Tuesday, November 1, 2011

LynnErin Tyler and Selling Local Food

Greetings from Simply Local, a small local grocery situated within Atherton Market, located in Charlotte’s South End neighborhood. Simply Local grew from a concept to bring together the best of local food in a way that would make finding local goods easier for consumers, while providing farmers and small producers with a more convenient way to get their goods to market. Essentially, I knew there was a lot more good local food out there than most people had easy access to purchase and I had heard enough farmers talk about the limitations of farmers markets in making their economic model work that I believed there must something that could be done to bridge the gap—we’re making progress but, in all fairness, we're not there yet.

Creating a local food grocery – what does it take?
·         Finding a location
·         Finding the food
·         Finding the customers
·         And like it or not, learning to run a business!

After nearly a year of considering various business models and working with lots of individuals committed to local food, I settled on the relatively low-risk option of being a part of an existing market. Atherton Market then and now has plans for expansion with a goal of being open 5 to 6 days a week with hours convenient to consumers; for now, we’re open 3 days a week—Tuesday (3 – 7), Wednesday (11-7) & Saturday (9 – 2.). The obvious challenge here is getting to consistent hours so customers don’t have to try to keep track of when we’re there and when we’re not.   

So given a location, it was time to determine the food. Being in an existing market provides both opportunities and challenges. Getting started with an established customer base has been great; however, it would work against my stated goals to bring in food that competed directly with the food farmers bring to market, so that meant focusing on food that wasn’t regularly available at Atherton Market. This is what brought me to my initial focus on dairy goods. Simply Local’s primary food focus is cheese, milk, butter, and ice cream.  

People who are not all that familiar with NC’s agricultural landscape are often surprised at the variety of dairy products available in our state. Some of the products were previously well known to me and many are new finds resulting from the research I have done.  Research means talking to anyone willing who might know about local food options, scouring the web, and attending food events when possible. 

Once I have confirmed there is a product I want to pursue, I generally go to the source (this is the fun part: visiting the farm, meeting the actual producers of these great products, learning the process to create the fantastic food we enjoy.). Site visits remind me why eating local matters. I see the communities that are impacted, see how families rally to make farming work, and generally see the love and concern that goes into preparing each item we are so fortunate to consume. Many of the farms I visit have been in the family for generations and this generation is working hard to balance tradition and the reality of functioning in our very modern world. Simply Local aims to make that effort a little easier.

Once I reached a “critical mass” in cheese offerings (20+ options) and found a dairy (Homeland Dairy in Julian, NC) that worked for me, it was time to look around and start rounding out my offerings to provide a fuller compliment to that which the other farmers bring to market. One of my favorite finds is rice grown by relocated Hmong farmers, now living in Morganton, NC. As expected, we’ve found great producers for jams, juices (all NC fruit), nut products and soon we’ll be branching out into specialty meat products.  

This work in progress, called Simply Local, originated from a love of local food and all that it means to support local food (positive impact on local economies and communities and individual health & nutritional benefits). The reality of making it a success requires enough business savvy to attract customers and manage the daily tasks of running a business. All that’s for another blog and another day, so we’ll just leave it at I learn something new every day and I guess those challenges are good for my brain too. 

The fun is in the search and joy is in the finding of great local food products. The satisfaction of knowing I can help bring some of these great products to more tables makes the effort all worth it.  Come check us out and please pass along your favorite local food finds . . . maybe Simply Local can help make them easier for others to find and enjoy.

LynnErin Tyler owns and manages Simply Local, a regular vendor at the Atherton Market. You can reach her at simplylocal@hotmail.com .

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