Glasscoe brings a lot to the table

by Will Lindner

vermont_farm_table1215Jessica and Dustin Glasscoe launched Vermont Farm Table in Bristol in 2009 to produce made-to-order dining tables and other wood products. His wife, Jessica, handles sales and marketing.

In the current parlance, Dustin Glasscoe and his wife, Jessica, are “foodies.” It was their interest in food that brought them to Vermont on a three-day scouting trip in January 2008. He had developed a deep appreciation of food’s importance as a chef in Colorado and at his stepmother’s farm in North Carolina; she had done post-graduate study in integrative nutrition at Columbia University.

Despite unwelcoming winter weather and depressingly dirty snow, they found Vermont’s culinary offerings eminently to their liking. More than that, though, it was the food systems they admired: sustainable, healthy, integrated, community focused, and robust. They sensed that those qualities reflected the state’s broader culture, and that it would be a place where they could live their values more fully than they were — at the time, in Glasscoe’s native North Carolina.

Not that it was an easy sell! After driving in lousy weather each day past properties for sale, they repaired to carefully selected restaurants for supper. “And all three nights,” Glasscoe recalls, “we’d be having these conversations about how we weren’t sure we would like it in Vermont. Then our servers, or people at nearby tables, would overhear us and say, ‘We want to tell you all the reasons you’d want to live here.’ ‘We buy our meat locally.’ ‘Our neighbor is a chef …’”

While those arguments were persuasive, the couple’s decision followed a calibrated process on the flight back to North Carolina, during which they applied metrics (color codes, weighted averages — they had met, after all, as business undergraduates at the University of Colorado, Boulder) to the three or four destinations they were considering. Vermont edged out the others and they made their move that spring. Jessica, who had been employed at Whole Foods in Winston-Salem, landed a job at Seventh Generation.

It took Glasscoe a little longer to find his niche. A part-time consulting position in marketing for a North Carolina–based garage-door manufacturer sustained him temporarily. His niche, it turned out, had less to do with food than with the surface it’s served upon.

Since 2009, the Glasscoes have owned and operated Vermont Farm Table, producing made-to-order dining tables in Bristol based on traditional designs that combine simplicity, utility, and understated beauty. Other products include chairs, stools, desks, end tables, and wooden cooking tools “that will last a lifetime,” Glasscoe says.

“We consider the family to be sacred and the table to be a sacred place.” “Sacred” does not mean sanctified. The company’s website exhorts customers who purchase a table to “Love it. Beat it up. Then pass it down to your children.”

One of Vermont Farm Table’s departures from the mainstream is that it’s a business without inventory, the exceptions being a small number of sample products in the company’s modest storefront on College Street in Burlington, which the Glasscoes opened in 2011. “It’s our overall model that brings value to the customer,” says Glasscoe. “We cut out the middle market, so can bring better quality to the market for the price.” Tables run, generally, from $1,500 to $2,500.

Another departure is the personal and direct service that’s the very basis of Glasscoe’s business model. Most orders come through the company website; even the Burlington storefront uses the website to facilitate choices and selections.

“We’re demand-driven,” says Glasscoe. “We interface with customers through email, by phone, through text messaging, and by live chat. People can reach us instantly for service.”

The website features half a dozen dining tables of basically similar surface design but with alternative leg and support structures. Besides the size (height and dimensions), people can customize their tables, chairs, etc., by selecting among various woods and finishes. The furniture is hand-crafted and painstakingly finished with environmentally friendly penetrating oils. It’s then shipped to the customer.

While Vermont Farm Table also sells through a small number of third-party retailers, including Amazon and Houzz, the personal responsiveness to customer choice is where its strength lies. That contact, Glasscoe points out, provides his sales team an opportunity to educate customers about sustainable practices that are aligned with the company’s values. The wood used is a mix of reclaimed and sustainably managed hardwoods, about a third of it from Vermont. Reclaimed wood, which makes up about 50 percent of the business, can come from barns, silos, and aging facilities such as the Waterbury train station. This earned Glasscoe the Vermont Retail Association’s Greentailer of the Year award in 2013.

As a student, and in his marketing work in North Carolina, Glasscoe acquired considerable online technical facility. But to fully develop the capabilities he envisioned for empowering his customers, he turned to Agilion, a Burlington firm specializing in Web development and custom software. He worked extensively with Agilion co-founder Adam Bouchard.

“Dustin is very focused on his niche,” Bouchard emphasizes. “What he’s been able to achieve — where people can go online and customize their own table? You don’t really see that. We worked to codify the steps: What size do you want? What kind of wood do you want? What kind of feel do you want? I think it’s pretty unique. It’s an amazing strategy, and it’s something to watch.”

This manufacturer of custom kitchen-oriented furniture is the son of a builder of custom homes in Winston-Salem. “Buddy” Glasscoe employed his son (born in 1978) at various times in his youth, which speaks for his facility with wood. Buddy also brought him to Vermont twice to go mountain biking. When Glasscoe was in high school, he drove up with a friend to go snowboarding at Killington.

Glasscoe’s choice of the University of Colorado for his college education was closely tied to his enthusiasm for snowboarding. So was his decision to leave school temporarily and move to Telluride. He supported his riding habit with a restaurant job, which imparted lessons he says stay with him today.

“The need to be organized, to be mentally ready, to work well under stress, and to be aligned with your team: A lot of what I learned in cooking transfers to this,” he says, spreading his arms to encompass the 10,000-square-foot space he leases for furniture production, and the employees who form his team there.

Glasscoe eventually completed his business degree — he met Jessica in an “entrepreneurial” class — and went back to North Carolina. Six months later Jessica joined him, business degree in hand. They found good jobs and bought a house. But their restlessness in North Carolina led to their quixotic 2008 trip to Burlington.

Tellingly, as Glasscoe searched for his niche from a rented house in Shelburne, it was never about where he would land a job. “It was,” he says, “What am I going to start?”

An essential tool, he knew, was a website. So one weekend late in 2008 he ventured out to buy tools and some reclaimed wood and constructed a table. “It was an experiment. I needed an actual concept in order to build the website. I didn’t know if anyone was going to buy a table from me or not.”

That question was answered in the affirmative, and in 2009 Vermont Farm Table sprang to life. Direct service and custom orders were founding concepts, but Glasscoe soon had to develop a network of skilled but underemployed cabinetmakers (the Great Recession was taking hold) to fill his orders.

“That was killing my business model,” he says. “There was less margin and I had less control over quality and lead times. It was unsustainable.”

Leveraging financial support from the Vermont Economic Development Authority, a local bank, and $200,000 of their own money, the Glasscoes leased the Bristol space in 2013, purchased equipment, and expanded the staff. Soon thereafter, he reached out to the Vermont Agricultural Development Program for guidance primarily concerning financial issues, and was paired with Peter Cole of Cole Consulting in Burlington. Their work focused on the most pragmatic aspects of a business operation, but also on more intuitive skills pertaining to staff development and leadership.

Over a 35-year coaching career, Cole says, “I’ve worked with lot of different kinds of people. I immediately found Dustin to be one of the brightest, most coachable entrepreneurs I’ve ever worked with.

“I really value two kinds of intelligence,” he continues. “IQ is obviously very important. The other is EQ: emotional intelligence. Dustin is the extraordinary person who has both, and has the humility to go with it.”

Glasscoe has taken values he and Cole discussed — such as schooling his employees on financial analysis and opening his books so that they understand and embrace their role in the company’s performance — and incorporated them into his vision of a progressive, “people-centric” Vermont company.

“Our vision statement is ‘A Good Life,’” Glasscoe says, insisting that it pertains to those who work for Vermont Farm Table and those who purchase its products, as much as to himself, Jessica (who is now over sales and marketing), and their Vermont-born daughters, Eloise, 6, and Ada, 4.

Vermont is a kinder environment than the Glasscoes encountered in January 2008. They love going “creeking” (finding new swimming holes) in the summer, and hunkering down for weekends in the house they’ve purchased in Charlotte.

As for food, it remains very much “on the table,” as they look for more ways to integrate their values and entrepreneurial energies into the culture of their adopted state. •