KITCHENER — It's becoming increasingly popular for restaurants to promote locally sourced food on their menus.But it can be a challenging, time-consuming process for chefs to connect with farmers and keep on top of the frequent orders.
EnterLocal Line Inc., a Kitchener-based business that makes that direct connection from farm to fork.
"It's a system that makes it as easy as possible for chefs to get their hands on local food," says Cole Jones, Local Line's co-founder and chief executive officer.
The online platform allows Local Line clients, farmers and chefs alike to communicate directly with each other. It gives farmers a new marketplace to sell their goods while providing chefs with a streamlined way to place their orders.
Chefs can choose from a wide range of products — meats, dairy, grains, fruits and vegetables among them — offered by several suppliers, and receive a single invoice from Local Line.
They can review their order history, browse products and specials, ask questions and order by category or by farmer.
"If it's on your menu, we're going to do our best to find it for you," says Jones.
Participating farms are generally located within a 70-kilometre radius of Kitchener, Waterloo and Guelph. Goods are delivered by the farms to the restaurants twice a week at convenient times.
Local Line makes its money by selling subscriptions and earning a percentage of each sale.
"We never wanted to just be a different take on a wholesale model," Jones says. "We wanted to build a different system," he said, developing relationships and forming community.
Since making its first sale last April, Local Line has signed up about 10 suppliers and more than a dozen restaurants, including Kitchener's Imbibe Food/Drink, the Boathouse and Borealis Grille & Bar.
"Your first three or four customers are so crucial," Jones says. "They give you the credibility."
Along with being CEO, Jones is a 21-year-old university student, a couple of months away from completing a philosophy degree at Wilfrid Laurier University.
Despite the youth of both the company and its leader, Local Line is getting some serious attention from its business peers.
It received nominations for Small Business of the Year and the Environment and Sustainability Award from the Greater Kitchener Waterloo Chamber of Commerce; Jones was also nominated for Young Entrepreneur of the Year.
The awards will be presented Feb. 19.
As well, Jones was nominated recently for Student Entrepreneur of the Year by Enactus Canada.
"It's validation that people were looking for a system like this," Jones says. "It's the community's way of saying, 'We like what you're doing so far.'"
Local Line has its origins in a student business pitch competition in the fall of 2013, when Jones bumped into Cole McLay, then a University of Waterloo student who's since graduated.
The two Coles decided to work together on a pitch for a variation of what Local Line would later become.
A few months later, Local Line was accepted into Laurier's LaunchPad startup program, designed to guide students and alumni in building a business.
The Coles embarked on an extensive interview program, speaking to more than 100 farmers and chefs to gain their insights.
"I think it was really beneficial that we didn't have a background in food," Jones says. They could focus on solving problems without getting stuck on preconceived notions.
He taught himself how to code, creating an initial version of the Local Line software that "looked awful" but worked.
The LaunchPad program earned Jones a course credit and a full-fledged business which now numbers four employees.
"We took it very seriously," Jones says. "I'm very excited to run with this full-time."
With public transit expanding in the region and downtown cores intensifying, Jones believes it's an ideal time for a system that promotes local food.
And he has no doubt it would work elsewhere.
"I like the idea of finding the equivalent of a Cole and myself in another community," Jones says. "I really enjoy this sense of community, of food as a unifier."