Annie's Buying Club started with a fit of tears in front of the refrigerator.
Annie Malka and her family had moved to the Keys after her Miami-based organic delivery service collapsed in the wake of the 2008 economic meltdown. Turns out food delivery is one of the first expenses folks cut out when they go broke. "We lost our home, everything," says Malka.
But in the Keys, the Malkas faced an even bigger problem: what to eat for dinner. Accustomed to fresh, organic produce on the daily, Malka struggled to find quality goods in the Keys, where the small population and long delivery route discourage producers from sending organic fruits and vegetables. Unable to even feed her children well, Malka cried when she looked in the fridge.
She came up with an answer: Annie's Buying Club, which made its first delivery in March 2009. It started very small, with only a few drop-offs, but "then it just grew," says Malka.
Indeed. Annie's now serves more than 2,000 customers at more than 200 weekly distribution points that stretch all the way from Panama City to St. Augustine to, yes, Key West. Sign up for an Annie's membership, and you too can snag fresh produce in Bradenton, North Port, Venice and other locales, including Sarasota, where Malka moved two years ago.
There are other Florida buying clubs, but Malka says hers stands out because of the thoughtfulness and the variety in each week's delivery. "I was part of a buying club when I was in Miami and I wasn't really thrilled with it," she says. "It felt heavy and it was a big box, but I didn't want just a lot of potatoes. ... We don't want the same thing week after week."
Malka's insistence on variety, as well as the state's limited growing season, means the club's food isn't entirely Florida-grown. "We really try to support the local farmers, but we eat year-round," says Malka. Things like greens often come from in-state growers, but the club will reach farther afield for items that won't grow here or are out of season: "We try very, very hard, keeping in mind that we still want apples."
The club now claims just under 10 employees, and its main distribution centers are located in Miami and Sarasota. Malka says she has "no idea" how word of mouth about the club grew so quickly, "I'm so unbelievably flattered and honored that it works for so many people," she says. She's proud of the "overall quality" of the food she collates, as well as the "value" offered in every box.
Malka's margins are narrow, and even with her success, some weeks can still be "nail-biters." The club is trying to keep its operation "as slim as possible," Malka says. Her long-term vision includes expansion to state like Georgia and North Carolina, hitting up areas that may seem out of the way or unprofitable to others.
"Going out to the Keys is amazing because nobody wants to take that shlepp all the way out there," says Malka. "I love that we can get into these little areas that can't get food."
This is the 25th entry in Eat Near, a regular column dedicated to all the lovely food that folks on the Suncoast grow, raise, kill or craft. If you have an idea for someone/thing to feature, email me at email@example.com or hit me up on Twitter: @LeveyBaker.