The Producers 

The Grocer at SMFM opening soon; Cultivate Memphis now cultivating.

Curtis Thomas, Devin Marzette, and Roshun Austin of The Grocer at SMFM

Justin Fox Burks

Curtis Thomas, Devin Marzette, and Roshun Austin of The Grocer at SMFM

After more than two years of planning and one year of construction, The Grocer at SMFM is on the verge of a soft opening.

Overseen by the Works, Inc. as part of the South Memphis Revitalization Action Plan, the full-fledged grocery store, located at the corner of Mississippi and South Parkways in an old fish market, will give local residents access to produce and other food items beyond the once-a-week South Memphis Farmers Market that takes place in the parking lot from May to November.

Many of the market's farmers and vendors will contribute produce and other items to the Grocer, which will be open six days a week. The Grocer will also stock wholesale items during non-growing season.

"The goal is to provide a supplement to the farmers market where you can buy everything you need to make a full meal," says Curtis Thomas, deputy executive director at the Works, Inc.

Wooden produce bins line a rack to the left of the store's entryway, dividing the space in half. There are also hexagonal wooden produce displays dotting the right half of the store. These have false bottoms and will hold items like watermelon or greens displayed in crushed ice.

Past the produce bins is a mini grocery, which will carry dry goods such as cereals as well as supplies like paper towels.

All of the produce in the store will be labeled so patrons will be able to distinguish between wholesale items and, say, greens from the Richardson Vegetable Farm, one of the most popular vendors at the farmers market.

The Grocer also will employ only residents of the neighborhood. Though the growing season is several weeks away, the soft opening planned for late March or early April will include greens, salad mixes, onions, and garlic from a local farm.

click to enlarge The Grocer’s demonstration kitchen
  • The Grocer’s demonstration kitchen

The adjacent demonstration kitchen has expanded and will offer more educational opportunities.

"Realistically, this was all born out of that neighborhood planning process. It's not like this is some outside group coming in saying, 'You guys need to eat better food,'" Thomas says.

"This is what people asked for. They designed it. So there's a level of buy-in before we even started that really gave us a huge leg up as a market."

1400 Mississippi (946-9675),

As an instructor at L'École Culinaire, Jake Miller would sometimes encounter students who were grasping at straws to find a career and often ill-prepared by the public school system for college-level courses. This experience led him to start Cultivate Memphis with a few of his former students.

Cultivate Memphis has a broad vision, much of which can't be realized until the IRS processes their application for 501(c)(3) status. In time, Miller would like a facility and the infrastructure to offer expansive education, small-business incubation, a mentoring program, job networking, a full-scale cannery, restaurant, farmers market, and more.

For now, the organization and its principals operate out of pocket and in Miller's and his volunteers' spare time, offering nutrition education for organizations like the House: Orange Mound Women's Resource Center and SRVS. The organization has taught healthy cooking practices to expectant mothers, those with functional disabilities, and more.

"I just knew, 'Oh, their lives sucked. That's so sad. Oh, well,'" Miller says. "When I dealt with students who were living through those circumstances, it's not that they're lazy. A lot of them care a lot. They don't know where to start.

"What would serve some of these individuals better is if ... [they] got a real trajectory toward bigger and better things. Not just, 'Hey, we landed you a fry-cook job at McDonald's. Congratulations. You're welcome.'"

Miller hopes Cultivate Memphis will provide a pipeline for local food businesses as well as employment in a field that doesn't require a college degree and isn't ever going to go away.

It could still be months before Cultivate Memphis obtains nonprofit status. Meanwhile, Miller is laying the groundwork to shift into a higher gear once it can accept tax-exempt funds.

Cultivate Memphis always will revolve around education and career opportunities.

"While I applaud the efforts of people who are bringing high-quality nutrition to these underserved areas and I think it's important, I think one of the missing areas is teaching people how to cook in a way that doesn't render all of those nutrients completely null and void," Miller says.

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