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.
Even online giants Google and Amazon now offer organic foods and once contacted Reed about joining a venture, which she quickly declined.
Community-supported agriculture programs also are now more plentiful, bringing additional competition. Once a trend setter in organic sourcing, Planet Organics found itself competing at every turn.
“People saw my service as a luxury more than a necessity,” Reed said.
Offering delivery to the greater Bay Area, from Sonoma County to San Jose and east to Oakland, the company’s customer base shrank from 3,000 to 800, with declining revenues to match.
Reed occasionally leased her house through a vacation-rental service, sleeping at friends’ homes while earning cash to keep things afloat. She later took in a roommate to help with the household budget, explaining to her 17-year-old son Dylan and 19-year-old daughter Jordan that some financial innovation was necessary in attempting to save Planet Organics.
“Customers started leaving in droves, and it kept going downhill from there,” Reed said. “We kept trying to recuperate.”
Despite personally building relationships and negotiating with hundreds of farmers and producers of organic foods like rice and honey, Reed could not regain the momentum. She has been clearing out her inventory and equipment, slowly accepting the loss of a business she considered “like your baby.”
“It’s heart-wrenching for me that I have let so many people down,” Reed wrote in her farewell note. “I know that everyone has been rooting for Planet Organics survival, and I am sorry that I just cannot continue to fight a losing battle any longer.”
Longtime employees Shirin Kerimova, Aranda Tynes, Bill Blake, Jeff Haden and Violetta Guzman have rallied around Reed, helping out and expressing “more concern about me than themselves,” she said.
Reed leaves the business as a skilled produce buyer who “realized I was a good negotiator and more savvy in business than I thought,” she said. “It made me realize I had something I didn’t have before. I had gumption.”
She hopes to put her energy into Divewalk Café, where she has transformed a former loading dock into a breakfast and lunch spot within a yellow-striped tent. The café is noted for its charm, welcoming staff and good eats, with diners often photographing their creatively presented meals for social media postings.
The café, at 19449 Riverside Drive, is open from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Thursday to Sunday. Reed hopes to expand the hours once she’s beyond the work and “heartache” of closing Planet Organics.
For more about Divewalk Café, visit facebook.com/divewalkcafe or divewalkcafe.com.
Contact Sonoma Valley Towns Correspondent Dianne Reber Hart at email@example.com.