Lorene Reed is once again at crossroads in her life, a “bittersweet” juncture where she’s closing one business while focusing on a new one.
She’s in the process of tying loose ends with Planet Organics, Inc., the organic food delivery service and retail outlet she and her former husband established 19 years ago in San Francisco and relocated to Sonoma in 2003.
Reed kept customers abreast of weekly specials on the company’s folksy website, with posts that read more like family letters about the farmers and suppliers who supplied the food. Her warm, personal voice helped build customer loyalty that made Planet Organics, at its peak, a $5.5 million company.
“Now it’s less than zero,” Reed said. Once an innovative concept in food sourcing, with boxes of fresh, certified-organic produce and food delivered to homes each week, the company’s niche narrowed as organic products became mainstream and the recession eroded household budgets.
Reed, 54, recently sent a heartfelt letter to her customers, vendors and supporters explaining that she could no longer sustain the business. Rising costs and declining sales were too much to carry her through one more slow summer season, when vacations and backyard gardens prompt customers to curtail service.
Reed’s farewell note quickly generated more than 300 responses from those sad to see the end of Planet Organics. Some supporters have stopped by Reed’s new venture, a café specializing in crepes, to offer both encouragement and regrets.
“That was the kind of business relationship I had with people,” Reed said of the outpouring of support. “I had customers crying at the creperie.”
A year ago, Reed opened the “funky, Bohemian-feel” Divewalk Café with business partner Marc Sloop. Together they’ve developed a menu featuring specialty crepes, scones and “world food” that includes Vietnamese Banh Mi pork sandwiches, Hanoi tacos and seasonal soups, all using organic ingredients.
The café is a longtime dream of Reed’s, a onetime hairstylist who believes in taking calculated risks in life.
She maintains her cosmetology license but now also has a skill set she hardly envisioned when she was cutting hair at a salon in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district. A client mentioned receiving organic produce from “a cute little hippie couple who ran the business out of their garage,” Reed said.
Before long, Reed had signed up to receive boxes of fresh produce delivered weekly to her front door. Always health-conscious, Reed loved both the convenience of the service and the quality of the fruits and vegetables grown without pesticides.
She and her then-husband purchased the business in 1996 for $25,000 and expanded the service, eventually bringing 35 employees and a fleet of 15 delivery vans to the former Nicholas Turkey Farms headquarters on Riverside Drive in Sonoma, where walk-in refrigeration, warehouse, office and retail space were available. They offered their customers everything from produce to meat, fish and dairy products, all organic.
“I really had to fight for my place in the market,” said Reed. “The middleman didn’t appreciate me until I started making money.”
The economic downturn of 2008 threw a devastating punch and “everything tanked,” Reed said, with Planet Organics continually struggling to recover. By then, she said, consumers were cutting back from the $32 “substantial” deliveries, heading to club stores for bulk purchases while also supporting the numerous farmers markets offered throughout the Bay Area.