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A thousand dollars isn't a lot of money, especially for a business, but the grant that Lone Tree Foods in Crete won comes with something else more important: publicity.

Lone Tree, a local food hub that helps connect local growers and producers with buyers, was awarded the $1,000 grant earlier this month by PRO*ACT, one of the nation's top produce distributors.

"It's not a large dollar amount, but it did help us raise our profile in the community," said Justin Jones, Lone Tree's general manager.

Jones said one of the cool things about winning the Cultivating Change grant is that it was competitive and awarded based on the results of a popular vote. He said Lone Tree finished fourth in the voting out of more than 90 entrants.

Erin Schoenberg, one of the owners of Lone Tree, echoed those sentiments.

"The best part about being awarded a grant from Cultivating Change is that we were able to witness our friends, supporters, customers (and their networks) go the extra mile for us," she said in a news release. "We were floored by the support from our community, who showed up, shared posts and emails, and thoughtfully cast their votes for us all month ... when they could have kept scrolling."

Jones said Lone Tree has a pretty low profile and relies mostly on word of mouth, but that hasn't stopped people from flocking to the business.

The company was formed in 2014, and Jones said growth exceeded 100 percent in its first couple of years. That has since slowed to 50 to 60 percent annual growth, which is "still a pretty steep growth curve."

The company works with about 40 farms in eastern Nebraska and western Iowa and distributes its products within a 150-mile radius of Lincoln using one of three methods.

Its wholesale distribution business gets products from farms to large users such as restaurants and grocery stores.

It also has a bulk buying service that allows individuals to buy large quantities to get lower prices. If you want to buy 50 pounds of hamburger or a case of potatoes, for instance, you can get a bulk rate. Jones said it is similar to the model used by Costco and other warehouse stores.

Those are more traditional distribution methods. Its third is a little more high tech.

It's called the Nebraska Box, and it's a subscription service that provides regular deliveries of fresh produce. Customers can have the boxes delivered to their homes, which costs extra, or they can pick them up at a designated location.

Jones said Lone Tree has a good mix of customers, all of which are in the Omaha or Lincoln areas.

It has relationships with B&R Stores, Hy-Vee, Natural Grocers and Open Harvest, as well as a number of restaurants, the bulk of which are in Omaha.

He said the company also is growing a new base of customers, which is employers who want to provide produce options for there employees. Companies with which Lone Tree either has agreements with or is working on them include Duncan Aviation, Turbine Flats and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Nebraska.

Despite being know mostly for its produce, Lone Tree is a year-round business that distributes a number of products including meat, dairy items, packaged grains, dried herbs, syrups and other projects. It also works with farmers who grow produce hydroponically and in greenhouses, so it can even provide fresh produce in the winter months.

For future growth, Jones said Lone Tree wants to focus on getting more individual customers as well as increasing business with current customers.

"Part of our growth model is just doing more volume with existing customers," he said.

As for that $1,000 grant award, despite being small, it will be put to good use.

Jones said Lone Tree hopes to put it toward a down payment on a new delivery truck or use it for improvements to its existing truck.

When you are in a low-margin business like food distribution," every little bit helps," he said.

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On Twitter @LincolnBizBuzz.


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