Mary Thomas of Edisto Island was piling up produce on the counter of Blackbird Market last week, including sweet potatoes, tomatoes, red onion, a bunch of Russian kale and a plastic bag packed full of mizuna, a specialty salad green. She asked for some shrimp, too.
She was a good ways from home, Blackbird being on Johns Island, but she had business that had brought her to Charleston. So she made a detour.
It wasn’t her first time at the market, which opened last summer.
Her initial visit was made in search of Dancin’ Goat soap and lotions, after she saw online that Blackbird carried them. Since then, she has returned, motivated by the desire for a healthier lifestyle.
“I got a juicer and I’m juicing. I like eating kale and I didn’t think I would,” says Thomas, an Atlanta transplant who tried the leafy green only a month ago. And “I like buying local.”
Consumers like Thomas know that farmers markets aren’t the only game in town when shopping for local or closer-to-home bounty and enjoying the one-on-one social interaction they offer.
An alternative is seeking out one of the small, independent markets scattered throughout the Lowcountry.
Some are relatively new, like Blackbird and Our Local Foods Cafe & Market in Wando. Others have been around for years, such as the Vegetable Bin on East Bay Street.
All are being spurred on by the buy-local, eat-local movement.
Take kale, a very Southern “superfood” that grows well in the Lowcountry.
“About five years ago, we could hardly sell it ... or get it,” says Steve Turner, a Vegetable Bin employee. “Now we can hardly keep it. It just flies out.”
The Vegetable Bin was established as a wholesale business in 1946 by Billy Leonard. He opened the retail store in 1975 and has been at it ever since, except for a short-lived retirement between 2005 and ’08. Now 87, Leonard continues to work at the store.
Grandson Will Bailey, 30, and his brother, Michael, are helping to run the market in its reincarnation.
The market carries up to 60 percent local produce from the tri-county area at the peak of the growing season.
Will Bailey says his clientele runs the spectrum, but they share a common interest: “They want to know where their stuff is coming from.”
For example, Yvette Douglas has been shopping there for more than 40 years. The 72-year-old lives in the North Area but makes the trip downtown anyway. “The vegetables are fresh, and you get great service here,” she says.
Hilary Vigh, 23, has been a customer for four years. She started when she was a College of Charleston student.
She says she finds “better deals” than at a nearby supermarket and perceives the produce to be fresher. “Because they have smaller quantities out, they go quicker,” she says.
While she also patronizes the Charleston Farmers Market on Saturdays, Vigh finds herself shopping at the Vegetable Bin at least once a week. She says that buying local is a strong motivator. “A lot of my friends are the same way.”
While fruits and vegetables are the main magnets — with “local” exerting the strongest pull of all — the independent markets are finding other ways to grow their business.
Blackbird Farms was the genesis for Blackbird Market, and both are owned by Billy Haynes. The 43-year-old Charleston native has been farming for a decade on family property near Flat Rock, N.C., and on Wadmalaw Island. Until a year ago, he had been wholesaling his harvests exclusively to 50 local restaurants. Then he decided to expand into the retail side.
“You always have something left,” Haynes explains. “You always grow more than you can get rid of.”
Blackbird Market opened in a former tire shop at a busy Johns Island intersection, Maybank Highway and Bohicket Road. Business started small and slowly, “one step at a time,” Haynes says.
At first, the offerings were extremely limited: tomatoes, peaches, a few squash and melons. The market was open only four days a week, Wednesday-Saturday.
“There were days we saw tumbleweeds in here,” says employee Jay Maynard, a former chef at Fulton Five restaurant. “It was nothing like you see now.”
As Thanksgiving approached, the market tried some new things. It took orders for free-range turkeys. A big pumpkin display went up. Colorful mums became part of the inventory.
The market was starting to get legs. But the holiday shopping season was even more of an eye-opener, Maynard says.
“We realized we needed to get more stuff in here — local products. It was gift-buying season. We went days without selling a tomato.”
They brought in Lowcountry Olive Oil, Nicole’s Nutty Goodness bars, Geechie Boy Grits and more.
But another food category turned out to be Blackbird’s sleeping giant. In the fall, they began selling oysters by the bushel and shrimp by the pound.
“When we brought seafood in, it really jumped things up,” Maynard says. “It was surprising.”
Demand was so strong that a seafood case recently was built, and fish, clams, mussels, scallops and single oysters have been added. The market’s operation also grew to seven days a week at the beginning of the year.
Blackbird further expanded its line of specialty products this spring. There’s a new case displaying a selection of prewrapped cheeses and cured meats. Another case holds locally made pasta, yet another artisan bacon and country ham. Fresh breads from Normandy Farms bakery in Charleston are available.
Much of the produce can claim a specialty status as well. Because Blackbird grows vegetables for chefs, the selection can be more eclectic than what is found in other stores, Maynard says. “We don’t just have big red beets, we have baby candy cane beets. ... We have ramps; I guarantee you won’t find ramps everywhere.”
Boone Hall Farms Market in Mount Pleasant is another independent that has honed in on local products while keeping its produce front and center.
Steve Stone, the manager, says the market’s strategy has evolved in its seven years. When a large, red, barnlike store was erected in 2006 on the site of the farm’s former roadside stand on U.S. Highway 17, the vision was for a gourmet-type store to serve the burgeoning town and suburbia with its upscale demographics.
Stone says owner Willie McRae, who also owns Boone Hall Plantation, saw the potential to do something on a “nicer, grander scale” that included fine wines, good beef and fresh seafood.
“But the main focal point of the store has always been the produce because Willie is from a long line of farming,” Stone says.
Over time, the concept was tweaked to increase the variety of local products, he says. Shelves were stocked with seasoning blends, jams, jellies, honey and the like.
“We’ve done a lot to partner with the S.C. Department of Agriculture and the Specialty Food Association. We try to help those local businesses trying to get started.”
In turn, he says, “that allows us to have products in our store that you can’t find everywhere else. We’re proud of that.”
At the same time, the market also turned its sandwich and hot dog counter into a larger farm-fueled cafe. All of the changes complemented each other and boosted business, Stone says.
Although “local” can be powerful branding, market operators say keeping competitive prices on the fruits and vegetables is key to customer loyalty.
“You can see the fields where the majority of our produce is grown,” Stone says. “We don’t have the middleman, the shipping and all that, so our costs are lower. So we can pass the savings along to our customers.”
Maynard concedes that Blackbird is not the cheapest store in town, but it works to stay in line with others. “We sell produce as reasonably as we can. The more reasonable it is, the more it sells. We’re not running a produce museum in here.”
Maynard thinks his customers also are in search of something personal when they cross the threshold.
“We sell customer service as much as anything else,” Maynard says.
Both he and the other store manager, Doug Svec, cooked for years in restaurants. Maynard went through the horticulture program at Trident Technical College. Both speak the language of farm and food.
“We know where it came from, can tell them (customers) all about it and can tell them how to use it,” Maynard says.
Adds Svec, “We really love food and eating, and have a passion for this.”