Larry Bearg: Growing an organic food delivery firm

In 1997, when Larry Bearg and his then-wife, Lorene Reed, first took over Planet Organics — an organic food delivery service with a customer base of just 75 people — they had little idea of what to expect, but they have since seen their investment steadily grow. They attribute their success to a rudimentary, yet effective business model.

“We’ve grown to 5,000 customers, in large part to good old sweat equity and credit-card debt,” said Bearg, who acts as the CEO of the company while Reed retains the title of president.

“When we first started, we just had a basic fresh fruit and vegetable order that we would offer everyone,” he said. “But our customers started asking for more variety and more input in the deliveries, so we expanded to fit their needs, in however manner we could.”

Planet Organics offers fresh organic products — including poultry, cheese, vegetables, and fruit — all grown by Bay Area farmers, and delivered right to their customers’ front door.

Bearg and Reed were two of Planet Organics’ initial 75 customers, giving them insight into the potential of the business. They were able to improve operations by embracing the online ordering and service aspects of the company — coincidentally, around the same time that WebVan, the heralded online grocery-delivery service, was becoming another victim of the dot-com crash.

“We were this tiny organic delivery company competing against this billion-dollar giant,” Bearg said. “But when they went down with the dot-com burst, we were able to find really great tech workers who were suddenly very available.”

When the operation first began, almost all of Planet Organics’ clients were based in San Francisco. Its delivery routes eventually began to encompass the entire Bay Area, courtesy of grass-roots campaigns by prospective customers eager to be a part of the company’s service.

“Oftentimes, someone would call us and ask if we deliver to his or her neighborhood,” Bearg said. “If there [were] no other clients out there, we would have to say to the person that we couldn’t unless there was a bigger demand. So these people would end up recruiting others in the neighborhood to sign up for the service.”

According to Bearg, Planet Organics has agreements with about 40 to 50 farmers and employs 12 delivery vans patrolling the Bay Area from San Jose to Benicia — a far cry from the original small-time roots of the company.

“It’s an amazing field to be in,” Bearg said. “We’ve managed to make a simple business pretty complicated, but it has all been worth it.”

Business

New project: Launching new Web site

Number of e-mails a day: 100

Number of voice mails a day: I don’t do voice mail

Essential Web site: homeexchange.com

Best perk: Eating the best food in the world every day

Gadgets: Thought I’d hate it, but I love my iPod

Education: Ph.D. in clinical psychology

Last conference: Who has time?

First job: Sideshow hawker at the Canadian National Exhibition when I was 14

Original aspiration: Write the great American novel

Career objective: Create something and move on

Personal

Age: 49

Hometown: Toronto

Sports/hobbies: Cooking, bikram yoga, skiing Jupiter bowl at Park City, enjoying obscure, inexpensive wines from Europe, traveling with my kids, exploring the mysteries of love with my partner, songwriting

Transportation: Saab, but I hate driving

Favorite restaurant: Coco 500

Computer: Dell Dimension c521

Vacation spot: Yelapa, Mexico

Favorite clothier: You’re kidding, right?

Role Model: Don Juan Matus, Bob Dylan

Reading: “The Conquest of Mexico,” by William Prescott, published in 1844

Worst fear: Working for someone else

Motivation: Following the Tao

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