. Freshlist has it covered.
If you want to know which restaurants are actively sourcing local ingredients through Freshlist, just look for the “VeriFresh” sticker. Bar, breweries, restaurants and food service companies that actively source through Freshlist receive a sticker they can place on their front door or window. The sticker serves a dual purpose: to educate consumers on which establishments are choosing to keep their food dollars within the local agricultural community, and to inspire more businesses to do the same.
With Freshlist’s next step into local grocery delivery service, the company is bringing the concept that is changing the game for local chefs to consumers, who can shop online for a wide array of local groceries — from heirloom tomatoes to locally roasted coffee — and pick them up from one of three delivery locations: The Levine JCC, FoodBuy/Compass Group and LPL Financial.
Leadbetter is full-time at Freshlist with two business partners he’s known most of his life. They’re high school friends who reconnected over business. In November 2017, the company hired its first employee, Erin Bradley. Bradley also grew up around farming, and she shares the vision that drives Freshlist — creating and cultivating a better food system. And just last week, the company announced that Matt Martin joined the team. Martin is the former executive chef of Fern, a popular, local vegetarian restaurant in Charlotte.
“Blue Apron and Amazon are proving they can deliver convenience,” Leadbetter says. “No one has been able to accomplish that in a way that also supports local — yet.”