Today, the crisis will be carrots. But at 5:30 a.m., on a dark street on Cleveland’s near East Side, the day’s worries are still far in the future. Trevor Clatterbuck (CWR ’08) is just pulling his red pickup into the lot beside a loading dock near the Cleveland Food Terminal building. The lanky, floppy-haired 27-year-old hops out of one truck and into another—a box truck tagged with graffiti-like images of lettuce, corn, tomatoes and broccoli. He guns the engine between sips of his second cup of coffee.
Clatterbuck is at the front end of an 18- to 20-hour day—the norm in his line of work. He’s the owner, delivery driver, farmer liaison and chief problem solver for Fresh Fork Market, a subscription service for consumers looking to buy local food. He started the business from an office at Case Western Reserve in 2008.
Now operating out of an industrial warehouse, wearing work boots and a flannel shirt, Clatterbuck is just a few dozen blocks but a lifetime away from the world he envisioned when he first set foot on campus less than a decade ago. Back then, the first-generation college student from West Virginia figured he’d make his steelworker father and secretary mother proud and become a lawyer.
“It’s always, if you’re a good student, ‘Go to college and become a doctor or a lawyer,’” Clatterbuck says with a wry smile.
Of course, college has a way of changing things.
Clatterbuck started his college career routinely enough—for a former student council president and endlessly high achiever. He declared a major in political science, then added business management to his repertoireand stillgraduated summa cum laude in four years.
He’s the first to acknowledge that he wasn’t all that engaged in campus life. He commuted back to West Virginia each weekend to sell hunting gear at a store where he’d been working since high school. He took a second job at a university photo lab. By sophomore year he’d tacked an internship at Hyland Software to his résumé. And if his life seemed busy at the time, it was about to get even crazier.
In 2007, just before his senior year, he and a group of fellow CWRU students spent five days at Cleveland State University for the inaugural edition of Entrepreneurship Immersion Week, sponsored by a consortium of seven local colleges and universities. It was an opportunity to create a business plan from the ground up. The organizers laid down two rules: no drinking, no leaving campus. After a few days of “staring at walls,” Clatterbuck’s team broke both rules and headed downtown to a restaurant that touted its locally produced foods.
“The waitress was cute, we were a group of five guys, we started talking to her,” he recalls. “We asked her what was local, and she said, ‘Nothing.’” The restaurant had trouble obtaining a consistent supply of local foods.
“It sounded like a communication problem,” Clatterbuck says. Surely there were local farmers out there with produce to sell. But for some reason, they hadn’t connected with the chef.
That revelation sparked Fresh Fork’s first iteration as a sort of Amazon.com-style marketplace for local farmers and restaurants. Clatterbuck’s group drew up a business plan and won the competition.
“Afterward,” he says, “someone called us, asking where they could get zucchini. We took it as a hint that there was some demand.”
He and three other members of the group each committed $5,000. Clatterbuck developed an independent study project for the first semester of his senior year and dug into refining the business plan. The partners developed software, spent New Year’s Day stuffing envelopes, and opened up shop right on schedule: June 6, 2008.
“We hit our deadline and got lots of press coverage in the first six months,” Clatterbuck says. “It was looking good when we got started.” The team received a grant from the Civic Innovation Lab, a project funded by the Cleveland Foundation, and raised $30,000 from private investors. But Clatterbuck soon learned that launching a business was harder than it looked.
“It was the chicken-and-egg scenario,” he says. “I had no sales and no track record. What motivation was there for anyone to give me a chance? Those first producers were taking a risk with us.” It also turned out that the farms and restaurants didn’t fully embrace the online aspect of the business.
The partners slowly went their separate ways. Clatterbuck, though, remained smitten with entrepreneurship. So in 2009, on his own, he switched gears.
“I started marketing Fresh Fork a different way,” he says. “I wanted to provide a supply chain solution for producers.” He began working personally with farmers instead of brokering deals over the Internet. He dove into the Amish community, setting up open houses at local granges in the fertile ring of farmland south of Cleveland and asking the farmers about the logistical problems they faced. On the demand side, he began building a customer base of households (although he still supplies a heavy handful of restaurants each week). Chefs, he realized, were fickle buyers—they didn’t order consistently, and they only wanted certain items: a night’s worth of ribeyes but no ground chuck, for example.
The public was buying into what local-food advocates call CSA (community supported agriculture). Through the growing CSA movement, customers typically pick up prearranged food baskets at a farm each week, paying for the privilege by the season. Clatterbuck devised what he considered a better model, which he calls the Farm Buying Club. His baskets aren’t sourced from just one farm; this year, he is obtaining produce, dairy and meat from more than 100 suppliers, thereby increasing the variety of foods he provides. And instead of asking his customers to drive out to a farm each week, Clatterbuck started rounding up the food himself, originally storing items in a homemade refrigerator unit—christened “the silly box”—in the back of a van. Then he arranged pickup sites throughout Greater Cleveland, making the process as easy for his customers as possible.
“The service was set to launch on May 29, 2009,” Clatterbuck recalled in an interview with Fresh Water Cleveland last year. “On May 28, I drove to Columbus, convinced a dealership to sell me a used, refrigerated box truck (and finance it), and drove it back from Columbus and picked up the food on the way back.”
With a handful of farmers on board and 40 customers that first season, he barely broke even—but it was a step in the right direction. In the four years since, Clatterbuck’s grown his operation to include three delivery trucks, 108 farmers, 3,000 customers and more than a dozen pickup locations.
Clatterbuck pogos up and down on his captain’s chair as he whizzes down I-71 toward the first stop of the day, Yellow House Cheese in Seville. In pre-dawn light, he’ll pick up two boxes of Roquefort-style cheese made from sheep’s milk; the producers are a husband-and-wife team still wiping sleep out of their eyes. True to name, their converted cheese-making barn sits behind a yellow farmhouse—but it’s not all bucolic meadows and frolicking lambs. Until recently, says owner Kevin Henslee, the grounds were a big mud pit, so not many people have been out to tour the small operation.
“Everyone thinks cheese-making is so sexy,” Clatterbuck says, laughing. Kevin’s wife, Kristyn, knows better. “All I do when I make cheese is wash dishes,” she says. “The milk just sits there, and I wash dishes until it’s done.”
Clatterbuck will visit gorgeous, picture-book farms today. Quiet, aproned Amish girls in somber shades of green and blue will mill around every pick-up site. He’ll deliver luscious, jewel-toned heirloom tomatoes to his urban customers. It’s all so pretty, it’s easy to forget the “washing dishes” majority of his job: shipping.
Around the warehouse, Clatterbuck’s employees are prone to quoting the infamous LMFAO lyric, “Every day I’m shufflin’.” When you’re managing a food supply this big, everything comes down to logistics and manual labor.
“I’m always loading trucks,” Clatterbuck explains, “always carrying something around. I would love to ride my bike to work one day.” He spends up to eight hours on pickup days trucking from farm to farm in places like Wooster, West Salem and Wilmot. When he finally makes it back to the warehouse, it’s a mad rush to unload and reload the trucks before they head out for the evening’s delivery locations. Last month, he went through five tires. This year, he’ll spend $50,000 on diesel fuel.
As he drives, the former would-be lawyer tackles topics ranging from field heat—hot ears of corn fresh from the field can wreak havoc on the whole load if they’re not properly cooled before transit—to the custom Fresh Fork app he created for the Android tablet.
Not exactly litigation and briefs, to be sure. But as an entrepreneur in a field he’d never experienced before (he’d never even worked in a restaurant, let alone grown up on a farm), Clatterbuck gets to indulge his lifelong passion for learning on a daily basis. He’s the one who talks crops with the farmers on the Fresh Fork docket. He’s the one who organizes the daily driving routes, plans the weekly food baskets and manages the shifting supply and demand throughout the year.
Clatterbuck bought his first box truck without any knowledge of how to drive a stick shift. He learned—he swears—on the drive off the car lot. Like so much about this business model, his life is a work in progress. That doesn’t seem to worry him.
“I’ve always been a glass-half-full kind of person,” he notes. “I don’t really ever get worked up.” But today there is someone worked up back at home base. Clatterbuck fields a flurry of phone calls about a mini-crisis: When another driver arrived at an Amish farm, the farmer didn’t have his carrots ready to go. With no time to wait, Clatterbuck advises the driver to head back to Cleveland. This means no carrots for the bags that are supposed to leave the warehouse in a few hours.
It may seem like a small problem—who cares about a couple of carrots per bag? But for Clatterbuck, success in this industry is all about the small stuff. As each call comes through, he quickly and calmly reroutes trucks and advises staffers on substitute produce, all the while barreling through the countryside.
In his own way, he’s made a big difference in the lives of the people he works with. Because he’s “an obsessive planner,” he starts mapping out his buying season in January. He works with farmers to home in on their best crops, then buys, say, 10 tons of sweet potatoes from a single source. He even advances his best suppliers up to $15,000 to get their crops started.
At an Amish wedding he was invited to recently, the groom pulled him aside to tell him he couldn’t have afforded to get married without the income Fresh Fork brings in. “I was getting all choked up with this Amish guy,” Clatterbuck says. “I’m making an impact on my producers. My identity is aligned with Fresh Fork Market.”
This year, his most successful yet, has led him deeper into the industry. He’s partnered with a farmer on new methods of raising pigs, cattle and turkeys and is already seeing success. Farmers have begun to ask him for advice on their crops, animals and packaging procedures.
Clatterbuck has found his niche far away from any office: on dirt roads, in the back of box trucks and at foodie-driven events around the region. He’s laser-focused on building a business that sustains local farms and encourages healthy lifestyles—and that’s a fresh idea.
Amber Matheson is a freelance writer.