By Spike Gillespie
Photography by Jenna Noel
On a recent Sunday, Autumn Deuel and her mother, Barbara Henderson, stopped by Farm to Market Grocery. Shopping at the little South Austin store is a regular outing for the pair.
“My mom discovered it right after it opened,” says Autumn. “I’m on the East Side and don’t have a store like this…easy in and out.” Owner Peg McCoy considers that trek across town one of the highest compliments she could receive.
One of Austin’s first boutique grocers, Farm to Market opened on South Congress Avenue in 2005 under a name chosen to evoke the spirit of the Depression-era, dirt-and-gravel roads dedicated to getting the harvest to the table.
After 14 years of nonprofit work overseas and in the Colonias on the US-Mexico border, McCoy had decided it was time to start the small business and felt the need to address something missing. She fondly recalled corner grocers, abundant in the Northeast where she grew up—family-owned places that stocked a little of everything and whose proprietors knew your name, which one of your uncles had a bum knee, and your favorite cheese.
“Here you had to go to H-E-B or Central Market or Whole Foods,” says McCoy. “They’re all good, but they’re huge. I wanted to offer something convenient and friendly.”
Peg makes thrifty use of Farm to Market’s diminutive 1,600 square feet, which avoids feeling claustrophobic even though it’s packed with 4,500 different products, including an impressive wine selection. About 40 percent of the inventory is produced locally, and much of it is organic. And while a fair share of the goods are premium and specialty items, the store is far from being a hoity-toity bastion of exclusivity. Many basic staples line the shelves, including bananas, which are, oddly enough, the all-time top-seller by far.
“The store has exactly what I need at any given time,” says Barbara Chisholm, who lives nearby. “It has breakfast with eggs, yogurt, bacon, oatmeal, granola, milk, juice, cereal. It has lunch with sliced deli meats, prepared sandwiches, falafel wraps and Tom’s Tabooley plates. It has dinner with fresh Buddy’s chicken breasts, frozen ground beef, buffalo and salmon. And if I’m 30 minutes into a recipe and need olive oil or a cup of flour, I can skip the demolition derby of a big store parking lot.”
McCoy is grateful, and considers herself lucky, that Farm to Market has enjoyed success since day one, even as the South Congress area boomed in value and the tidal wave of big development washed over Austin, sweeping away many small local businesses with it. She thinks of the success as multifold. “I have a hard time singling out variables,” she says, but learning from vendors and food producers has been an essential element, as has listening carefully to customer requests and feedback. She keeps margins tight, so prices are reasonable despite the fact that being a little guy means higher costs. And she’s sure the growing awareness of eating better and leaving a smaller footprint haven’t hurt.
But ask any employee, vendor or customer the reason Farm to Market continues to succeed, and the answer is always the same: McCoy herself.
“Peg is super friendly and thoughtful,” says Christa Blackwood. “Much to my delight, she started stocking my favorite chocolate for baking after I requested it. She gets to know her customers, asking about their day and greeting them by name. My kids love her, because she’s often offering them a cool beverage on a hot day or floating them a loan when they pop in with insufficient funds.”
Mary Louise Butters, whose brownies are on prime display says, “Peg has a way of being able to hold space that invites people in, in the most comfortable way. She sees the continuity—to create and complete this synergistic space between people who produce and provide and her customers.”
Perhaps Kim Alexander, whose natural eggs are sold at the store, best captures Farm to Market’s appeal: “The key is not necessarily variety. It’s the people. You can go to Whole Foods or Central Market and have lots of choices but very little human contact. Peg’s there most of the time, smiling and asking, ‘What can I do to help you?’ She and her employees care, and in this brave new world, it’s connections with people that keep us grounded and add a sense of wholeness to our existence.”
And it all awaits you down on the corner at Farm to Market.