Even before you enter the WINCHESTER Farmer's Market, you get an idea of what's inside. Next to the big green letters spelling out "farmer's market" are small signs. "Mercado Internacional," reads one.
"The other signs are in Chinese, Vietnamese, and Korean," says Ben Park, one of the market's owners. "For everybody else, we're just the Winchester Farmer's Market."
Winchester Farmer's Market opened three months ago in the site of a former Seessel's at the corner of Kirby and Winchester. Owners Park and John Kang took the concept from super-sized international markets such as Buford Highway Farmer's Market in Atlanta and the K&S World Market in Nashville.
"John and I were small-business owners -- he in Nashville, I in Atlanta," Park says. "We thought it was time to start something big together, so we came back to Memphis, where we went to college together 20-something years ago, to open this store."
The resulting market is big and colorful, a culinary wonderland. There is no rabbit wearing white gloves and fretting so about being late, but there is rabbit meat for sale. And the aisles aren't labeled 1, 2, 3, 4 for crackers, coffee, cereals, canned fruit. Instead, they're organized by country, so you might find Mexican soda and refried beans in one aisle, live fish tanks filled with lobster, crab, and tilapia in the next, and then just a few seconds later be in front of cans of Spam in the American aisle.
In the background, it's mostly Mexican music, though it's Jimi Hendrix in the meat department. The common language among the customers of myriad nationalities is some sort of English.
"During the weekend, most of our customers are from the Hispanic community," Park says. "But during the week we usually have a good mix of nationalities and locals who come to buy groceries."
Currently, the store is stocked with approximately 30,000 products. Not all of them are exotic, but most are different from the merchandise mix at a more typical American store. Beef tongues are lying next to a cow's head in one of the freezers. Small beef intestines are next to beef tripe, liver, and "Chorizo Mexicano." In the produce section, beside the apples, potatoes, bananas, cabbage, and okra, you'll see green Thai eggplant, which looks like a small green tomato, and fuzzy squash, banana leaves, Taiwanese bok choy, gai choy, a choy, yu choy, and baby bok choy, among other hard-to-find foreign produce and herbs.
The store carries more than 20 varieties and 50 brands of rice. "People from different countries prefer slightly different types of rice," Park says. "Africans, for example, prefer broken rice. We didn't really know that, but customers told us and now we carry it."
Park sees the store as a work-in-progress that will evolve with help from its customers. For instance, Park knows that products from countries such as India, Africa, and the Middle East are underrepresented.
There is room to grow too. The market has enough space for independent vendors and retailers. A jewelry store and a custom-order auto-accessories shop have just opened in the front of the store. Yung Kim owns and operates Glory Video, a small Korean video rental that also carries lingerie, Korean cosmetics, and magazines. A coffee and smoothie bar is set up opposite the deli, which offers "Quick Fixin' Ideas" with what appears to be seaweed and sprouts salads (no English signs here) as well as fried rice to-go. A sushi bar, a Mexican deli, a check-cashing place, and a Latin American clothing store are in the works.
Park says Winchester Farmer's Market is filling a void.
"A lot of our customers come from out of town," he says. "Those from Arkansas usually drive all the way to Dallas to find what they need. Now that this market has opened, they might find it here." n
The store is located at 6616 Winchester. Store hours are 8:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday-Thursday and 8:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Sunday.