In January of this year, Ben Hartman launched Sungold Consulting, a new business geared towards promoting a more just and healthy food system.
“I started Sungold Consulting in order to explore different ways of supporting passionate people at mission-driven companies,” Hartman said. “For many mission-driven companies, their ability to work towards a more equitable and agroecological food system is limited not by intent, creativity, or effort but by fairly simple market dynamics and basic financial viability. Sungold Consulting is a platform to leverage my retail buying and category management expertise to help these companies thrive financially so that they can continue to pursue their mission.”
Ben Hartman, Founder and Principal, Sungold Consulting
Hartman brings more than a decade of retail experience to his new consulting venture, having worked at both Bi-Rite Market and Good Eggs. He said that during his formative years at Bi-Rite, he developed a deep appreciation for all the people involved in the food supply chain, which led to a desire to make sure those people were treated well and equitably.
“I started Sungold Consulting in order to explore different ways of supporting passionate people at mission-driven companies.” - Ben Hartman
“What really matters isn’t the food itself but the people behind the food: farm business owners, agricultural workers, rural communities, truck drivers, retail store clerks, and customers—as well as the family, friends, and loved ones that they feed,” he said. “The important lesson I learned in my early days in produce was that it’s really hard to care for all these people when food is treated only as a commodity.”
During his time in retail, Hartman brought his people-first focus to bear on produce (and other categories) and also worked hard to make sure that food items were not marketed as mere commodities.
“I learned you need to truly understand the people behind your suppliers and the people who are your customers—understand their motives, their priorities, their challenges—in order to develop win-win partnerships that improve the lives of everyone throughout the supply chain,” Hartman said.
As an example of one of the strategies he’s used to de-commoditize organic produce, Hartman noted the importance of selecting and emphasizing specific varietals.
“What really matters isn’t the food itself but the people behind the food: farm business owners, agricultural workers, rural communities, truck drivers, retail store clerks, and customers—as well as the family, friends, and loved ones that they feed.” - Ben Hartman
“Merchandising and marketing stone fruit, strawberries, or even carrots by varietal name can add retail value because customers begin to know the differences between a Blenheim Apricot and a Golden Sweet, a Chandler Strawberry and an Albion, or even the difference between a Nantes-type carrot and an Imperator,” he said. “Working with growers who prioritize flavor and unique varieties over yield, shelf-life, and durability, and educating customers on what makes these varieties special and hard to find at most retailers, can add real value to a supply chain, both in terms of flavor and financial viability.”
Hartman’s Sungold Consulting features services for a variety of clientele. He offers grower advising, taking a holistic approach and putting his “retail buyer-trained eyes on internal processes that inform a grower’s strategic plan.” For retailers, he offers consulting on assortment and category management strategy and supply chain solutions. He's also available as an expert advisor to technology companies and investors in the specialty and natural foods space.
Ben Hartman (right) with Javier Zamora of JSM Organics (left)
Two produce-related clients that Hartman is currently working with are Airmart, a direct-to-consumer marketplace for small food businesses (including organic growers), and Permanent, a tech startup focused on local, organic produce procurement for foodservice, wholesalers, and retailers.
“Working with growers who prioritize flavor and unique varieties over yield, shelf-life, and durability, and educating customers on what makes these varieties special and hard to find at most retailers, can add real value to a supply chain, both in terms of flavor and financial viability.” - Ben Hartman
“I'm serving as an advisor to Airmart's leadership team, supporting them with vendor pipeline and relationship management strategy,” said Hartman. “As they seek to improve their tools and services to give local farms a low-cost, low-barrier, and efficient way to access a larger market, I'm excited to help them continue to learn from small growers about their complex and unique supply chain and marketing needs.”
“My work with Permanent is currently focused on a user (buyer) testing program so that the company can learn from buyers and growers alike how to add the most value to all parts of the supply chain,” Hartman shared. “From my time at Good Eggs and Bi-Rite, I know how much extra effort it can take to manage availability lists, projections, purchase orders, and metadata on dozens of smaller growers, so I'm excited to help improve Permanent's software to lessen the bandwidth burden on both the supply side and the demand side.”
In addition to his consulting venture, Hartman is also working on a new direct-to-consumer business with two other Good Eggs alums, Joyce Zhang and Brian Carroll. “We all recognized how much we personally enjoyed being involved in buying and selling produce—and most importantly, having fun while doing it—so we’re launching a side project in the next few weeks called fruitqueen,” said Hartman. “Stay tuned for more info!”
fruitqueen founders (left to right): Ben Hartman, Joyce Zhang, and Brian Carroll
In surveying the current organic produce landscape, Hartman said he’s very encouraged by the growth of the industry but also has concerns.
“I am simultaneously so incredibly impressed with how far the organic produce industry has come in the last 20–30 years and concerned with how that growth has impacted small and mid-sized growers’ ability to compete in this increasingly large and consolidated market,” he said. “This is all the more difficult for those growers who go out of their way to employ ecological practices beyond the bare minimum required to meet USDA organic standards, or who commit resources to improving labor conditions and farmworker pay and benefits.”
“I am simultaneously so incredibly impressed with how far the organic produce industry has come in the last 20–30 years and concerned with how that growth has impacted small and mid-sized growers’ ability to compete in this increasingly large and consolidated market.” - Ben Hartman
Hartman said he’d like to see some pre-competitive collaboration and alliances formed within the organic produce industry to help strengthen the ecosystem of smaller growers as well as those with shared values that go beyond the USDA organic seal, including things like worker welfare, additional regenerative and agroecological farming practices, and sustainable packaging.
“Now that I’m working on my own, and less bogged down by the day-to-day of running and growing a retail business, I want to take the time to develop some of the ideas I’ve had of organizing values-aligned growers, distributors, and retailers and figuring out how to facilitate more collaboration by forming strategic alliances,” said Hartman. “I encourage anyone who wants to share ideas related to this to reach out to me.”