CHARLOTTE - Steve and Vonda Hodun's idea to start a family business nearly seven years ago was as organic as the products they planned to sell. The inspiration to launch a delivery service specializing in farm-fresh produce came naturally from the duo's appreciation for simple but succulent fruits and vegetables.
Today, with each truckload they deliver from their Hickory home to south Charlotte and surrounding areas, the couple maintains the nothing-but-natural promise upon which the business was founded - box after box, fruit after veggie.
As the name indicates, Absolute Organics' produce is naturally grown and harvested fruits and vegetables, available to order online and delivered to customers' doorsteps weekly. Judging from its devoted clients (now 1,000-plus homes), Absolute Organics is valued amid today's chemical-infused marketplace - where fruits and vegetables are routinely treated to prompt development and eliminate bugs, and again postharvest to ensure extended shelf lives.
Before Absolute Organics took root in the community, Charlotte lacked a delivery service specializing in produce - much less organic produce. It was a void Vonda said she quickly noticed when they relocated from Charleston, S.C.
"We ate very organically in Charleston but it was much more readily available there," she said. To find organic produce for herself, Steve and their son, William, she often drove an hour or more to Asheville-area markets.
"It kind of came to me that if I was searching for a (produce delivery) service, others out there must be searching for it too," she said.
The Hoduns brainstormed and a fresh concept emerged. Within a month they'd connected with local produce suppliers, secured a temperature-controlled van and began putting out feelers for like-minded organics lovers eager for straight-to-the-doorstep organic produce sans outlandish costs. In April 2005 they made their first delivery - and 19 additional orders came in that week.
Absolute Organics' has grown steadily as word of the convenient, health-savvy service has spread. Today, Steve said the business includes three packers and three deliverers who navigate the region in three refrigerated vans. William, now 8, also lends a hand counting produce and filling boxes.
Deliveries are zoned with weekly delivery dates - Thursday in south Charlotte. "If you have a Thursday delivery that means your food comes to us on Wednesday," Vonda explained. "We pack third shift so we pack the morning of the delivery, which means it is the freshest organic produce you can get."
The majority of Absolute Organics customers live in the south Charlotte area, particularly Ballantyne, Steve added. But a steady stream of business also comes from uptown Charlotte, Lake Norman, Tega Cay, Fort Mill and University City.
"We don't keep extra inventory. For every delivery, we bring in a new shipment of produce," said Vonda, noting that local produce is a top priority. Their suppliers generally hail from North Carolina, but produce also comes from South Carolina, Georgia, Virginia and Florida.
Sans the sprays
If local and organic are two of Absolute Organics' chief tenets, variety and quality round out the philosophy. "We actually offer about anything you find in the grocery store, except it's all organic," said Vonda.
That defining difference means fruits and vegetables are grown without pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. Pesticides poison bugs so they can't eat plants and chemical fungicides prevent fungus from growing, potentially extending fruit or vegetables' edible lives far past nature's time frame, Steve said.
Avoiding pesticides and fungicides when buying non-organic produce, Steve continued, is nearly impossible. "Fungicides are the biggest (problem) we see," he said.
"You cannot buy conventional strawberries, peaches, raspberries and things without fungicides sprayed on them. That makes organic produce more perishable because the fungicides aren't sprayed on to keep them from going bad."
"The research we've done while running this business indicates that fungicides, the majority of them, can cause cancer," he added.
Many of their clients who've battled or are currently fighting cancer have been cautioned by doctors to eat strictly organic diets, he said. "They tell them to reduce these chemicals out of their bodies which (may) make the body less susceptible to cancer."
"The bottom line is they aren't good for the environment or our health."
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, pesticides put humans' health at risk, though the extent is murky and the EPA's conclusions aren't definitive. But on its Web site, the agency posts the following advisory: "Usually when pesticides are used, there is some toxicity and exposure, which results in a potential risk."
"... All pesticides have some level of toxicity, just as every substance does... The risk of health problems depends not only on how toxic the ingredients are, but also on the amount of exposure to the product."
"Basically, the more time we introduce (these chemicals) into our systems, the more times it has to cause something that isn't normal," said Steve. He cited EPA recommendations that fruits or vegetables that can be peeled should be, unless they're grown organically.
But peeling fruits or vegetables' outermost layers eliminates some natural nutritional benefits, and not all produce can be peeled. "Try to peel a strawberry," said Steve.
"Berries - in particular strawberries, raspberries and peaches - are very porous," Vonda added. "No matter how many times you wash them it won't get anything off. They've absorbed those fungicides."
Organic produce isn't always picture-perfect, the couple admitted, since fungicides aren't used to keep them pretty, longer. This isn't a concern for Absolute Organic customers.
The Hoduns guarantee any fruit or vegetable delivered will be replaced if it isn't up to par. Fresh substitutes are added to the customer's next delivery. It's a promise the Hoduns say they're happy to make since top-notch customer service is essential to their success.
After years of working with the same clients, many have become friends. Disappointing the people who've come to know and love Absolute Organics isn�t an option, Vonda said. She's expecting the couple's second child, so produce delivery isn't one of her duties now, but her voice warms as she recounts the joy of delivering healthy, kid-friendly produce to families.
"The best thing is to see the little kids standing in the doorway jumping up and down because they're so excited to see what is in this week's box. ...We get a lot of people telling us it's like Christmas morning for their children. That's a great feeling."
Absolute Organics caters to the big kids' needs, too. "We keep a master preference list on everyone that we've delivered to," Vonda explained. "So if we have avocado on a certain week, we already know whether one client does or doesn't like it."
Using the preferences, e-mails detail the contents of each week�s boxes, allowing customers to make changes or opt for fruit- or veggie-only packages. The minimum order is the small, $30 box and increases in $10 increments. Vonda says the small size easily provides enough produce to feed two adults for a week, noting this week's $30 box included a head of green-leaf lettuce, a large bunch of broccoli, a pint of grape tomatoes, an eggplant, one pint of strawberries, three large kiwi, one-and-a-half pounds of bananas and six Fuji apples.
Prices include delivery and, with grocery store produce spiking with no end in sight, have been fairly comparable to store prices, said Steve. Since the recession, eating organically - which used to be up to 50 percent more expensive - is now only 5 to 10 percent more costly, if that.
Even amid last fall's gas crunch Absolute Organics' prices remained stable, Vonda added. "We had customers e-mailing us to add on $5 to their bill to cover gas," she said, laughing.
Worth a try
To spur clients to new culinary heights, Vonda often e-mails recipes using the week's produce selections. One customer, she recalled, routinely avoided ordering chard, a green leafy vegetable, until she tried the Hoduns' chard linguini recipe.
"Now she begs us for it," Vonda said.
SouthPark-area resident Alexandra McCollister has been a loyal Absolute Organics customer for nearly four years. She says she's become a dedicated healthy cook, more conscious of working with the selection she gets and more willing to try new items.
McCollister says her daughters, 18-month-old Sarah and 4-year-old Sophia, now love produce too, eagerly anticipating the deliveries and willing to try new dishes. Strawberries, blueberries and cantaloupe are favorites, she said, but now they also eat avocadoes, broccoli, sweet potatoes and mushrooms.
"Before, my husband wouldn't touch sweet potatoes, but he's become a convert thanks to (Vonda's) recipes," she said, noting he also recently acquired a taste for eggplant.
McCollister, a native of France, said her tastes, too, have become more adventurous, and often prefers being surprised each week rather than customizing her orders. "Before, I'd never tried collard greens or mustard greens. But now I've tried everything."
The farm-to-table approach is more appealing, McCollister said, and reminds her of French stores, which tend to offer more local products than American grocery chains. Before Sarah was born, the family got by with the weekly $30 box, but has graduated to a $50 box, she said. She said the service, quality and convenience is worth every penny.
"We are just so grateful for it. It's delivered here weekly and it's so fresh. Eating organics is very important, especially for little ones."
"There are certain things we just can't avoid, such as pollution," she said. "But the food we eat? We can do something about that. We can choose."
That choice has helped the Hoduns through these rough economic times. They admit sales dropped slightly during the worst of the economic collapse, but business is starting to build back up, Vonda said.
Content to do the legwork so their customers' refrigerators remain fully stocked, the couple say they've carved out time in their schedules to continue building their client base, adding more routes to their tri-weekly trips. What their schedule doesn't allow, Steve pointed out, is time for their own gardening.
But he admitted, ironically, "I can't grow a thing. I didn't get the green thumb."
Want to know more?
To order, or for more information about Absolute Organics, visit absoluteorganics.com. Long-term contracts are not required.