It’s not quite noon on a cloudy August day when more than 100 men, women and children descend on the north end of the Hobby Lobby parking lot off College Drive.
They’ve come for groceries. There is no grocery store here, but that doesn’t deter them. For some, that is even a bonus.
“I have three little kids, so I don’t have to go inside of a grocery store,” Hannah Birchman said. “If you’re not in the store, you don’t have impulse items. You don’t have, ‘Mommy, Mommy, I want this.’ ”
Birchman is one of 79 families who showed up for the truck from Azure Standard, a company specializing in organic, non-genetically modified, gluten-free and other specialty foods. For Azure Standard, Baton Rouge is almost the extreme southeastern tip of the Oregon company’s reach.
The company (azurestandard.com) is not the first specialty food co-op to service Baton Rouge. But the logistical operation when a truck enters the parking lot would have made the D-Day planners proud.
Drop manager Tara Pitcher is the local Eisenhower.
Earlier this year, Pitcher’s mother, Marilyn Pennington, learned about Azure Standard.
“I buy a lot of things in bulk, and I buy my own wheat and make my own bread, and I was looking for avenues to find less expensive bulk purchases, mainly for not paying as much shipping,” Pennington said.
Pitcher contacted the company and asked what it would take to get food delivered to Baton Rouge. It took a whole lot.
The closest Azure Standard came to Baton Rouge was Orange, Texas, so the company required $17,000 in orders to make it worthwhile for Covenant Ranch Trucking, of Topeka, Kan., to deliver here.
Pitcher didn’t blink. She reached friends through Facebook and emails, and distributed flyers at farmers markets. It took about four months to get enough people to order from the company’s online or print catalog, but there were $23,000 in orders when the first delivery arrived in June.
“My son is lactose intolerant, and we buy a lot of stuff from Whole Foods,” said Chris Collett, who showed up to collect his wife’s order. “If we buy in bulk here, it’s a little cheaper. It’s a little inconvenient to pick it up, but it’s cheaper.”
By inconvenient, Collett means the once-a-month pickup schedule is set by the trucking company, in weather conditions set by God. Otherwise, Pitcher has this thing planned to within an inch of its life.
When buyers arrive, Pitcher hands them sheets with their names and instructs them to attach it to a clipboard, then arrange it alphabetically on either side of the parking lot lane. When the truck arrives, each customer receives an invoice so he’ll know if he got everything he ordered.
Then, the truck’s back door opens, and all those customers get in line, receive a box or bag of food marked with the name of the person who ordered it, and deliver it to that person’s spot on the pavement.
There were 325 items. That includes refrigerated and frozen items, which are the last to be unloaded, a process that took a little over half an hour.
“The way this is set up apparently is pretty organized,” said Dan Collins, who was picking up an order for his daughter, Meghan Savage. “The complicated part is just unloading the truck.
“We patronize Whole Foods, especially the bulk items, because we make our own granola. This has cut the price in half. It’s astounding.”
Nathan Raffel was there to pick up large sacks of wheat and other grains and flour, items he can’t get as cheaply elsewhere, for his Lafayette restaurant, Bibi’s Pastisserie. Everyone else appeared to be buying for their families.
In the process, they seem to be developing their own little community.
“A lot of the people I already knew because there is a pretty large network of, as my husband likes to call them, crunchy mamas,” said Pitcher, who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. “We’re all kind of granola and crunchy. We knew each other before this, and so that was one of the ways I was able to get the word out.
“I have met several new people through this. I love meeting new people, making new friends, and I’ve already been able to do this in the three months we’ve done this.”
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