While we've stocked the Cafe + Grocery with Modern Forestry Soy Candles for going on three years, last month we had the opportunity to sit down with Mary for a few minutes after our monthly candle delivery. John grabbed a fresh strawberry salad from the Cafe and amid the hustle of local shoppers we heard how the Cafe + Grocery came to be.
The Cafe + Grocery has been around as long as Modern Forestry. Just when did it all begin? We opened in September 2011, so we're going on eight years. When we started, we did all our own baking. A lot of the bakery recipes were our family recipes, like the lentil soup and the stecca. Some were dumb luck that just came from experimentation. My husband started making sandwiches the first day we opened and we never stopped since. When Judy joined our team 3-4 years ago, she helped standardized and increase our selection, which allows us to buy more food from local farmers. And the Swamp Pizza [the outdoor pizza kitchen] is all Judy.
When we started stocking the Grocery, the store and cafe were just the lower section. How has it grown since then? All of the baking was done down in the main kitchen, but in 2013 we expanded the upstairs and started baking up there. That's our main kitchen now. We also expanded into the adjacent building and separated the Cafe + Grocery into more distinct spaces. From there we added Swamp Pizza outside and carved out a space inside for the Butcher. And the kids area started when our kids were on the move.
Do you remember that initial conversation with Jac when you first dreamed of the Cafe + Grocery? Ya! We both worked for an environmental non-profit, and there wasn't a good option then for locally farmed, organic food. We would both run into each other at the farmer markets and work, and we shared a passion for eating local food and for going far out of our way to do it. Other than the farmer markets once a week, there wasn't a place to find fresh produce. There wasn't a place to buy freshly baked goods with really good ingredients. A place for families and kids. The more we get into this, the more I appreciate what we do here. It's nice to go somewhere and trust that there isn't food coloring, corn syrup, etc hidden in the food - those are just things that we will never have here. We know how hard it is to do things the right way but its worthwhile! We worked 80 hours a week those first few years. It's hard but good. Now that the Cafe + Grocery is here and so established, it's hard to image the Swamp Rabbit Trail and Greenville without this cornerstone of community! What was your family and friend's initial response to the dream? My family was excited because I think they’ve always been interested in doing something like this. This is an extension of our personal family values so it fits. A decade ago, I rode my bike everywhere and I often rode past here. Seeing that this property was vacant, we found the owner and lucked out that he was not only a local for supported, but a supported of the trail and getting more people on bikes. He offered to rent us a space in our building and this was really critical to our success.
While the Cafe + Grocery is a community hub, it's first and foremost a business. What's been your biggest business obstacle? So many obstacles. Cash flow. When you’re ready to grow and you need the cash, it isn't always there. It was hard for us to understand this well until we started our own business. It's risky, because you have to make payroll and other expenses. Sometimes you're counting on sales from the weekend to pay expenses, but if it rains or snows you might not get those sales you were banking on. Staff is also a challenge at times. You want them to be happy, to enjoy their work because it reflects in their work. You want them to be well-trained, but that also takes time. Thankful, our staff is passionate about our mission and so enjoying the work comes naturally to them.
Usually with hard work comes a great payoff. What's been the the sweetest reward from this venture? It's so fulfilling to see the farmers come in with their stuff every day. It used to be they would come in once a week with a box of tomatoes. But getting to the volume that we're at is exciting. Now some of them come in every day and instead of one box it might be ten! It's feels like we're really making a difference.