At first glance, Plontz might seem like your average Silicon Valley startup: Two enthusiastic brothers working together in a Palo Alto garage, complete with a wall covered in Post It notes and a multi-colored hammock, to disrupt an industry they care deeply about.
A closer look shows a more unusual company -- the two brothers grew up in a Mennonite community in eastern Pennsylvania, later working in politics, health care and technology -- with a community-driven goal that is both simple and ambitious: Give people the tools and knowledge necessary to plant food in their backyard and along the way, teach them about food systems, sustainability and community.
Plontz's product is a custom-curated box full of gardening goodies shipped to subscribers' doors on a quarterly basis. For $85 per quarter (or $20 per month), subscribers get regular shipments of harder-to-find seeds from small growers (and packets to share extras with your neighbors), soil, biodegradable pots, step-by-step pictographic instructions, a recipe paired to what they will be growing and even an organic health bar to snack on while they plant said seeds. The seeds and instructions are personalized to both the person receiving them (is their household all organic, gluten free or simply averse to a certain vegetable?), the climate they live in (in February, an eastern Pennsylvania subscriber would receive a different box from a Palo Altan) and the current season.
"We've listened to the marketplace -- that people are really interested in farm to table, of course," said younger brother Tim Lyons, who joined the Plontz team this January. "We're really interested in taking that to the next logical step, which is backyard to table, and understanding the story from where food truly comes from -- where the seed comes from, where the soil comes from -- and how you can participate in that.
"Empirically, food from your garden tastes better," he added. "Let's get people there and create a really delightful experience along the way."
Older brother Jonathan Lyons founded Plontz last year after several years working on presidential campaigns in Washington, D.C., going to business school at The Wharton School and heading to Silicon Valley, "riding the spirit of the clean energy wave."
But long before that, Jonathan's first job was on a dairy farm in eastern Pennsylvania, throwing hay bales. The Lyons brothers grew up in the middle of a dairy farm, in fact, with a Mennonite mother who instilled in them a value of and interest in gardening, farming, food and community service.
Both brothers are secular now, but the nonreligious Mennonite values and link to small-scale agriculture have stuck with them. Jonathan, a self-described gardening addict, had his own garden during high school, college and through the ups and downs of working with startups. (Tim also has his own garden, and though its entirely indoor in his Oakland home, produces an impressive variation of herbs on a regular basis, he said.)
"This is something I'm deeply passionate about and it really links some of the things I care about, which is the environment, which is making America healthy again and inspiring communities to talk to each other over the fence," Jonathan said.
This starts with making gardening easy.
"The challenges of gardening are: 'What should I plant right now, how do I find everything I plant, how do I find the information that would help me successfully grow something from seed to the table?'"
With a Silicon Valley ethos, Plontz speeds past the days of seed catalogs and mid-afternoon gardening lectures, consolidating all of that information into one simple box delivered to your front door. The two brothers walked this reporter through a box on a recent afternoon in Jonathan's Palo Alto garage, which is strewn with gardening books and has one corner given away to small beds of budding plants growing under light bulbs.
Plontz takes it a step beyond the user by highlighting local, small growers whose seeds are typically not available at big-box retailers like Home Depot, Jonathan said.
"We're not trying to get to a situation where people are growing 100 percent of their food at home," he said. "We're trying to demonstrate and teach people (that) what you grow at home is wonderful and delicious, and you should have respect for all the people within the supply chain that are getting you this stuff."
The recipes included in the boxes will also be tailored to the recipients. Bay Area residents receiving their first box will receive famed Chez Panisse chef Alice Waters' pesto recipe, but Philadelphia subscribers might get something else from Judy Wicks, a pioneer in the local sustainable food movement. The box also includes a pre-postaged postcard with the recipe so recipients can then share it with friends -- reaching over the proverbial fence. Other postcards urge users to write to someone who inspired them to be a better gardener.
The brothers also plan to link subscribers to local organizations to which they can donate any extra food they grow or places to volunteer, such as Second Harvest Food Bank or Gamble Garden locally. They're available via a support email to answer customers' questions but hope to eventually leverage their experience in the Valley and knowledge of horticultural culture to create a more exhaustive, user-friendly database of crowd-sourced growing how-to's and advice.