Homegrown

Some may say a blueberry is just a blueberry. Not Mike Geller. “You gotta try one of these. They’re incredible!” he’ll rave, holding a carton filled with the navy blue marbles of fruit from Blueberry Hill in Oppenheim, New York. Mike greets customers in his market with gusto, like they’re old friends he hasn’t seen in ages. And he can’t resist sharing samples, whether it’s cherries, peppers, ginger shots, CBD drinks. “Have you tried this yet?” he’ll ask, ripping open a bag of grain-free pretzels and pouring them into a bowl to let you taste some. At the checkout, he’ll say, “take one of these, on me, let me know what you think.” Thanks to his many connections with local farmers and purveyors and his quest for the best quality, most customers think delicious! and happily come back to buy more.

In this way, Mike has been growing his organic food delivery business and market, one family and one farmer at a time. While customers get hooked on the taste—he tells the story of a toddler named Henry whose parents say he rejected any blueberries that weren’t from Mike’s—delicious is only part of the equation. By working directly with farmers and purveyors around the Northeast, he’s removing links in the supply chain from farmer to plate, helping to lower the carbon footprint. At the same time, he’s delivering produce that’s fresher and more nutritious.

The Greenwich native remains hands-on in a job that once called for 4:30 a.m. solo farm-hopping, driving to the fields of upstate Connecticut and New York to collect fresh fruits, veggies and eggs, and then schlepping the orders to people’s houses. After years of being delivery-only, he opened a small market in an out-of-the-way industrial section of Stamford. Foodies took note, including one of the country’s most influential, Martha Stewart, who ordered her Thanksgiving turkey from Mike’s and blogged about it, then invited him onto her show. Just as things were taking off—Mike busy building out the market, filming TV segments and hosting fun events—the pandemic hit. In that moment, Mike’s Organic exploded, becoming a lifeline for the community and for farmers.

Mike and his team not only survived that challenging time but came out of it with hundreds of new, loyal customers who rely on them for all their groceries.

The sustainable food connections have only increased for this Greenwich dad of two, extending to a role as chief food curator at The Village in Stamford. Now he’s on the verge of opening a 2,000-square-foot market on the Post Road in his hometown (in the former Patio.com location, one of the busiest intersections in Fairfield County) that he envisions as a community hub centered around food. He’s also donating generously to help the food insecure. Most of all he’s a man on a mission: to change the way you think about and shop for food.

Furry friends at Karl Family Farms • Local produce, jams and jellies at a recent pop-up market Mike hosted in Cos Cob – Photographs: Mike and animals by Julie Bidwell, all others by Venera Alexandrova


PLANTING THE SEEDS

Though his earliest years were spent in Manhattan, most of Mike’s childhood centered around backcountry Greenwich, where he roamed his family’s neighborhood near the Audubon like “an outdoor cat.” Playing in the woods, fishing, bowhunting and catching frogs were part of his free-range-kid rotation. Spending that time outside and helping in his Italian grandmother’s vegetable garden in the Bronx piqued his interest in freshly grown foods, as did his mom’s cooking and visiting apple orchards with his dad.

After attending Greenwich Country Day and Brunswick (where several of his key employees also went to school) and Skidmore College, Mike launched into some compelling ventures, including running a hip-hop studio in Atlanta and a celebrity event business as well as work in advertising and media buying. But for this outdoorsy guy, none was the right fit. “I wanted to do something I loved and believed in, something I could put my full force behind,” Mike says, recalling the burnout that led him to quit his job at age twenty-eight and take a trip to Africa to help build a camp.

While living in the Kalahari Desert in Botswana, Mike spent days immersed in nature, surrounded by 2,000-year-old baobab trees. He was working with three guys from Zimbabwe on the project, and they would hunt for much of their food, at times confronting the challenges of living off the land: a close encounter with a leopard and having to fight a massive brush fire. Some of their supplies came from a small market, where he noticed that all of the food looked much better than anything he’d seen in megasupermarkets back home.

“When you sliced the small tomatoes, the juice ran all over the plate,” he recalls. “Eggs weren’t refrigerated, because they don’t need it when they come right from the chicken.” This “aha moment” stuck with him, realizing that the closer you are to your food source—whether it’s a garden or a farm—the better. He returned from Africa in the best shape of his life, determined to learn more about food and farms.

Back at home, he volunteered with Stone Barns Agriculture Center, handling tasks like pruning apple trees and planting peas while learning about sustainable agriculture. He attended a Young Farmers Conference and met future suppliers for his business. It was at Stone Barns, sitting under an apple tree, that he had the idea for Mike’s. “I wanted to be a bridge to connect consumers to small local farmers, and in 2009, I was one of the first people in America to do that.”

Photography by Julie Bidwell


FRIENDING FARMERS, CUSTOMERS…AND MARTHA

Mike’s Organic started with nine deliveries a week to a word-of-mouth clientele. He ran the solo venture out of his parents’ house, using a pottery studio as a packing room and a small walk-in cooler to store produce and meat. He hit the road most mornings before dawn in his maroon Nissan Pathfinder, heading to farms upstate to pick up the best harvest that week. He would later pack up baskets and bring the orders to people’s homes. Word spread, and in time he had 100 and then 200 customers.

“I think I worked almost as hard as a farmer in those first two years,” he says. “I say ‘almost’ because farmers work harder than anyone I know.” Some of his early farm suppliers included Hepworth Farms in Milton, New York; Greiner Brothers Farm in Marlboro, New York; Snowdance Farms in Livingston Manor, New York, and Sepe Farm in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, all still carried today by Mike’s.

“Whatever reason you have for caring about where your food comes from, Mike is going to be a good ally. Everyone on our farm knows him, and he’s aligned with our values,” says Gail Hepworth, of Hepworth Farms, a seventh-generation farm in the Hudson Valley that specializes in organic vegetables. Gail says Mike introduced them to home delivery and connecting people to their food source, which she calls a luxury for his customers. “It is an absolute privilege to have someone like Mike be a provider in your community. He’s doing all that vetting for you.”

As Mike expanded, he hired his first employee, Chris Kimball (also a Brunswick alum) and later MacKenzie Judson. Both remain an integral part of Mike’s as partners in the business. Like modern-day milkmen, Mike and Chris would carry the CSA boxes right into people’s kitchens, determined to educate people about the produce.

“I’d come in the house, pet the dog, say hi to the kids, put the basket on the counter and start unloading it,” Mike recalls. His delivery mornings turned into a show-and-tell for people’s kids, as he pulled out eggplants and heads of broccoli, teaching little ones the veggies’ names and assuring them that “a farmer grew these just for you.” His cheerful demeanor—and the fact that he looks like he would make a great Santa Claus twenty years from now—only helped the kid connection. Customers would later call him to marvel that “my daughter eats kale now” or “my child now knows his colors by veggie, purple like an eggplant.”

Meanwhile, to accommodate his growing business, Mike rented a warehouse space in Stamford where he and his team could house food and pack up orders. Soon he started to hold a mini-market there once a week with produce set out on tables on black crates. “Before you knew it, twenty people were coming on a Friday from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. to shop. It became evident people wanted a different retail experience,” he says. The market expanded, adding a day a week at a time and hundreds of new products, becoming a go-to gourmet source. “We called it the underground grocery store for cool kids,” he says with a laugh.

Soon he was meeting with one of the coolest: Martha Stewart. A customer introduced them, and they had lunch together in her home kitchen in Bedford. He brought her many goodies to try; she later blogged about purchasing “a delicious bounty” from the market, swiss chard, broccoli, Romanesco, oranges and other produce. “Going to Mike’s Organics is all about discovery for me. It’s an opportunity to find a new organic grower, a fabulous new supplier, or a new variety of peaches or apricots or pumpkins,” Martha says. “I appreciate Mike’s sense of curiosity. His background at Stone Barns instilled in him a love of sustainably grown food with excellent flavor. He is a very hard-working, enthusiastic and interesting young man.” Last summer Mike appeared on an episode of Martha Gets Down and Dirty, filmed at the market.

With more people visiting the space, Mike saw new potential and put on his event-planning hat. In 2019 he and his team hosted everything from a Wagyu beef and craft beer night and an Octoberfest pig roast to pancake bars, dumpling-making classes with Nit Noi Provisions, pasta-making classes with Pastaficio and a vegan cooking class with New York’s Candle Café. It changed the way people saw the brand, he says. The foodie gatherings forecast some of what he now has planned for the new market. But in March 2020, all that event energy ground to a halt.

Mike with Martha Stewart – Photograph: Contributed


LEADING THE WAY IN A CRISIS

So many businesses had to close at the start of the pandemic, but the Covid-19 crisis had the opposite effect for Mike’s, creating a crushing demand. No one wanted to venture near a big supermarket. While many families hunkered down at home, Zooming to work and school, Mike and his crew went into high gear in their new role as essential workers.

“People were seeing empty shelves at Whole Foods and at Walmart, and the fear was palpable. They were texting to ask, will you have food?” Mike recalls. “We were all very scared. There was this feeling of needing to be strong, a real responsibility to farmers and the community.”

Every person who had ever ordered from Mike’s started ordering, he says, and many who had never heard of him started ordering. For his part, Mike worried not only about getting food to customers but also helping thirty farmers, keeping his team from getting sick and protecting his wife, Asya, and two little boys, Nathan and Charlie, at home.

“Overnight we had to reinvent our business, scale up with no additional labor, and I had to try to keep everyone on my team safe from something that I thought was going to kill me every day I came to work,” he says, getting emotional. He recalls driving to work and not seeing another soul on the road. “It was like zombie land.”

People began to rely solely on Mike’s for their food. He added 1,000 products, bought three vans and three new freezers.

Mike and his staff were working six days a week from 4:30 a.m. to 7 or 8 p.m., a crazy time that he says brought the team together in a way that couldn’t happen under any other circumstance. Some farms lost their normal chains of distribution overnight, and Mike wanted to bolster these farmers who are not just suppliers to him but friends. “I had twenty-five farmers at my wedding,” he says, “They’re people we love and care about.”

Up on Sepe’s Farm in Sandy Hook in the autumn, where the maple trees are crowned with halos of orange and gold as the leaves start to turn and the lambs graze freely on three acres, Mike visits with his longtime friend and supplier, Pete Sepe. It’s feeding time, so Mike stands next to the barn tossing non-GMO corn to the lambs, while Pete recalls some of the issues he faced.

“This pandemic has caused so much stress. There are not enough butchers,” Pete says, noting how some meat processing places shut down due to Covid outbreaks, some still facing challenges. “I’m president of Fairfield County Farm Bureau, and we get calls all the time that people can’t get things processed, butchered.” Sepe sells his lamb directly to a number of restaurant chefs around the state, but much of that business dropped during the early days of the pandemic. Pete was able to redirect some of his meat and reach the public by selling directly through Mike’s.

The same was true for Hepworth Farms, which saw the market for their organic vegetables with Baldor (a major restaurant distributor) dry up early in the pandemic. Hepworth turned to Mike to bridge the gap and get more produce into home kitchens. “People should take away from the pandemic that their source of food is important,” says Gail Hepworth, who adds that Mike “gets it,” and will go out into the fields to talk to workers, having an appreciation for them and how they’re treated.

“We in the Northeast are extraordinarily lucky. We’re positioned to be the breadbasket of the country, considering how climate change is impacting agricultural regions. But if you don’t support local agriculture, farms will go out of business one by one.”

Mike strolling the fields of Karl Family Farms with Chris Karl – Photography by Julie Bidwell


GIVING BACK AND FEEDING GREENWICH

The pandemic sparked new activity on Mike’s charitable side too. In April 2020 a customer told Mike how her pediatrician husband was treating adult Covid patients in Brooklyn and that doctors and nurses had no healthy food. “They’re eating Doritos,” she said. So Mike started Mikes Organic Cares, donating and delivering fresh fruit to six or seven hospitals to feed first responders.

For years Mike had given Thanksgiving turkeys and side dishes to Kids in Crisis and contributed to Neighbor to Neighbor and Person to Person. But with the need for food reaching new levels, he stepped up his giving. Working with Jewish Family Services he learned that “one of the most empowering things you can do for the food insecure is to give them the ability to choose what they’re eating as opposed to handing them a box of things.” So he began donating vegetables, fruit, yogurt, cheese, eggs and other items to JFS so they could hold a free farmer’s market for their clients. Even at the food pantry level, he’s working to make procuring food more pleasant.

The rooftop herb garden at The Village in Stamford – Photography by Kyle Norton


HAVING MORE FUN WITH FOOD

For the new market in Greenwich, which is under renovation and expected to open in early summer, Mike envisions “a playground for amazing food experiences” with events, farmer visits, a garden and more. It will be a market that bears little resemblance to the “pile it high, sell it low” warehouse-like supermarkets that lead people to talk about food shopping like “going to the DMV, get me in and out as fast as possible,” he says. In Europe, people look forward to visiting the market, he notes. “It’s the best part of their day.”

Besides the selection of local organic produce, meats and cheese and pantry items, plans call for picnic tables outside where people can enjoy hot donuts fresh from a donut machine, apple cider and hot chocolate as well as lunches such as salads and wraps. Mike’s will be opening a commercial kitchen in Stamford for the full line of prepared foods; customers can also order online to have, for instance, a lasagna made with all organic ingredients, same-day delivered for supper. He aims to use the property for outdoor gatherings, from sheep shearings to a lobster fest with Maine lobstermen selling right off their trucks, while shoppers snack on fresh lobster rolls. His event-planning wheels keep turning as he describes his idea for a community tailgate on fall Sunday evenings, having the market close early and cars parked in the fifty-two spaces while Mike’s team grills hamburgers and hot dogs, kids throw footballs around and people watch the game on a big projection screen.

Members of Mike’s team: Laura DeLongis, marketing and events manager; Mackenzie Judson, director of e-commerce; Christian Scott, warehouse associate; Ford Bucknall, assistant store manager and Chris Kimball, VP-store manager – Photography by Venera Alexandrova

Mike has been cooking up culinary experiences at The Village in Stamford, too, where he is chief food curator. There, he’s been working on a program called Sourced—private dinners for fourteen hosted by chefs who plan a menu around a single ingredient. He’s also held educational lunch programs for Stamford school kids centered around the rooftop garden.

Back on the Post Road in Greenwich, at the future home of Mike’s, kids were everywhere on a blue-sky fall Saturday morning for a pop-up market, giving families a hint of what’s to come. Nit Noi Provisions set up a dumpling and broth bar, Flour Water Salt sold their delicious cookies and baked goods, and people shopped from crates filled with colorful veggies and fruits. But the kids flocked to Farmer Pete, who brought his beautiful brown and gray lambs for a sheep shearing. They watched as the farm animals had their coats shorn and got to play with samples of the colorful wool ready for blankets and crafts.

“Try this!” Mike was once again saying to the crowd. And, as with the samples he loves to dole out, he left people wanting to taste more.

Mike at Sepe Farm in Sandy Hook with Pete Sepe – Photography by Venera Alexandrova
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