(Photo by Don Kadair)
Name: Ben Bartage
Hometown: Benton, Louisiana
Education: Juris doctor, MBA
After meeting at a house party while at LSU, Ben Bartage and his business partner, foodie Peru Sharma, vowed to work together. Their different mindsets complemented each other, and Indie Plate—their grocery delivery service that brings farm-fresh foods to local consumers—sprouted up in 2013. The CEOs were so passionate about the farm-to-table movement and supporting local farms and businesses that they began growing their company organically, even making all of the deliveries themselves. Today, free next-day delivery with no minimum payment is available to consumers in East and West Baton Rouge, Ascension and Livingston parishes, and several restaurants have also come on board. “We visit each and every farm and vendor that we source from, and we try their products to make sure they meet our quality standards before offering them to our customers,” says Bartage, an attorney by education.
What was your very first job, and what did you learn from it?
My first job was at a small, locally owned hardware store in Shreveport. The most applicable lesson I learned there is the importance of relationships in business, especially in small/local businesses.
How did you come up with the idea of a grocery delivery business?
My business partner, Peru Sharma, and I saw a need for this type of service in the Baton Rouge area. Peru is extremely good at supply chain establishment and optimization, which has allowed us to grow from offering only about 10 products when we first started to now offering hundreds.
You pitched your business idea at the SeNSE High Stakes Pitch Night during BREW in 2013. What lessons did you learn during that pitch night?
We were still very young at that point in time. I’d say that the biggest lesson we learned was to listen to the advice of other more seasoned businessmen and women, but don’t let it overwhelm you. Doing this has allowed us to tweak our business model to be more profitable, while still staying true to our mission and core values.
How do you manage two distinct businesses, and is there any crossover in connections between the two?
Yes, so in addition to my role Indie Plate, I am also a practicing attorney. The name of my law firm is Bartage & Anderson LLC. In addition to the obvious—doing Indie Plate’s legal work for free—it has provided a great chance to expose customers and clients from each distinct business to the other. My experiences with Indie Plate also give me a unique insight when I’m assisting my small-business clients with contracts and leases, operating agreements and the negotiation process.
What is one thing about your job people don’t know about or expect?
How truly complex it is to bring in hundreds of (often perishable) products from local vendors and deliver them directly to consumer doorsteps. Also, a lot of people don’t know that we supply several local restaurants with fresh farm-to-table ingredients (Nino’s, Magpie Café, Gouter and the Little Village, just to name a few).
How much of a market is there for grocery delivery in the Baton Rouge area? And where are your most active customers?
We have only scratched the surface of the local market. Our marketing and advertising budget is extremely small, which is currently our biggest challenge. We know that people love our products and they love the convenience of delivery (no minimum order and no delivery fee). But many people still haven’t heard about Indie Plate, and many of our existing customers simply forget to order. Additionally, the elderly population could benefit tremendously from our service, but many don’t use the internet, especially to purchase goods and services. As the population ages, this will not remain true. I’d like to give a shoutout to our most active customers in Shenandoah, Kenilworth, Southdowns and the Garden District!
Is there an “average” order? What is most popular with your customers?
We offer so many products that, no, there is not an average order. We are extremely excited about our new “Chef’s Kitchen” offerings. These are pre-prepped meals made by Chef Elton Hyndman of Nino’s Italian. There’s no cleanup, very little prep time, fresh ingredients and amazing taste. Our customers are loving the convenience and quality. Think Blue Apron/Plated/Hello Fresh except the ingredients are local, there’s no chopping required and the packaging is very minimal. It’s only been about a month since we launched them, and these meals already account for over 5% of total sales.
What are your short- and long-term goals for the business?
Short-term: continue to grow our customer base and increase order frequency for our existing customer base. Long-term: expand regionally throughout the Southeast.
How many people are involved with Indie Plate, and what types of roles do they have?
There are six. Peru, Chef Elton and I focus on the big picture of the business. My younger brother Paul heads up operations. Brandon Rich is our sourcing and procurement manager. Maria Oanh Do is our marketing/PR/social media manager/photographer. All of our employees are simply amazing and so hard-working. Without them, we would not be able to do what we do. We are very fortunate to have Elton on board as well.
What have been some of the unexpected challenges you’ve faced in running your company?
Access to capital. With a startup, debt financing puts such a strain on cash flow. We’ve got a great company and a great team, yet securing equity financing has been very challenging for us. I’d love to see Baton Rouge grow to offer more equity financing groups that you see in other startup hubs such as Austin and San Francisco.
How do you select the producers you source from?
We visit each and every farm and vendor that we source from, and we try their products to make sure they meet our quality standards before offering them to our customers. It’s good to have multiple sources for the same product because the operations are all small, and it’s nice to be able to support as many local farms and vendors as we can.
What is a typical day like?
Restaurant deliveries, procurement and administrative functions happen in the morning. We then begin packing individual grocery orders. Delivery routes are split up according to driver availability and geography. Then we come back at the end of the day to put everything up.
What professional accomplishment are you most proud of?
Honestly, I am most proud of the perseverance Peru and I have shown in the face of adversity. It’s hard to pinpoint a single moment in time, but I’m very proud of the way we have persevered through long days and many uncertain times.
What is your favorite part about what you do? What makes you excited about going to work?
My favorite part about Indie Plate is how we are able to help the small businesses and local farms, simply by providing them with a new sales channel. I’m also a business geek, so I love seeing our business (as well as the businesses of our vendors) grow.
What is the greatest personal or professional obstacle you’ve overcome, and how did you go about surmounting it?
I almost quit law school. Thanks to my Dad and God, I really learned to believe in myself more than ever before. I’m so glad I didn’t quit. I now have a very successful law practice, and I love practicing law.
What other leadership roles do you hold in the community and/or what volunteer efforts do you support? What cause are you passionate about?
I’m a Member of Forum 35 and BRAC. I’m passionate about several causes:
- Improving public education
- Feeding the hungry (props to the BR Food Bank for being wonderful)
- Curing ALS; my uncle died from ALS. It is a terrible disease, and I want to do all I can to help find a cure.
- And most importantly, seeing lives transformed by the peace and goodness of Jesus Christ.
What is a great piece of advice you have personally received?
“Truly satisfying victories don’t come easily.” I have the chance to put it to use every day.
What gets your workday off to a good start?
A prayer of gratitude (and coffee, of course).
How do you like to spend your free time?
I love being outside, especially during the evenings. I also enjoy playing drums.
What is an item on your “bucket list”?
Go to Brazil.
Where is your go-to spot in Baton Rouge?