Garden Cafe manager and chef Mark Wootton may spend his time perfecting the consistency of the grits at his restaurant, but now he has another focus: exotic mushrooms, kombucha, books and potato chips.
Wootton has taken his love for good quality local product next door, opening up a grocery store he calls The Stock Exchange Neighborhood Pantry.
“I’ve wanted to do this for a very, very long time,” he says. “What I thought I could do here is blend the local retail stuff with a farmers market stand and a bookstore and a place to hang out.”
You could call this a hyper-local approach to the grocer, like back in the old days when you’d walk to your neighborhood market, see what’s fresh, then make your dinner based on that, instead of finding a recipe on Tasty and hunting the supermarket for biscuit dough.
“We’re not a non-GMO or all-organic, all-local; just more of an old-school general store,” Wootton said. “If someone tells me they want something, I’ll get it and stock it. Whatever you buy at the grocery store, let me know, then you can walk over here and buy it instead of drive.”
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Right now, shelves are stocked with things like books, mushrooms and figs, with the intention that more will come as people request it. (Folks have already been requesting diapers, Wootton says.) Before even opening, Wootton was on Facebook neighborhood groups asking what people need in their neighborhood store. Future plans also include selling Garden Cafe’s house-made dressings and in-house cured bacon.
There is risk in this kind of venture, but when you have your own restaurant next door, you give yourself better cover. Wootton explained if a tomato looks like it’s about to pass its prime, for example, he'll take it next door and turn it into a sauce.
The Garden Cafe and the new Stock Exchange sit on a quiet street in Junius Heights, an area where kids go to Lipscomb Elementary and residents have seen pockets of houses improve over the years.
“I think this neighborhood will be very supportive of this idea,” Wootton says. “As much as I would like to just sell local, organic, farmers-market stuff, it’s not going to work here. I need to be able to not focus on what I want and focus on what people in general want.”
The Stock Exchange, 5308 Junius St.