A team of local 4-H club members wants to venture into the growing home-delivered meal kit business, and they’re preparing to compete against other 4-H groups from across the state to see if they have the smartest business plan.
The Keystone Clover Kitchen is what they’re calling their little company, and the youngsters have designed each step of making their agriculture-based business a reality, from developing a supply chain and production facility, to devising the marketing, sale and delivery plans.
The Indiana County group is among a dozen getting set to compete in the Science of Ag Challenge at the Penn State Extension 4-H Program state convention next month in State College, with college scholarship money at stake for the students on what the judges decide are the top three teams.
For most of the spring, the Keystone Clover Kitchen teammates have been brainstorming the way to put a nutritious, tasty and fresh meal in a box for shipping to subscribers across the nation.
“It’s a monstrous project, I think,” team coach Connie Bruner said.
While other meal kit delivery services capitalize on diners’ demand for convenience and appeal to their dining preferences, such as vegetarian content or celebrity appeal, the Keystone Clover Kitchen meals would stand out among a crowded field of competitors as the only one using 100 percent Pennsylvania grown or manufactured products.
“We’re trying to use local grown foods, and products that are certified ‘PA Preferred’ in our meals,” said ninth-grade team member Elizabeth Bruner.
“We’re going to have six meals to choose from. All are dinners, but we’ll also have a gift basket box of Pennsylvania-made snack foods,” said teammate Ryan Fabin, a ninth-grader.
Utz, Snyder’s (both) and Benzel’s would be the familiar names in the snack package.
The dinner options center on six proteins — beef, chicken, pork, lamb, goat and fish — with Indiana County and Pennsylvania sources lined up for all.
The huge mushroom farms in eastern Pennsylvania are on the supplier list.
Pennsylvania-grown fruits and vegetables should not be hard to find, but getting a good deal for them, especially close to home, is a matter of forging the right partnerships.
“We’re hoping to get field trips to some local farms. Mahoning Creek Farms is one of their mentors, and we want to get a field trip to Yarnick’s to talk about some of the produce that would go in the boxes,” Connie Bruner said.
4-H Educator Stacie Hritz of the Indiana County Extension office and former Extension 4-H leader Carol Schurman also is a coach. A fourth member of the student team is 10th-grader Andrea Davis.
Penn State Extension organizers ask the competing teams to base their projects on one of six pillars of the agriculture industry.
Keystone Clover Kitchen builds on the lifestyle pillar, “the relationship between agriculture and lifestyle,” Elizabeth Bruner said.
“Everyone eats three meals a day and depends on the American farmer,” sixth-grader John Clark Bruner quoted from the team’s mission. “What they eat and how they eat is a lifestyle decision.”
The 4-H program that has drawn the students to this brand of real-world competition counts on the young members to learn the things that adult businesspeople know.
“Tony Palamone at the IUP Small Business Development Center has talked with them about their business plan and will mentor their progress,” Connie Bruner said.
Most business owners would recognize the puzzle pieces that the students are trying to fit together.
Team members already have floated their Pennsylvania-made dinner kit idea to test markets in Indiana County.
“The community outreach award is something we won last year. You get points for doing things on the community level in presentations or interviews,” Fabin said. “We have done a lot of different presentations to other groups and 4-H clubs.”
In 2018, the Indiana County 4-H club devised a colostrum management program for local dairy farmers, and won the Community Engagement Award — $100 per team member — for their local education efforts.
“So far our team had a booth at the Indiana’s Cooking show at the KCAC, we attended Family Fun Fest at the mall,” Elizabeth Bruner said. “We made presentations to civic groups and we had a radio interview. We attended the Local Foods, Local Places community meetings earlier this year to talk about our project and learn about their action plan.”
Hritz estimated that the students have reached more than 30,000 people so far.
Further, she said, the club’s plan calls for developing a website to market Keystone Clover Kitchen meals and to take orders.
“There’s warehousing, there’s shipping involved, there’s an insurance aspect to think about,” Connie Bruner went down the list.
“We have to come up with the recipes,” Elizabeth Bruner said.
“They verify the nutritional value. We make sure we have extra suppliers of produce in case there’s a bad year for some of the crops,” Connie Bruner said. “We need a consistent supply for all the products. We need a certified kitchen area where the food is prepared to be packaged.
“There’s a lot that high school kids couldn’t accomplish on their own.”
A business budget is a real part of the plan. But although the students don’t have to dip into their own or their family’s pockets to make the business operational, there’s a possibility that working capital could come into play.
“That’s a part of the process. When they pitch the idea to the team of judges, someone could pick up on it,” said Connie Bruner.
“This contest is very similar to ‘Shark Tank,’” Hritz said. “Someone could decide that they want to be an investor and possibly buy a portion of it.”
If a venture goes to that stage, the young members could share in the royalties for their efforts.
The Keystone Clover Kitchen team has only a few weeks yet to fine-tune their meal kit business plan and to practice their delivery for the panel of judges.
What’s at stake is $1,000 per member of the first-place team, $750 a person for the second-place club and $500 for each 4-H member with the third-place business plan. Their funds are to be banked until they go on to post-secondary education, coach Connie Bruner said.
The competition is set for June 19 to 21.