Relay Foods – Solving the Grocery Industry’s ‘Last Mile’ Problem

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A $15 billion gap exists between what grocery consumers spend online in the United Kingdom and in the United States each year. Zach Buckner (EE ’02), founder and CEO of Charlottesville-based Relay Foods, is applying engineering principles to prove in central Virginia that the model can succeed throughout our nation as well.

According to Buckner, the key is to solve the grocery industry’s “last mile” problem: mitigating the cost of delivering groceries while improving customer access to sources in an efficient and environmentally sustainable way. His approach focuses on bringing more choice and convenience to consumers. First, shoppers choose from 37,000 products aggregated online from more than 100 major retail/wholesale stores alongside local farms and specialty businesses. Then the orders are efficiently bundled in a fulfillment center and handed off in quick two-minute stops at major employers, schools, fitness centers and along commuting thoroughfares.

Relay Foods successfully raised millions of dollars in capital from Battery Ventures, renowned for investments in a broad range of companies, including Groupon, Omniture and Skullcandy, as well as from anonymous private investors. To say that Buckner’s initiative is carefully watched by many in the grocery and online services industries is a gross understatement. Fortunately, he has amassed significant experience in launching companies and securing intellectual property.

Immediately after graduating with a master’s degree in 2004, Buckner worked with U.Va. professor John Elder’s company, Elder Research, the largest data-mining consultancy in the world. While at Elder Research, Buckner worked on a series of patents, including one for online advertising that delivers targeted advertisements to customers. He currently has five patents in various stages of development. His first patent dates back to his graduate studies working with the U.Va. Patent Foundation, when he invented an industrial sensor that is now used in aluminum die casting for cars. He also launched several online businesses focused on streamlining the professional service industry, consolidated in the company Fanaticall.

As for the future of Relay, Buckner’s vision is clear. “We feel like this is ultimately a very, very big business, whether it’s Relay that captures it or someone else. Our ambitions are very high,” he says. “We would love to see the industry transformed. Supply customers with more convenience, to take cars off the road, to dampen sprawl and get smaller producers to supply meaningfully throughout the city. It’s a big vision. We can certainly die trying. It’s the hardest business I think we could’ve picked, but so far, so good.”

This article originally appeared in UVa Engineering Unbound.