On a yellow legal pad, Jack Limehouse has written “IODINE STATE” in all caps. It is a channel marker for the conversation about how Charleston became a national food destination.
Limehouse says the old nickname, which even appeared on license plates, is telling. South Carolina’s soil is high in iodine, he explains, and the state used that as a marketing tool in the late 1920s. Iodine deficiency can lead to goiter, or an enlarged thyroid, and South Carolina vegetables were touted as better than others.
“Actually, they are,” says Limehouse, a lifelong Johns Islander. “They taste better.”
In a few minutes, he strays from the table to look for chanterelles and pick figs on his Johns Island property, the same land he grew up on and has been in his family for more than a century.
Jack and Andrea Limehouse, married for 32 years, run a high-profile business in the Lowcountry, Limehouse Produce. Their trucks crisscross the tri-county area daily delivering vegetables and fruits to 800 customers, including restaurants, schools, hospitals, resorts, corner markets and other food-service establishments.
Not only have they had a front-row seat to the explosion of the local food scene, they have been part and parcel of it.
Yet they remain private people, mostly behind the scenes.
They quietly give their support to educational institutions such as the Trident Technical College Foundation and groups including Lowcountry Local First.
They regularly donate produce to the Lowcountry Food Bank, Crisis Ministries and charitable organizations that feed the needy. They help make the Charleston Wine + Food Festival happen.
They also have lent a helping hand to many individuals, like Brian Bertolini. He came to know them five years ago when seeking produce for his new pasta business, Rio Bertolini’s.
“They kind of introduced me to everybody around town. Without knowing me, they helped me get started.”
That included getting him set up in a small building on their property off Wappoo Road.
“I didn’t have the money to put up a walk-in freezer, so they put one in. They gave me probably $30,000 to $40,000 worth of equipment to use,” he says. “They totally decked the place out before I moved in; they painted it. They did things I wasn’t able to do.”
Bertolini says they have treated him like a son, but he’s not alone.
“l can’t tell you how many people I’ve met that they’ve helped. It’s endless. They don’t do it for recognition, they just do it.”
Limehouse Produce was started by Jack’s father, H.B. Limehouse, in 1940. The original location was 49 Market St., the latter-day site of Garibaldi’s restaurant. Limehouse was one of three produce companies operating around Market Street at the time.
Jack took over the business in 1972 after the death of his father. Following his father’s footsteps was “serendipity,” Limehouse says, because he didn’t particularly desire to stay in the Lowcountry despite of his family’s deep roots here.
He was a University of South Carolina graduate with a degree in marketing who had been interested in a possible military career. He did six months in the service before bad eyesight got him discharged.
Jack was raised next to the creeks and saltwater marshes at the foot of the Limehouse Bridge, where he and Andrea still live today in the two-story farmhouse built by his grandfather in 1903. John F. Limehouse also ran a country store nearby for more than 50 years and at one time operated the ferry between the island and the mainland, where the bridge stands today.
Andrea, meanwhile, deferred a university education as a young woman in her native England in favor of world travel. Her journey began with hitchhiking to Istanbul, then following “the hippie trail” overland to India, where she spent six months.
By 1973, Andrea had landed in South America. She lived and worked mostly in Bolivia on ranches for two years, immersing herself in Latin culture. (She still speaks Spanish on a daily basis with employees and has retained her love of travel.)
She also made her way to the Lowcountry in the 1970s to visit a friend. She and Jack met then and were married in 1979.
Andrea joined Limehouse Produce at the start of what would become a culinary rebirth in Charleston, powered by restaurants, in the last quarter of the 20th century. Before, Charleston’s reputation for eating well had been tied more to fine home cooking and sumptuous entertaining.
Jack, 69, and Andrea, 59, say Charleston’s place at the national table was set by a number of hands.
One was the influx of European-born and trained chefs such as Franz Meier, Chris Weihs and Serge Claire who established the city’s white tablecloth restaurants of the 1980s: the Colony House, Marianne, the Cotton Exchange, Phillipe Million, to name a few. “Those guys spawned all of this, the energy they put here,” Andrea says.
Both agree that Spoleto Festival USA also had a significant impact.
Charleston, too, has fostered a culture of independent restaurants, they say. Even today, compared with other cities, “This is not really a chain town,” Andrea says. “There are a lot of independents here.”
Still, Jack says the contemporary food scene would not exist if not for the Lowcountry’s rich culinary past that was fueled by a bounty of vegetables, fish and game.
“We used to have good food here all the time. but it kind of went out of vogue. It kind of got away from us. ... They used to do it in homes, but the tradition was here. If we cooked fresh okra and tomatoes, we cooked fresh okra, we didn’t open a can.”
“They’re kind of reinventing the wheel with this local movement,” he continues. “But it’s the best thing that has ever happened.”
‘Nearer the better’
Inside the chilly, 32,000- square-foot warehouse off Ashley Phosphate Road, where Limehouse Produce moved in 2007 from West Ashley, pallets are stacked with all sorts of produce from Palmetto Sweets onions to Virginia peanuts, peaches to pineapples. There are three temperature zones that migrate from 55 degrees down to 37.
“Our business is all supply and demand,” says Andrea, requiring a constant watch on the weather conditions across the country so they can determine when, what and how much to buy.
The market easily can be flooded by too much of a good thing: This year it was local heirloom tomatoes. One day, there were 6,500 pounds on the warehouse floor.
On average, the business delivers at least a half-million pounds of produce a week. Between 10 percent and 15 percent is purchased from local farmers, $1.7 million in the past year. The company buys as much as it can as close as possible. They will choose a Wadmalaw source over a Beaufort grower, for instance.
“This is what we’ve always done,” says Andrea, who starts her day around 4 a.m. “It makes perfect sense. Our biggest problem is getting the stuff here. The nearer the better.”
The only difference today is dealing with only a couple of larger local growers compared with many more in the past, she says. “We have some tiny farmers.”
The Limehouses are concerned about the future of farming in the Lowcountry, which is why they have donated 7 acres of their property on Johns Island for Lowcountry Local First to use as an “incubator” site for startup farmers.
“We’ve got a list of the farmers here back in the ’40s. There were hundreds; now there are dozens,” says Jack. Furthermore, “I don’t think the ground is here anymore,” having been turned over to other uses over the years, including timber and housing developments.
“I think it (farming) will have to come back in a different way, small-scale operations,” he says.
Sidi Limehouse of Rosebank Farms also grows crops vegetables on his second cousin’s acreage. Only three years apart, he and Jack are like brothers.
Sidi says Limehouse Produce’s success is partly due to being at the right place at the right time. He remembers the days when Jack had just a couple of trucks and no restaurant business to speak of. But as the other produce companies faded away, “Jack was the man. ... He was industrious enough, smart enough that he filled the gap. And he’s still filling the gap. Their key to success is personal attention.”
Chef-owner Robert Carter of Carter’s Kitchen in Mount Pleasant has known the Limehouses for 25 years and has been a customer for much of that time. He says a lot of people don’t appreciate what they do.
“I’ve always felt like they’ve had Charleston’s culinary molding in their hands. They’ve always brought in products that the chefs wanted and needed.
“Back in the 1980s, it wasn’t about local, it was about what was unique. They brought in purple potatoes — they were unheard of back then — pomegranate and cactus fruit. They were an ambassador to the chefs.”
With “local” the object of desire today, Carter says Limehouse Produce continues to make it easy for the chefs to see what’s in the market at any given time.
Moreover, Carter says, the couple gives back to the community in big ways. “They have been huge supporters of the Chef’s Feast,” which raises money for childhood hunger programs, he says.
The Trident Technical College Foundation also is on the receiving end of the Limehouses’ goodwill. She serves on the board and Limehouse Produce is a major sponsor of its biggest fundraising event, the annual “Night in the Valley” wine dinner and auction, which also showcases Culinary Institute of Charleston students.
The couple also are creating an endowed scholarship at the culinary school, according to Kim Sturgeon, the foundation’s executive director.
“They are very active in the life of the college,” Sturgeon says. “They truly care about their community, and their actions reflect that sentiment.”