Eating Healthily, Sustainably & Simply with Relay Foods’ Sascha Maraj

September 3, 2015

 
John Shegerian: Welcome to another edition of Green Is Good. This is the Green Festival edition of Green Is Good here in beautiful Washington, D.C., and we are so honored to have with us today, Sascha Maraj. He is the Local Market Manager in D.C. for Relay Foods, and you can find them at www.RelayFoods.com. Sascha, welcome. Sascha Maraj: Thank you. John Shegerian: So we have these beautiful foods in front of us. Before we get talking about all the great work you’re doing at Relay Foods, tell me a little bit about yourself. How did you even come to this time in your life that you’re working for relay foods? Was this something that always interested you, or is this an opportunity that came up along the way and you said, “I’ve got to go for it?” Sascha Maraj: So I kind of got started in – I guess you could say – the green movement back in college. I went to the University of Maryland and me and a couple other of my fellow classmates started InkUp, which was a printer ink refilling business on campus. John Shegerian: So you were an ecopreneur back in your college days. Sascha Maraj: Yeah. That’s what we were trying to do. And it was actually pretty successful. It was cool. We won Pitch Dingman, which is like an entrepreneurship-centered business competition, which is really cool, put on by the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship. John Shegerian: And then what happened after college? Did you sell it or – what happened? Sascha Maraj: We dissolved, and then we split the money, and I personally went to go work for Target. I was an executive team leader for about two years, then I figured out retail and a big corporation probably wasn’t where I wanted to be and I could make the most impact. So after two years, I left Target and kind of took a couple months to figure out what I wanted to do, what I wanted to get involved in and how I could back involved with startups, and eventually, I found Relay Foods. I read their mission statement, read that they were hiring. John Shegerian: That was your epiphany. Sascha Maraj: Yeah. John Shegerian: So where did you read about them? Sascha Maraj: Online. I went to various D.C. websites focused on entrepreneurship and just started reading through all the companies that I could find, and then whichever ones resonated, I called or contacted to see if they were hiring, and then, eventually, Relay Foods called me back. John Shegerian: Good for you. So let’s talk about Relay Foods. We’ve got some of the great food in front of us. When was Relay Foods started, and what is their general business proposition? Sascha Maraj: So we got started in around 2009. Zach Buchner – a UVA grad down in Charlottesville – started it and the way the story goes is that he was frustrated with the conventional point-to-point food model and how everything was working. So somebody would go from their house to their grocery store and then another person would go from the house to the grocery store, and it’s just inefficient. So what he wanted to do was take the point-to-point system that currently existed and make a hub-and-spoke model where everybody comes to a central location. It reduces your carbon footprint, and it makes everything more fresh, so you get things directly from the farm as opposed to things coming from the farm to a distributor to the grocery store waiting around for a few days. John Shegerian: Wow. Sascha Maraj: That’s how it got started. John Shegerian: So wait a second. So explain how it works here in D.C. then. I mean, how would I buy some of this great produce here? Sascha Maraj: So what you can do is log on to www.RelayFoods.com. There we have almost 6000 products from, I think, it’s almost 200 local producers – so that’s people in Union Kitchen, that is local farms in the area, people who make honey, who make kombucha. Actually, a lot of our vendors are here, which is pretty cool. John Shegerian: Really? OK. Sascha Maraj: Yeah and then. John Shegerian: It’s like a Relay Festival here. Sascha Maraj: Exactly. John Shegerian: A little Relay Foods Festival within the Green Festival. Sascha Maraj: Yep. Then you go online. There are no subscription fees, there are order minimums. You just hop on, poke on whatever you want, add it to your cart and we’ll either deliver it to your door or you can pick up for free at any one of our local pickup locations in the area. John Shegerian: How convenient is that? So as the local market manager, what are you doing on a regular basis for Relay Foods? Sascha Maraj: So my job is, essentially, this: telling the community what Relay is, explaining what we do to the public and just trying to get the word out there. John Shegerian: So you have 6000 products? Sascha Maraj: Yeah. Just about. John Shegerian: Unbelievable. We have some beautiful veggies here in front of us. So it is baked goods; there is honey; there is kombucha. I mean, it’s as wide as you can think? Sascha Maraj: Yep. So what we really aim to be is like a one-stop-shop for groceries and local and organic foods, so we have things like produce, meat and fish, bakery, pantry, a dairy and eggs section, a frozen section, deli. It’s everything. We have cleaning supplies, paper towels and things like that. John Shegerian: What is considered local nowadays as a term of art? Is it a 100-mile radius? Is it a 200? How many mile radius is still considered local to fit in the Relay Foods business model? Sascha Maraj: Generally speaking, I believe it’s within 150 of our fulfillment center. John Shegerian: OK. And why choose local and organic? Why is that so important to your generation and to everyone out there right now? Sascha Maraj: That’s a really good question. So I’ll start with organics. Organic is important because when you buy conventional produce, you don’t really know how it was raised. You don’t know what pesticides may be on it; you don’t know what antibiotics may have been injected into the animals; you just don’t know. There is a lack of transparency. But with organic, you have a better sense of what you’re getting. You know that there are no pesticides used, you know that there were no hormones or antibiotics or anything else put into it. And with local, local takes that almost one step further. I think – personally – the coolest thing about local food is you can actually go visit your farmer. John Shegerian: Wow. Sascha Maraj: So on our website, you can see the address of where all your food is coming from. John Shegerian: Come on. Sascha Maraj: So if you wanted to, you could go down to Virginia or Maryland or D.C. – wherever it’s coming from. You can go shake hands with a farmer and be like, “Hey, I want to see this,” and they will show you. We’ve actually done that with quite a few of our producers. I’ve gone and seen a couple at Wolf Creek Farm, which is all grass-fed beef. I’ve been to Polyface. I’ve been to a bunch of other producers and that – I think – is the best thing about local. John Shegerian: How cool is that? How about baked goods? Do you sell local baked goods as well? Sascha Maraj: Yeah. Absolutely. Some of our most popular ones – like Goldilocks Goodies – are an all gluten-free bakery, and we have a lot of baked goods in the area. John Shegerian: That is great. So in terms of – who is your favorite farmer out of all the farmers that grow for you? Sascha Maraj: That’s a tough question. John Shegerian: I know. I don’t want to get you in trouble here. Sascha Maraj: I think my favorite farmer – at least that I’ve visited – has probably got to be Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms. I’m sure you’ve heard of him. He’s pretty famous. He has written a bunch of books, and he is really the pioneer of the whole sustainable permaculture agriculture movement and he was doing it back in the 1970s. John Shegerian: What does he grow? What are his products? Sascha Maraj: All sorts of stuff. So my favorite thing from him – I think – has got to be his grass-fed beef and his pasture-raised eggs. But he has beef, he has ducks, he has rabbits. John Shegerian: Wow. Sascha Maraj: He has chickens of course. He has all sorts of different things. John Shegerian: And so how does someone sign up to have their food become part of the Relay Foods family? Sascha Maraj: So at the bottom of our website, there is a “become a producer” link, and aspiring producers in the area can just go there, fill out a little bit about their product and then our team – our people – will get in contact with them. They will sample their products. They will make sure that there is kind of a niche for it and a demand for it, and then if there is, they will get on the website. John Shegerian: Then you’re approved. Sascha Maraj: Yep. John Shegerian: So right now – the business launch – when did Relay Foods launch? Sascha Maraj: I believe, 2009. John Shegerian: OK. So how many users right now do you have? How many members do you have that are using Relay Foods on a regular basis? Sascha Maraj: That’s a tough question. I don’t know the exact numbers John Shegerian: OK. But around. In the thousands, tens of thousands. Sascha Maraj: So across all markets – we’re in Baltimore, we’re in the D.C. metro area, we’re in Virginia and then North Carolina – it’s definitely in the thousands, but I couldn’t quote you an exact number. John Shegerian: And there’s a local market manager like you in each market? Sascha Maraj: Yes. John Shegerian: Wow. Sascha Maraj: So I am one of four in the D.C. metro area, and then I think there are two or three up in Baltimore, and then there are ones in Virginia, and then North Carolina. John Shegerian: What is the Relay Foods meal-planning program? Sascha Maraj: So meal planning we just rolled out. It’s brand new. Basically, what you can do – or what we did, I should say – is we got a registered dietician to come on board and create, I think there are 150 to 300 now, meals. What you can do is you can actually click on any one of them, and once you do that, it will drop everything that you need into your cart. So it’s a one-stop shop. You just click the button, it drops everything in. You can customize it. So like let’s say you are really into organic tomatoes, but you don’t really care about organic bananas – let’s say – for whatever salad you’re making. John Shegerian: Right. Sascha Maraj: You can change it so it adjusts the price, and what we really try to do is make it so that it’s both affordable and easy. So we have this saying “20 under 20.” So ideally it would cost $20 to feed a family of four and then the meal would take under 20 minutes to produce. John Shegerian: Wow. That’s awesome. How are people responding so far? Sascha Maraj: It’s been great. It has definitely exceeded all of our initial expectations during rollout, and it’s just been going since. John Shegerian: For those listeners who have joined us and viewers who have joined us, this is John Shegerian and Sascha Maraj at the Green Festival Green Is Good special edition, and we’re talking about Sascha’s great company that he works for. He is the Local Market Manager here in the D.C. area for Relay Foods. You can find them at www.RelayFoods.com. How many people work for the company now, Sascha? Sascha Maraj: If I were to take a guess – I’m not sure of the exact number…. John Shegerian: Yeah. Sascha Maraj: But I think it’s around 150 to 200. John Shegerian: It sounds like this is a program that can be rolled out almost in every metro region across America. Is this the founder and entrepreneur’s dream of the company? Sascha Maraj: So one of the coolest things about us is because of our – like I said – hub-and-spoke model, it means that we can serve places that are generally underserved. So one of the nice things about us as opposed to some of our competitors in other regions is that we don’t have to necessarily be in a metro area. We can start in a metro area and then expand out to suburbs, and it’s a relatively – at least for us operationally – inexpensive to add a new area, because we are not building brick-and-mortar stores. We don’t have the same overhead allotment for these things. John Shegerian: Right. Got you. So you feel that you’re with a very big growth coming. This will grow to other regions in the years ahead. Sascha Maraj: Absolutely. John Shegerian: That’s awesome. So when I log on and I order my stuff, when does the stuff get delivered to me? Is it daily or is it weekly, or when does that stuff get delivered? Sascha Maraj: So if you live inside the Beltway, then you can get delivery six days out of the week. So every day, except for Sunday – you could get an apple a day if you wanted to. John Shegerian: Really? Sascha Maraj: Yeah. And then the pickups are each on different days. Usually, the truck is there between 3:00 and 7:00 p.m., and they’re all across the metro area. John Shegerian: And how do you keep things cold if I order something that needs to get to me that’s cold? Sascha Maraj: That’s a good question, too. So we actually have these Rubbermaid totes and what we do is we insulate them. We put a cold pack on the bottom, so everything that needs to stay cold stays cold and then anything that needs to stay frozen – let’s say ice cream, like Morenko’s ice cream is actually based out of Silver Spring – they are our Vendor of the Month. John Shegerian: Wow. How good is the ice cream? Sascha Maraj: It’s great. John Shegerian: It’s amazing. Oh god. Sascha Maraj: It’s fantastic. John Shegerian: There you go. Sascha Maraj: That gets packaged in dry ice freezer-sealed bags. John Shegerian: Got you. What happens if something gets delivered to me and I’m like, “I didn’t want this today, I made a mistake ordering,” or something happens? What happens then? Sascha Maraj: Heaven forbid that ever happen, but if it does, we have a 100-percent money-back guarantee – unconditionally. John Shegerian: Wow. Sascha Maraj: So let’s say you bought some tomatoes and you’re like, “Oh god. I just don’t need these tomatoes, I don’t even know why I bought them,” or let’s say they weren’t even bad, but they started to get a little wrinkly – it’s just not something you would pick out – what you would do is you need to call me or you can call our customer happiness team. You can chat with us, you can email us, anything. Anybody on the Relay team will refund whatever the item is immediately, and in a lot of cases, we can even get you a discount on new stuff or something. John Shegerian: That’s awesome. This is great. So if I live in an apartment building or a condo, no problem in terms of drop-off and delivery and all that other kind of stuff. Sascha Maraj: Nope. None whatsoever. So a lot of times we’ll get buzzed up or you can also pick exactly what window you want things delivered so you can coordinate when you’ll be home. But even if that isn’t the case, then you can actually leave our drivers a little message about where to leave it. So if you are in an apartment building, you can leave them the code, or if that’s not your thing, you can tell them to leave it with the front desk or anything. They’re really good about getting you your food. John Shegerian: So, Sascha, as you look back, was it a good decision to leave the executive training program and come over here? Sascha Maraj: Absolutely. I would highly recommend anybody who is interested in entrepreneurship or the sustainability movement to get involved with a local green startup, because they’re just so much fun to work for. And when you actually believe in what you’re doing and the mission and all that stuff it just makes work so much more fun. John Shegerian: Your generation of Millennials seem really – of course, making money is important for all of us, but everything has to have a social bottom line, a mission bottom line for your generation, and it sounds like it’s becoming infectious both below you and above you now, too. Sascha Maraj: Yeah. It’s one thing to work for a company, but it’s a completely different thing to believe in what a company does. And actually, when I was talking with the Buchse guys – we just signed Buchse on a little while ago – it’s just working and talking with them and seeing their passion. It makes what we’re doing just all the more meaningful. John Shegerian: How many of you are here? How many of your local market manager or other ambassadors are with you from Relay Foods here at the Green Festival? Sascha Maraj: We have a group of five over by our booth, and there are just people coming over. We’re all constantly talking to people. John Shegerian: Are you passing out brochures and giving them the website and telling them, “Sign up and let’s get going?” Sascha Maraj: Actually, we are generally paper-free. John Shegerian: OK. Sascha Maraj: We try to be as eco-friendly as we can. John Shegerian: Cool. Sascha Maraj: But we do have little refrigerator magnets with our mascots – Bo and Tweet – on them. John Shegerian: Why are Bo and Tweet your mascots? Sascha Maraj: To be 100-percent honest, I’m not sure, but Bo is a cow and Tweet is a bird on top of Bo. Very cute. But that got decided before I came on the scene. John Shegerian: Well, we are so happy you’re here at the Green Festival. We are so happy we got a chance to interview you today. We’ve been with Sascha Maraj. He is a local market manager here in D.C. for Relay Foods, and to learn more about Relay Foods, or to sign up for Relay Foods’ delivery service for their 6000 or so great local organic products, go to www.RelayFoods.com. Sascha, we’re so thankful for you, for your partners at Relay Foods. You guys are making the world a better place, and you are truly living proof that Green Is Good.