When Mark and Suzi Lilly started Farm to Family, they pinned their business model on the novelty of a roving bus making stops in Richmond-area neighborhoods to sell local fruits and vegetables.
A year later, Mark Lilly is parking the bus. Last week, the Lillys opened a Farm to Family store in a former florist's shop off Mechanicsville Turnpike in Henrico County.
“The bus has been running pretty hard, and I have too,” he says.
BBC News profiled the veggie bus in February and Virginia first lady Maureen McDonnell visited, but Lilly says for the next couple months his mobile ventures will focus on special events such as the Richmond Vegetarian Festival.
Recently Lilly had concentrated the bus' stops at local businesses and corporate office parks. He was getting “calls from every demographic,” he says — retirement communities, neighborhood associations and schools — but there was little interest from residents of low-income areas.
Lilly's also been frustrated by what he views as unnecessary politics among local farmers' markets — he was asked to leave the South of the James market because vendors complained that the veggie bus took away their business.
“Some of my farmers sold to him, but like on his bus he would have their same products for sale that they were inside the market selling,” says Karen Atkinson, owner of the Market Umbrella, which operates the South of the James Market in Forest Hill Park.
“This thing is a perfectly designed, sustainable distribution system,” Lilly says of the bus. “And nobody got that.”
Open for its first day of business last week, the Farm to Family shop offers stalls and shelves brimming with local produce, along with Virginia maple syrup, flour and baking mixes, cheese, yogurt, milk and meats, all from suppliers within a 150-mile radius, the Lillys say.
“This is gonna be our slow-food lounge,” Suzi Lilly says, showing off a seating area filled with books on local farming and healthy eating. She says educational programming for children and workshops on canning, beekeeping and herbal medicine are also in the works.