Lowcountry Fresh Market and Café is stocking up on the area’s agricultural bounty.
Story by Barry Kaufman + Photography by Lisa Staff
Growing up on a dairy farm, Cindy Rolfe learned early on to respect the land and the people who work it. She still recalls being told in her youth, “If you’re a farmer, you’re never going to get rich. But you’ll always have something to give.”
In opening Lowcountry Fresh Market and Café, she and her husband, Andy, are taking that credo to heart.
“Our goal is not to make a fortune,” said Andy. “The vast majority of what we sell is going to provide for the suppliers and our employees.”
Those suppliers – local farmers and fishermen – will be the true stars when the market opens in May. Looking for all the world like a high-end grocery store, the market will draw on suppliers from within a 250-mile radius to stock its shelves with produce, milk, eggs, meat, seafood and dry goods. For locavores, it represents a unique opportunity to fill their pantry knowing they’re supporting Lowcountry producers.
(Although some items – wine, olive oil, etc. will come from slightly farther afield. “We don’t want people to have to make two stops if they need to get bananas or avocados or something,” noted Cindy).
When it opens, Lowcountry Fresh Market and Café will serve as much more than just a grocer. At its heart will be a café, serving everything from lunch fare to grab-and-go sandwiches (featuring barbecue smoked in house), plus a bakery selling fresh-made breads and pastries. Set up as a show bakery, customers will be able to watch each creation go from flour to finished product.
More than just showcasing these ingredients and techniques, the whole affair will serve as a freestanding love letter to the Lowcountry’s unique epicurean heritage, with regular cooking demos sharing the traditions with guests. Culinary Director B.J. Dennis has spent years documenting the oral history of Gullah culinary traditions during his career in some of Charleston’s top kitchens, and as such brings a tremendous respect for Lowcountry cuisine to his role.
When asked what excites him most, Dennis replied, “Honestly, just being able to work directly with the farmer and the produce team and being able to conceptualize not just a restaurant, but a whole program.”
And working with the farmers is key to the entire concept at Lowcountry Market and Café. “It’s all about supporting farmers, where they have a direct beeline to a place,” said Dennis. “Working with them to help them maximize what they have was big to me. It’s more than just a store.”
His words speak to a greater truth about the entire concept. On paper, it’s a grocery store with a bakery and a café. But in putting the producers first, the market serves a greater mission.
“People talk a lot about economic inequality, but it all starts with unequal opportunity,” said Andy. “A kid growing up in Chicago has different opportunities than a kid growing up in Ridgeland. That just doesn’t seem fair.”
To the Rolfes, the market is a chance to balance the scales somewhat, creating opportunities for area producers, whether they are farmers, fishermen or chefs. The genesis of this concept came when the couple was rooting around the Lowcountry looking for opportunities to make a difference and met the farmers of the Gullah Farmers Co-Op. The co-op, a coalition of 17 farmers largely based in St. Helena, had just received a new building from the county and had approached the Rolfes for help getting it up and running.
“Beaufort County is a tale of two cities; there’s a lot of affluence and a lot of poverty. And St. Helena has the shorter end of that stick by and large,” said Andy. “We said, ‘We can help you with the building, but that doesn’t seem like it will alone change the direction of things. What if we open a market, and whatever you grow on all your land, we’ll pay a good margin. Then you can start to turn the tide and attract younger generations to farming.’”
And that tide may turn more quickly than anyone anticipates. “We had some people from USC and Clemson run an analysis on the economic impact, and it’s quite large because of the multipliers,” said Andy. “It’s not just impacting suppliers, but the people they’re working with.”
Lowcountry Fresh Market and Café, located at 303 Bleecker Street South in Bluffton, is expected to open in the middle of May. It will be open seven days a week with online shopping and a pickup option. Offerings will include:
• Grocery items and dry goods
• Local vegetables and fruits
• Local seafood
• Scratch-made baked goods
• House-smoked meats
• Fresh dairy
• Demonstration kitchen
• Meal kits
• Evening cooking classes
• Dine-in breakfast and lunch
• Beer, wine, coffee and tea