Courtney Tellefsen is a Cary native and founder and CEO of The Produce Box. She set out 13 years ago on a mission to support local farmers and help change our food system one table at a time. The Produce Box was started in her garage working with one farmer and delivering boxes of fresh fruits and vegetables to 25 of her neighbors. Today the company has 15,000 members across the state of North Carolina purchasing more than 4 million pounds of local produce each year from more than 70 farmers, using an army of 200 stay-at-home moms and dads.
Courtney is also teaching groups in other states how to run similar business models—all of this while trying to survive life with two teenagers at home.
1. What is in your pockets?
I have a box cutter, lipstick, and three extra face masks in my pockets. I don’t know why I have the lipstick since we’re wearing masks. I’m becoming a box cutter expert. The three extra face masks are in case I walk around the warehouse and see somebody without their face mask on, which actually doesn’t happen very often. I have three in my pocket because we have to be really fanatical about face masks since we’re in a production environment and we have 75 people in our warehouse.
2. What exciting thing has happened recently for you or your organization?
The Produce Box is a local delivery service that provides local produce, meat, dairy products, chicken, and seafood to families all over the state. We work almost exclusively with local providers and we have a unique distribution model because we use an army of almost 200 stay-at-home moms who hand-deliver rather than ship those boxes to your door. We’ve been in business 13 years and we work with a lot of nonprofit organizations as well, so we feel that we do a lot of good because we impact the community. We impact farmers. We’re getting good food into the kitchens of people who need it.
Our orders have gone from 3,000 a week to 12,000 in the space of 90 days. I hate that it was because of the pandemic, but it sure has helped out our farmers a lot. A lot of those farmers supplied large restaurant distributors in the area where their business has gone down 60 to 70 percent, so those farmers were stuck. And so to be able to pivot to serving us, that’s really helped them. We’re also able to impact a lot of the meat distributors and dairy as well, whose business went down.
It’s really helped that we’ve doubled our workforce. We’re employing well over a hundred employees now, and we’re also working with five nonprofit organizations to distribute produce boxes to families in food-insecure neighborhoods, which accounts for about 50,000 of the boxes that we’ve built in the last three months.
3. What is your favorite coffee spot?
It’s Deja Brew Coffee House in North Raleigh off of Falls of Neuse Road in Quail Corners Shopping Center. I’ve known the owners of that coffee shop since they started and it’s just a nice unique coffee spot in a really neat location that before the pandemic hosted a variety of interesting groups including knitters, banjo players and the deaf and hearing-impaired.
4. What keeps you up at night?
Right now it’s the operations of the business and making sure that we can manage the scaling that we’re doing and then I’m wondering what’s going to happen in the next six months. We’re almost at capacity in the warehouse so I’m thinking about what are we going to do if we need to expand. It’s figuring out opportunities for efficiency and operations and then also how to continue growing the business and potentially duplicating in every state, which is what I want to do.
5. What is your favorite restaurant or happy hour?
We’re not going to restaurants. We’re having a lot of fun experimenting at home. In fact, I’m partnering with a couple of chefs to put together a meal kit, and so I’ve been testing some of those meal kits out at home. We’re looking at providing local meal kits either through Supper Meals or the Produce Box.
6. What is next for you or your organization?
I’m always throwing ideas out at my team. The first one would be that we are close to being able to duplicate in other states. I’m working on improving our capabilities so that we can improve our software to get there. I also own a small company called Supper Meals, which I shut down during the pandemic, but I want to bring that back up, and that would be delivering prepared meals to your home using the Produce Box delivery system.
I’m talking to a couple of groups about doing a drive-thru through farmer’s market. I’m looking at starting a little company called Carolina Flavors that would supply value-added products to specialty stores in the Southeast. I’m intrigued by the drive-thru farmer’s market idea right now and thinking through how to do that using the supply from the Produce Box.