For the past two months, Patrick Fleming and Tamara Powell have been spending their days picking through fruits and vegetables, attending produce auctions at country farms and stocking shelves. It’s quite a change from their previous routines.
Fleming, after 15 years in the defense industry, and Powell, who spent 14 years bartending and managing at Dogwood Tavern (all the way back to when it was Broad Street Grill), are the new owners and operators of The Local Market, taking over the small grocery store selling local fruits, vegetables, breads, meats, dairy and more in Falls Church.
Deciding to move on from their previous jobs, they each found themselves searching for their next venture around the same time. Fleming, who moved to the City in 1997, and Powell, an alum of George Marshall High School, have known each other for close to two decades and, over the years, had talked and dreamed about possible business ideas around the area.
“I’ve always had an entrepreneurial twinge,” says Fleming, who says he spent days walking around the City exploring buildings and scanning directories to find out about local companies. “Ever since I moved here, I had the romantic notion to become hyper-local.” So, during a card game when he overheard The Local Market’s previous owner, Tom Coates, mention he wanted to get out of the business, he seized the opportunity.
“I grew up farming in Missouri, so agriculture was appealing,” says Fleming. “And I knew Tammy would be perfect for it.” Powell was equally attracted to the notion. “It’s quite similar to my old job,” she says. “I’m still in my town. I still see my customer base. I get to see my neighbors and it incorporates a bunch of things I like: driving big trucks, eating food and cooking food,” she says. “I like being the bridge between the country and Falls Church.”
So now, the two, along with Fleming’s wife, Mary Elizabeth, are the owners of the little market at 234 West Broad Street, selling locally-sourced groceries to The Little City.
The store, sandwiched between Paisano’s and the Antique Annex, is bursting with produce – a table running down the center is filled to the brim with everything from peaches, apples and a multitude of berries to corn, tomatoes and all kinds of peppers. On the surrounding shelves, there’s bread, coffee, cookies, pies and canned goods while freezers house items like bacon and sausages, along with a sizable gluten-free selection. And just about all of it comes from a nearby farmer or supplier.
The eggs are from Whiffletree and sweet peppers from Powers – two farms out of Warrenton – along with local-as-you-can-get cookies from F.C.’s-own Kendall Barrett and hot sauce and pre-made meals from the City’s Mercy Bloomgarden. And twice a week, Fleming drives up to two and a half hours away to auctions in the Shenandoah Valley and Loveville, Maryland to bid on lots of produce. The most recent score from the auction, a lot of pumpkins, is now for sale at the market.
“It’s exciting that it’s feasible to pick an ear of corn in the morning and have it on your dinner plate that night,” says Fleming.
And rather than compete with the City’s weekly farmers market, since many of its vendors also carry products in their store, Fleming and Powell see it as a synergistic relationship.
“Last Saturday was really fun,” he says. “I walked over to the market to have a meeting with a salmon guy and next to him was a pasta vendor we do business with. Next to him was Beanetics, one of our coffee suppliers, and then Mercy Bloomgarden, who sells hot sauces and salsas with us was next to them. I said ‘hi’ to her and, then, next to her was a guy playing a fiddle who turned out to be a farmer we had talked to before about selling stuff. I chatted with him and he, in turn, introduced me to another farmer.”
It’s hard to get more local than that.
While running a small business full-time can be quite the challenge, both Fleming and Powell have been adjusting to the transition. Since they took over on July 8, at least one of them has been at the store during business hours, seven days a week. With opening and closing, that’s 14-hour days, not including time spent driving to and from farms to pick up inventory. (In fact, during an interview just up the street at Starbucks, it was the first time both had been out of the store at the same time during business hours. “I’m nervous,” Fleming said.)
Despite the long hours, Powell says she’s adapting well to the new venture. “It’s been a little easier than expected,” she says, though Fleming says the opposite. “I think it’s been a little harder,” he says, citing early difficulty finding a rhythm to ordering and stocking the store.
One thing they both agree on is their feelings towards Harris Teeter, which will be opening a 60,000 square-foot store just across the street next year. Neither are scared of the big box grocery.
“We knew Harris Teeter was coming when we started this,” says Fleming, who thinks it will be more help than harm. “It gives us an opportunity to be more unique. We’re not going to beat them at the big grocery store game. We’ll be an ‘also,’ not an ‘instead of.’”
Powell agrees and says while customers can go to bigger grocery stores for off-season fruits like bananas and pineapples in winter, she says they’ll focus on more seasonal products like root vegetables, meats, dairy and cheese at The Local Market during the colder months. “It’ll just be a little less colorful,” she says. “But that makes it all the more worthwhile to enjoy it come springtime.”
With all the new development and impending influx of foot traffic, the only thing that makes them anxious is the question of customer flexibility and patience when it comes to inventory challenges. Unlike a big grocery store, The Local Market can’t over order products – it doesn’t have the space or the capacity for loss like a Giant or Whole Foods does. “Occasionally, we’ll run out of your kind of milk,” says Fleming. “But hopefully, you’ll buy it down the street today and come back to us next time.”
Powell adds, “We’ll call customers who are looking for a product when we get it back in stock.”
Fleming overheard two market regulars chatting in the store one day. “They started talking about shopping and the one woman said, ‘Oh, but this isn’t shopping, this is family,’” Fleming recounts with a smile.
That’s a customer he and Powell know will be back and the kind of response they hope to continue to get from the service they’re providing to the people of Falls Church.
“The single most-satisfying part of this whole venture is the honor of being a part of people’s weekly lives,” says Fleming. “You can’t get more personal than that.”