When you drive up to the old La Azteca building on Main St. you would never guess that inside you’ll find a bustling kitchen for a food startup that delivers some of the healthiest food in Silicon Valley. We recently spent the afternoon with Marc Manara and Mark Wittman, the co-founders of Farm Hill, to learn more about how they are making nutritious food both an accessible and convenient option for folks living and working in the Bay Area. Farm Hill delivers delicious boxed lunches right to your doorstep or office space. (If you’re looking for a healthy change from sandwiches and pizza, they also offer catering for meetings and events.) We chatted about what inspired them to start their business, how they chose their name, and their favorite spots around town.
Can you tell us a little bit about Farm Hill?
Marc: We created Farm Hill to try and make it really easy to get a truly healthy meal. People can order online, and soon with our mobile app, and have food delivered that is 100% whole ingredients, no added sugar, no refined flours, nothing processed. Basically, it’s really great fresh vegetables, great produce, sustainably raised meats, and lots of flavor. People can have those meals delivered directly to where they live or where they work. We’ve focused a lot on serving lunchtime, which ends up going to a workplace of some kind. We’re headquartered in Redwood City, but are serving everywhere from San Mateo down to San Jose.
How did you decide on the name Farm Hill? Did that have anything to do with Farm Hill Boulevard?
Mark: Yes, actually. Coming from 280, that was the exit that we would take to get to this space. We were originally in a very small catering kitchen in Campbell, California. When we finally signed the lease on this spot in June 2014, we would come by here and take the Farm Hill Boulevard exit. We wanted something that evoked what was important to us about local, farm fresh ingredients and that was a name that kept popping up on our list of potential names. We thought it fit really well, it was local to the community where we were moving, and the domain was available!
What inspired you to start your business?
Marc: We both care a lot about food, both in terms of getting good quality food and nutritious food. We realized that in our own lives it was really hard to do that. We loved cooking, and loved going to the farmer’s market, but didn’t always have time to make that fit into our day. We thought there was a gap between getting the cheapest, most processed, least healthy stuff, and the amount of work and time it takes if you want to eat something wholesome. We didn’t feel like anyone was doing healthy right, meaning hitting a flavor profile that was really exciting and something that someone would want to eat, while having this really wholesome underpinning to it, from a nutritional standpoint. We wanted to make something more along the lines of a fast, casual concept, but meet a really high nutritional bar. And we wanted it to be something that people would choose to eat even when they had other options available.
Originally, we were imagining more of a fast, casual chain more like Chipotle, with a physical retail store. Early on, we decided to try and prototype a delivery model to get started and get some initial feedback. And then that became the core business, which is what we’re doing now with direct delivery. It turns out it’s a good business model. The delivery piece of it make you really nimble; you can expand really quickly and serve places that a traditional retail store won’t be able to in terms of the foot traffic that it needs. But with delivery you can reach a lot of the nooks and crannies that are really underserved by good food. That’s kind of how we got to where we are.
Your backgrounds are in Political Science and Computer Science. What motivated you to get into the food industry?
Mark: I think for both of us, food and food systems, have long been something that’s been a part of our lives. For me, personally, my dad is a physician. Growing up, we would be at the dinner table talking about whatever, and basically the punchline when we talked about any sort of ailment a patient was having would be that they really needed to change their diet. The more that I’ve read about nutrition and nutrition studies, it shows that a lot of what is going on in public health boils down to diet. There’s a huge impact we can have with making meals like this. That’s always been a part of my life and my mom’s family are all farmers, so the agriculture and food systems side is a big piece of what’s been driving me towards this. When I was coming to grad school, I wanted to shift my career towards working in food and agriculture.
Marc: For me, it was similar from a family perspective. Food was always the centerpiece of everything we did. We have a lot of food traditions and family recipes. As I got older and started cooking for myself, I took a lot more interest in that. I was living in New York for about five years, and it was hard not to care a lot about food. It’s such a big part of the culture there. I started reading more and more about nutrition and caring a lot more about what was going into my body. I got inspired to try to do something for mostly personal reasons. Neither of us really had any traditional food service experience. We got a lot of warnings from advisors when we were starting this business. Like make sure you know what you’re doing before getting into this, the food business is a tough business.
Mark: And in the beginning, it was just the two of us. We rented the kitchen space and we were cooking all the meals, and delivering all the meals. We were the dishwashers, prep cooks, line cooks, executive chefs, and delivery people for the first thousand meals. So we’ve done literally every job in our company. And now we’re finally hiring people that are way more talented at most of this stuff than we are.
Was there anything in particular that made you guys want to focus on healthy, vegan, and paleo foods?
Mark: The whole mission behind the company is to create a food company that people can really trust to get a healthy meal. If I were to ask you where can you reliably go to get a good burrito right now, you might say Chipotle, or a cup of coffee, you’d say Starbucks. We want to be that, for healthy eating. (Although in Redwood City, you wouldn’t say Chipotle for a burrito.)
Your dishes are so vibrant and colorful! Can you tell us a little more about the kinds of ingredients you use?
Marc: For us, it all starts with using whole ingredients. We try to feature as much seasonal, fresh produce as we can in our dishes. We really focus on having a balanced meal on a few different fronts: color is one way to balance a meal. We also look at the components, there is frequently a grain or something hearty, there’s a lot of green vegetables, and then we try to get in one other color, in addition to a main protein of some kind. We aim for a really balanced palate and visually want to create something that’s really exciting to eat.
People say you eat with your eyes first. It needs to look good and be plated well. We don’t think flavor necessarily needs to come from calories so we try to use a lot of really bright ingredients like zest, garlic, and ginger, that have a lot of flavor for every calorie you get from them. The meal can be this bright beautiful thing, that doesn’t weigh you down for two hours after you’ve eaten it. We’re always looking for ways to get those flavors in that are bright and could be part of a really healthy meal without filling you up too much.
How do you source your ingredients?
Marc: We make an effort to get things that are in season. Being in California, we’re lucky that if it’s in season, we can usually get it from within 100 miles give or take. Our priority is wholesomeness, or whole ingredients. For instance, brown rice is better than a brown rice flour or a piece of fruit is better than fruit juice.We use the whole grains or the whole vegetables. That’s the starting point, and then we try our best to get as much local and organic food as we can.
How do you deal with food waste?
Mark: We try to limit the amount of food waste that we have. The way our model works, we’re able to do that pretty successfully. We provide a meal for all of our staff everyday, so that’s one way that some of the extra food we have gets converted to meals. We also work with some local organizations to donate food. We try not to let too much go to waste. It’s a painful thing to see food go to waste.
How do you see your business growing in the next 5 years?
Marc: Short term, we’re trying to expand through the rest of the Bay Area that we don’t serve. San Francisco is a big place for us and we’re gearing up for a launch there. Beyond that, we want to replicate what we’re doing here in other major metro regions throughout the US. I think within five years, we want to be in at least 10 new cities, and hopefully more. We want to turn what we’re doing into something that can scale into a national brand, or at least that’s the aspiration.
The mission is really what drives us, and we want to see this type of food accessible everywhere, not just in the Bay Area or Silicon Valley. We’re trying to figure out what the building blocks are that we need to put in place now, that will allow us to achieve that growth. And how to do it reasonably quickly, so that we can have the impact that we want to have on the food system.
We heard that Farm Hill recently relocated. What brought you to Redwood City?
Mark: Location was a big part of it. Since we want to serve the entire Bay Area, it’s very centrally located. It’s actually been a really good base for us to hire new employees. A lot of our employees are local. All we had to do was put up a sign out front and we were able to source a ton of great employees.
The very practical reason was location, but since we’ve moved here it’s been fantastic. Marc relocated to Redwood City since we moved here, and a couple of other employees have relocated here. It’s a great place to be. There are awesome restaurants, shops, and all the stuff that goes on downtown over the summer is really fun.
I don’t even know if we thought about when we moved in here, but Redwood City is just exploding. We have a really solid base of customers just here in Redwood City and that’s growing every day.
How do you see Farm Hill as a part of the local community in Redwood City?
Mark: We have a lot of fantastic customers here and a lot of our employees are part of the community here. We’ve been thinking about how we can integrate ourselves even more into the community. A lot of our friends who have also started companies are starting to relocate to Redwood City too.
Do you personally have any favorite hangouts around town?
Mark: We love Bliss Coffee and Back Yard Coffee. We rotate between those two. We go to Gourmet Haus a lot for happy hour. We eat at this Japanese place on Broadway, Suisha House. Vesta is great. Also, the Redwood City Farmer’s Market is a weekly habit.
RWC Locals is focused on local businesses and the people who run them. We believe that small businesses add so much vibrancy and character to the city and are a huge part of what makes Redwood City such a wonderful place to live. We are looking forward to meeting more folks around town and supporting their work and business. If you know of a business you would like to see featured, let us know!