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Classic Milkman Delivery Returns To Portland And Thrives During The Time Of Covid

MilkRun Brings New Meaning To Farm-to-table, Spotlighting The Local Food Chain

Each week, thousands of people in the Portland, Oregon, area open their doors to neatly packed boxes of local farm-fresh goods. It’s not an industry giant that delivered them; it’s a small, local farm-to-table startup — MilkRun.

MilkRun – an online curator of locally grown produce from over 100 area farmers – was born out of the back of founding farmer Julia Niiro’s minivan when she and some friends began making grocery deliveries to a group of preschool teachers, taking orders by hand. 

Alongside her husband, 34-year-old Julia Niiro ran Revel Farm in Canby, Oregon. While running the farm, Niiro discovered the difficulties associated with distributing her goods to the local community and even her friends and neighbors. It was this revelation that inspired her to make it easier for other farmers to overcome the challenges she faced. MilkRun would be Niiro’s “way to get food to her community, a way for everybody to have access to the vegetables, fruit, meat, bread and more that is being grown and produced” in the Portland area.

Niiro says that MilkRun’s business model draws from the pre-World War II ‘Milkman’ delivery method,  describing it as a “scalable reimagining.” MilkRun cleverly plays on this by asking its customers to “leave a cooler out” to keep dairy products cold–a nod to the front porch iceboxes where milkmen deposited their deliveries.

With her farming background, Niiro wanted to expand beyond fresh milk. Now, the site’s local inventory ranges from bakery items to meat and seafood products, pantry items and even features locally manufactured home and pet products. Niiro told Bloomberg Businessweek recently, “I want to make it as easy to buy from our local farmers as it is to book a stay in someone’s house or call a ride.”

Customers choose the products they want from MilkRun’s virtual marketplace, place their orders, and then the items are delivered on either Tuesday or Thursday based on the order date.

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, the company has experienced a major increase in orders, helping to revive a local supply chain that had been eclipsed by the dominant industrial food system. The company’s contact-free delivery system and extensive use of safety measures, including frequent vehicle and facility sanitizing, make it an attractive option for those who are hesitant to venture out to the market during the pandemic. These newly adopted best practices, in addition to local producers providing unique goods shoppers may not find in stores, likely accounts for MilkRun’s surge in recent popularity.

But MilkRun is not the only company on a mission to make local goods accessible to the community. Other startups, like Till in Birmingham, Alabama, founded in 2019, and long-running Minnesota-based farm-delivery company Featherstone farm, serve their respective areas in similar ways.

In February of this year, just before the emergence of the virus in Oregon,  MilkRun made 175 deliveries a week. By the end of April, the company was providing 2,000 weekly deliveries, and in May, MilkRun topped $600,000 in revenue–equal to the company’s total sales in 2019.

This unprecedented success has led to the company’s expansion into several new areas across greater Portland. And, Julia Niiro has set her sights on expanding MilkRun outside of Portland, with an early-June expansion into Seattle as a first step. Niiro has been in touch with farmers and others in major cities across the U.S. about plans, though she admits she’s hesitant to move too fast. 

For now, Niiro remains dedicated to educating her community about the importance of the local food industry, something she says may be the best part of her job.

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