LA PLATA, Md. — The risk in opening a brick and mortar store downtown was big, said David Hancock of Hancock Family Farms in La Plata. But so far, he said the payoff has been bigger.
After nearly a decade of selling meats and produce at farmers’ markets and six years of operating an on-farm stand, Hancock decided it was time to make the next big move.
He said he began considering opening a retail location in the town of La Plata about two years ago, but it was around Christmas 2018 that he made up his mind to pursue it.
In April 2019, Hancock said his ideal location became available.
“The hair salon next door was downsizing so it was the perfect location and the perfect size for us,” he said.
“In my head, we were going to be open by the 4th of July,” Hancock said. “But it took about twice as long.”
Hancock Family Farms opened the doors at its 1,000 square-foot space on St. Mary’s Avenue in La Plata on Sept 27 last year. Their store is among several other shops as well as a Greene Turtle restaurant.
“Things you can do on the farm, you can’t do in town,” Hancock said of the process. “I would apply for a permit, pay a fee, sign a paper and wait. Then do it again.”
Seemingly simple things like remodeling the store’s interior required architectural plans, Hancock said. The sign for the store also had to meet design codes and be approved by the town of La Plata. “As frustrated as I was, the town did help a lot,” he added. “They really were there every step of the way.” The health regulations for selling meat were also different in a retail space compared to on the farm, he said.
On-farm, meats can be sold with an on-farm processing license issued by the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. In a location off the farm, Hancock needed to obtain a license through Charles County’s health department.
“It is more expensive, but it’s what we need to do business and the county has been good to work with,” Hancock said.
At his on-farm stand, Hancock sold meats from chest freezers but in the store, he wanted customers to be able to see the products. He found glass front, commercial freezers on Amazon bought two to try them out. A week later, he said he ordered three more.
After six months and more than $15,000 in expenses, Hancock said he worried whether or not he’d made the right decision. But he said the store’s opening weekend was a success and business has been steady ever since.
“Our business — our sales, have tripled since we opened,” Hancock said. “I was scared about being able to retain customers but with more convenient hours and a more convenient location, we’ve kept our existing customers and brought in new customers too.”
Specialty foods and beverages are a strong segment of the market. According to the industry trade group Specialty Food Association, specialty food and beverage sales reached $148.7 billion in 2018, representing a nearly 10 percent increase from 2016.
The top two categories for specialty food and beverage retail sales are cheese and plant-based cheese, and meat, poultry, and seafood. Snacks, coffee and hot cocoa, and bread and baked goods round out the top five.
Hancock said he’s proud of the products he sells, but he said most of the business’ success can be attributed to customer service and marketing.
“I don’t believe there’s a thing as too much marketing. I use social media a lot. Our customers like following along. They like knowing where their food comes from, but they also like to know where their money is going,” Hancock said.
He said he treats customers the way he wants to be treated. That means having conversations with the customers, making eye contact and saying “thank you” and “you’re welcome.” “You can have the best product in the world, but if no one knows you exist or if you have crappy customer service, you’re not going to be around for long,” Hancock said.
Hancock Family Farms is open four days a week, which Hancock said is more convenient for customers compared to the one day a week they were open on the farm. Saturday is still the most popular day, he said.
“The holidays were great,” Hancock added. “Another benefit of being in town in that they promote events like Small Business Saturday. We sold out that day.” On the farm, he said preparing for an event like that would have been difficult.
Hancock said they also close their farm stand after Christmas until March. Having the store allows him to be open year-round. Another perk of the store is climate control. He said neither the customers nor the staff liked standing around when it was really cold or really hot.
Hancock said there were times when the parking area at the farm would be muddy and customers would get their cars stuck. That’s not an issue with the store either. The four-day schedule also gives Hancock time to spend on the farm, splitting his time about 50-50 between the store and the farm.
Hancock’s father and brother work on the farm full-time, and a local high school student helps with chores and will be growing produce for the farm this year. His niece, Hayley Tanner, helps manage the store.
Tanner said breakfast meats are among the most popular item in the store, especially the Applewood bacon. Hancock said in the summer ground beef and steaks are popular. In addition to the meats and produce they grow on the farm, Hancock sells other locally-sourced products like jams and jellies, cheese from Clover Hill Dairy, honey and dog treats.
Though it was a risky decision, Hancock said opening the store was the right one. He said the support from customers as well as other business owners in town has been overwhelming.
“We have the La Plata Business Association, it’s about 15 or so members, we’re all about the same age — it’s a tight-knit group and we have fun. We’re looking for ways to support each other like with Small Business Saturday. It’s the philosophy that a rising tide lifts all ships,” Hancock said.
Looking ahead, Hancock said the biggest challenge is keeping a supply on pace with demand. Increasing supply of chicken isn’t difficult, he said, but it’s more of a challenge with pork and especially with beef.
Hancock said finding a reliable supply for feeder pigs can be difficult. With beef, he said the hurdle is the amount of time it takes to finish cattle and the ability to increase the herd size on the farm.
He said he’s looking at rotational grazing as a way for him to increase the capacity on the farm for his cattle. He’s also been buying more feeder calves to supply the store with beef and reduce the amount of time he has to spend finishing cattle. Both come with added costs.
“Literally every business owner’s goal is to make more profit,” Hancock said. “We want to increase profit this year and of course grow. And do more in the community.” Despite being a risky decision, Hancock said opening the store was the right one.
“If we hadn’t opened the farm stand first, we wouldn’t be here,” Hancock said. “I wish I had known more about the hoops we’d have to go through beforehand — that was a learning experience — but other than that, I wouldn’t change anything.”