The Produce Place: Doing Local before Local was Cool

By Emily Capo Sauerman / Photography By Alyssa Jiosa | March 02, 2017
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From left: Steve Marshall, Barry Burnette, and Eric Morrison

Let us begin by saying that produce is not the only item you’ll find at The Produce Place in Sylvan Park, but the store did begin with a single tomato. But not just any tomato, says owner Barry Burnette. It was a Bradley. “I remember the first time I tasted one. I didn’t realize how many flavors tomatoes could have. I’ve been chasing that taste ever since.”

Barry’s chase took off in 1988 when he founded The Produce Place, scarcely imagining that, decades later, his passion for local food would still be such a growing success. The cozy 2,000-squarefoot store, which still resembles its predecessor market, is packed to the gills (an understatement) with local products— everything from JD Country Milk to Noble Springs Goat Cheese to chicken salad and lasagna from the Corner Market to tomato sauce from Café Nonna up the street and fresh pasta from Alfresco Pasta. Every item has been personally curated by himself or managers Eric Morrison or Steve Marshall. The day we visited, Burnette was excited about some fresh arugula and Hon Tsai Tai greens from Bloomsbury Farms (in the middle of February no less). “And you’ve got to try this! This is the vinegar that made me fall in love with balsamic! And this hydroponic lettuce—it melts in your mouth!”

It’s easy to see how The Produce Place keeps its customers so loyal. Yes, prices are lower at Walmart, but the intimate shopping experience and assortment of local products keeps customers coming back ... many for decades. Barry and his employees guarantee the quality of his products and provide face-to-face service for his shoppers. Eric vouched for the Downing Cattle Farm ground pork, saying that it was probably ground the day before and that he and his wife eat it all the time. To help meet demand for such quality service, Barry employs a staff of 19, all conversant with the store’s many products and ready to share recommendations for seasonal items.

But it’s not just the food that is healthy at The Produce Place; the working environment is as well. Staff turnover is remarkably low. “Lots of employees grew up in the store,” says Barry. Isiah’s mom worked in the store, and now Isiah does. I’ve known him since he was a baby.” Eric Morrison, the general manager, and Steve Marshall, the store manager, started working for Barry as teenagers in the early ’90s. Eric clearly loves his job. “I can provide for the community and my family while working with my hands,” he says. Eric also enjoys the freedom that comes with his role. “I wouldn’t be able to take it working in a cubicle,” he chuckles. Steve also values these aspects of the job, although his Produce Place beginnings were a little different. “I started so I could pay for my car insurance,” he says with a grin. “My mom shopped at The Produce Place and told me they needed a cleanup guy. I got hired on the spot and was handed a new mop and a bucket.” Over the years, Steve took on more responsibility and became full-time after high school. “At one point,” he says, “I did go off to work in a cubicle. It sucked.” Steve’s been at The Produce Place ever since.

All three men know that their success lies in nourishing the relationships between producers and patrons. As Eric puts it, “The future is about taking care of ‘Ms. Smith,’ our customer base. Our store better be ready when Ms. Smith comes in. Customers are the reason we are here.” They also know that the store is perfectly positioned to meet Nashville’s ever-growing demand for all things local. “The local movement is everywhere today,” Barry observes. “Even in the airport!”

At The Produce Place, after almost 30 years, Barry is still thrilled to craft unique shopping experiences for his patrons, sharing samples of new products and produce fresh from the farm. “Here, try this,” he likes to say. “This is what’s best today.”

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