Five-year-old Tatiana Sebastian waits, perhaps just a little less than patiently, after school one Friday with the family dog, Gansett, a black lab that’s bigger than the kindergartner.
A delivery from local farms is expected at their Narragansett home at any minute.
Tatiana’s mother, Veronica, has placed an order for locally grown vegetables and meat on WhatsGood, an online app with a new feature that allows Rhode Island residents to order food from local farmers and have it delivered to their door for a single $10 fee, no matter how many farms contribute to the order, plus the cost of the order.
“It’s convenient not to have to keep running around town,” said Veronica, a Marine Corps veteran and civilian employee at the Naval War College in Newport.
That’s the sentiment that Matt Tortora, co-founder and chief executive of Providence food technology company Crave Food Systems, is hoping to tap into with the WhatsGood app.
“A very small percentage of a community actually goes to a farmers market, maybe 3 percent,” said Tortora, a former chef and a Navy veteran. “I wanted to make it a lot easier.”
The home delivery service is the latest iteration of the WhatsGood app, which started to link farmers to local restaurants and then expanded to allow consumers to connect directly to farmers and farmers markets in their areas. Tortora said the WhatsGood app is active in about 40 states.
But not the delivery service, which eliminates the need for consumers and farmers to arrange for food pickup. That’s being tested only in Rhode Island, where it began on Aug. 30. Tortora said he hopes to expand the delivery area elsewhere in the Northeast soon.
Tortora’s journey from his native Long Island to Rhode Island food technology company has been indirect, though not terribly lengthy. The now 34 year old enlisted in the Navy, serving as a nuclear missile technician on the ballistic missile submarine USS Rhode Island. When he got out of the Navy, he headed to Johnson & Wales University and enrolled in its culinary program. “I really wanted to be a restaurateur, make a name as a farm-to-table chef,” he said.
After earning his degree, Tortora worked as a chef at Jamestown Fish before returning to Johnson & Wales to study food service management. There, he bumped into John Robitaille, the former gubernatorial candidate, who was mentoring young entrepreneurs. Tortora told Robitaille about his idea for connecting farmers and restaurants. Tortora said, “He was just like, ‘Why not create a company and build this out?’”
And so chef became chief executive. Unlike the stereotypical tech company being started in a garage, Tortora’s stuck closer to his chef roots: it began in his dining room.
WhatsGood home delivery is a four-step process: order, farm pickup, order aggregation, delivery.
Veronica Sebastian, who has a 10-year-old son, Tristan, in addition to 5-year-old Tatiana, said she squeezes the ordering in with her busy-mom duties. “Gymnastics, I’m stuck there for two hours.”
The app allows her to shop by farm or shop by products, the method she prefers. Her family favorites: “Produce. And chicken wings for the kids, because they love that. And steaks.”
The orders are transmitted to the various farmers, fishermen and artisanal food producers, who will provide the goods that have been selected. Currently 15 are participating, offering almost 500 different products.
Tortora says that most products cost the same or less than they would at a farmers market or the grower’s farmstand. WhatsGood charges a 5-percent fee to cover credit card processing and its own costs.
Farmers get the orders by 8 p.m., according to Will Morin, co-owner of The Farm in Rhode Island, in Chepachet. “We’re able to get up early and harvest to order,” Morin said.
One recent misty afternoon, Sammie Vallone, 31, who co-owns the farm, waits with a table covered with orange WhatsGood delivery bags full of produce from her farm.
“I was raised here by my parents,” Vallone says. “They own the property; Will and I own the farm.” They produce organic vegetables, eggs and treatment-free honey on the 43-acre farm.
Vallone said that working with WhatsGood has expanded their business beyond the three farmers markets and four restaurants where they market their goods. “It’s been a great outlet for us to connect with some people not in our area,” she said. “It’s just a lot of opportunity connecting everybody.”
Morin agreed. “Without WhatsGood, we wouldn’t interact with these customers,” he said. “They’d be out of our reach.”
To help with that interaction this day, Sara Fisler shows up at The Farm to pick up the offerings from Vallone and Morin.
Though she’s an account executive at WhatsGood, Fisler will spend this afternoon picking up food from farms in northern Rhode Island. “For the launch, I’ve been kind of filling in as needed,” Fisler says.
At The Guild brewery in Pawtucket, co-founder Jeremy Duffy is running around the former mill complex attending to details about the planned opening of a beer hall at his brewery.
The Guild provides an “aggregation” location for WhatsGood, a place where drivers carrying food from farms will meet to sort the food into individual customer orders. From there, it will be delivered to customers or, at their option, they can pick the food up. WhatsGood has three aggregation locations at breweries in Rhode Island.
It is a symbiotic relationship. WhatsGood can market its services to Guild customers, who often are attracted by the table of orange delivery bags set up outside the brewery’s taproom. And The Guild can get business from WhatsGood customers who decide to pick up their orders. “Stop in and have a fresh pint,” says Duffy.
Pickup at a brewery or home delivery happens between 4 and 7 p.m. on Wednesdays and Fridays, and between 2 and 4 p.m. on Sundays. Tortora says he is exploring delivery to consumers’ workplaces for a $5 fee during work hours.
But that sharing of customers is not the only reason Duffy lets Tortora’s company use space at The Guild.
WhatsGood “came to us with a really unique opportunity to really connect to the Rhode Island food community,” Duffy says. “We’re supporting our local food and beverage brethren. We’re here to be a platform for them to be successful.”
Tortora says that using aggregation points on day of delivery means his company has a very small infrastructure, with no warehouses, no refrigerated trucks. The company is using passenger vehicles to make deliveries. While company employees are making the deliveries while WhatsGood perfects the process, it eventually will hire independent drivers, paying them twice what ride-sharing services Uber and Lyft do, Tortora says. He says he expects his company to be profitable by the spring.
Fisler arrives at The Guild a little later than expected, delayed by a farmer’s loose cow that had meandered into the roadway. She is joined by Erin Tortora, Matt Tortora’s wife and the director of resources for WhatsGood.
“I spent the morning on the southern end of Rhode Island picking up from farms,” Erin Tortora says.
The women set up orange bags of food from farms and start transferring the goods into other orange bags, sorting by a computerized list of customer orders and readying the orders for delivery.
Tatiana Sebastian’s patience pays off when Erin Tortora pulls into the driveway of the Sebastians’ Narragansett home. The 5-year-old and Gansett the dog head down the front steps to greet Tortora.
Inside the family’s kitchen, Veronica Sebastian unpacks the food that Tortora has delivered while Tatiana digs into a pint of tiny tomatoes, with the help of her doll, Merida.
“My husband and I have been talking about trying to get more of our meat and produce locally,” Sebsatian says. “I really like the idea of sourcing it from the local farms in the area. And it kind of forces us to think about eating healthier.”
Meanwhile, Tatiana has satisfied her healthy appetite, nearly polishing off the pint of tomatoes.
What’s available from WhatsGood
Arcadian Fields Organic Farm
Brandon Family Farm
Custom House Coffee
Deep Roots Farm
Rhode Island Dairy Farms Cooperative
Rhode Island Shellfish Company
The Farm in Rhode Island
The Local Patch
Wild Harmony Farm
Sampling of products:
Grass-fed, antibiotic-free beef, pork, lamb and chicken, including bacon, steaks and roasts
Beets, eggplants, jalapeños, greens, potatoes and other vegetables
Eggs, milk and cheese
Stuffies and chowders
Allergen-free, organic cleaning and body products
Clean-label dog treats