Farmers & Fishermen: A father-and-son partnership forged in the Covid-19 pandemic

Ben and Kirk Halpern with Farmers & Fishermen

Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.A.-based Farmers & Fishermen Purveyors Co-Founder Kirk Halpern has tried to unsuccessfully leave the seafood industry multiple times.

Halpern began helping his grandfather load trucks at his produce business when he was eight years old. After graduating from college, Halpern pursued and obtained a law degree, but the food industry pulled him back in.

“I hated law. I hated it because I didn't feel I was building anything," Halpern said. “I joined my dad [at his business, Buckhead Beef]. I literally said ‘Hey, Dad, I'm looking to jump. Do I [have] a parachute?’ And he said ‘Pull the trigger.’”

Eventually, Buckhead was sold to Sysco, and Halpern then started Halperns’ Steak and Seafood – a business that grew rapidly before it, too, was put it up for sale in 2015. He did three years of an earnout and then passed his 18-month non-compete period, and figured he would live on his passive investments. But his second attempt to leave the food business was again unsuccessful. 

“In my heart and in my soul, I’ve always been in the purveying business,” he told SeafoodSource. “Whether it was as a little kid with strawberries and lettuce and potatoes, or early on in Buckhead Beef.”

In 2019, Kirk Halpern founded Farmers & Fishermen, a business founded on a model he formulated while waiting out his 18 month non-compete period. Since then, Farmers & Fishermen has grown tremendously, becoming a multi-million-dollar companyand working to create positive relationships with local farms, fisheries, and communities worldwide. 

With a lifetime of experience, Halpern - now 55 years old - had a strong sense of what worked and what didn't. Halpern said his mantra is "to chase being perfect."

“Whenever it got tough, most companies do not have a mental challenge with expending their people. You can make the argument that a lot of companies’ models is to be profitable on the backs of their employees,” Halpern told SeafoodSource. “I believe if you have the right people, with the right leadership, you can build a great company through the great work of your employees, then share those profits with your employees.” 

The model for the delivery company was built around Mercedes Sprinter vans for product delivery. In his previous businesses, Halpern worked with distribution models based around that used class A and B trucks. But with a national shortage of certified commercial drivers, as age, skyrocketing insurance costs, and high gas prices, pushed many out of the profession, Halpern realized Sprinter vans would allow him to effectively acquire a fleet of drivers

“I said I’m going to utilize a refrigerated van, and small-vehicle strategy. I launched with all Mercedes Sprinter vans, and I started with three – I get 18.2 miles to the gallon. They hold their value, and what it allowed me to do is take non-CDL drivers and employ them,” Halpern said. 

The decision allowed Halpern to hire a diverse workforce, which he said proved to be an asset for the company. He said he offered flex-time as a further incentive to ensure he could hire drivers from more-diverse backgrounds.

“As a young company we have won many awards, but what I take the most pride in is being recognized by both the Atlanta Business Chronicle and Atlanta Journal Constitution as one of the Best Places to Work in the Atlanta Metropolitan Area,” Halpern said.

Halpern described the first six months of Farmers & Fishermen as a “slow burn," but said it dropped off in March 2020 as the Covid-19 pandemic ground the global economy to a halt. Farmers & Fishermen lost 97 percent of its clientele in one day. Rather than panic, Halpern said he developed a home-delivery model within 13 hours and vowed to his employees he would make the business work.

“I said there'll be no firing, no furloughs, no reduction in pay, no reduction in benefits," he said.

The home delivery model, sourcing products from small farms, artisinal fisheries, and small-scale vendors across the world, was an immediate success as Farmers & Fishermen touted its partnerships with family-owned and -operated producers. 

“I love doing business with small owner-operators. I also have within that setting a very high emphasis of doing business with women-owned and -operated and minority-operated companies. And that's a big part of what we did,” Halpern said.

Farmers & Fishermen has been Halpern's first true experience selling direct to consumers. Getting the technological side of the operation right was important, he said especially while adapting and building during the fast-paced early days of the pandemic. But Halpern said the idea succeeded because he always made quality the first priority of the business.

“First quality, second is small owner-operators. And then third is to bend the transit time on the curve to get the freshest products to our high-end restaurant customers,” he said. “Instead of everybody else who flies product into Miami, trucks it up straight to in Atlanta, I get a product that comes out of the water out in Patagonia, and flies direct daily to the Atlanta airport. I have 48 hours out of the water to distribute in my marketplace."

Halpern's son, Ben, took on a larger role in the business as it moved further online, leading the effort to digitize its payment and logistics systems, and cultivating a valuable social media presence.  Kirk Halpern said his son displayed "immense leadership by cultivating the company’s technological model and pioneering consumer operations." 

Having grown up in the industry, Ben Halpern told SeafoodSource he embraced the pressure and obstacles that were thrown his way.

“My earliest memories at the dinner table were always talking business, watching Shark Tank. I have the most tremendous opportunity of my life and it’s just a continuation of my early development, and [it continues] now working closely with [my dad] and experts who are eager to teach and coach,” he said.

Kirk Halpern described his succession plan as a “15-year model,” with Ben taking on a bigger role in the business over time.

“The first five years I'm very tough on him. Nobody in my company wants to be Ben Halpern. I explained to him: ‘Ben, you're either the hardest-working guy, or you're the least. And even if you don't think anyone's watching you, everybody's watching.' If you imagine a football coach, who in the olden days would grab the face mask  of the player, that's the relationship,” Kirk said. “And the great thing about this approach is I only need to coach him one time. He's a very coachable young man. So, it's really worked out well. Next five years, we work closely together. And then the last five years, if he's earned it, I work for him.”

Ben acknowledged the work has been hard, but said it has been worth it to forge his own part of Farmers & Fishermen. 

“He’s just beating the crap out of me, and I have a lot of fun, in addition to being a sponge working hard to continue his legacy and develop my own name,” he said.

The hard work is paying off ... 

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