From Mary El Pearce. Follow her on Twitter @CupcakesDC and email her at maryelp[At]borderstan.com.
It’s not often that cooking myself dinner after a long work day is fun, much less hits the spot. On a recent rainy day, after a friend cancelled on me for dinner, I ventured out to find something to eat. I happened upon Smucker Farms, which I’d heard about but had never been to. The grocery that sells produce from a co-op of farmers from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, would surely have something good to eat.
I stepped in out of the rain and was greeted by the owner, Eric Smucker. The store was void of customers, and for a moment I assumed the business wasn’t doing well. “I think the rain is keeping people away,” Smucker explained to me, stepping out from behind the counter as I looked around. After I told him it was my first time visiting, he offered to show me around. Fresh baked bread, cookies, popcorn, honey and pickles filled the shelves on one side, and various vegetables and meats (all grass fed) the other. In the back he showed me the eggs, milk, yogurt and cheese, and their famous root beer, as well as soaps, lotions and children’s toys, all handmade by an Amish family.
I heard the door open and Smucker greeted the customer, who was looking for steak. I noticed the price – more than I was used to paying at a grocery store – and asked the customer why he was buying it.
“I’m cheap,” he said, smirking. “But I come here if I want good steak.” He went on to describe the tenderness of the meat, how the fat melts into the pan and creates an au jus with the butter, salt and pepper he puts on the meat beforehand. My stomach growled.
Soon after the rain stopped, and a steady stream of shoppers began flowing in and out of the store. Smucker engaged with each one, greeting the regulars by name. I paid attention to what they were buying, and I ended up leaving with flavored popcorn (a popular item), pickles, a petite filet, lettuce and a loaf of bread.
Even though I cooked the filet too long and had nothing else to put on top of the lettuce, it was one of the most enjoyable meals I’ve ever cooked for myself. The flavors were full and it didn’t take much to feel satisfied. Plus it was low maintenance – no pesticides means no need to wash the lettuce, and the steak cooked easily in a couple of minutes. While I have to admit the best part was the steak, the second best part was knowing that I was supporting local farmers produce truly good food.
Borderstan: Why did you decide to start your own business?
Smucker: I didn’t grow up on a farm, but both my parents did. The inspiration for the store came from me working on their farm [between jobs], and it was a lot of fun. I’d been in DC for 10 years, and I thought, “DC could use food like this.” The food from Lancaster is better than anything else available on the east coast. I figured this was a way I could make a living. My last job was to help businesses get started. Doing that on a regular basis, it wasn’t a huge stretch. I’d never worked in a grocery store, but I knew how businesses were supposed to run.
Borderstan: What makes this store different than a grocery like Whole Foods?
Smucker: We’re about the same price point, but I think the quality is better with more of a regional focus. You know exactly where food is coming from. In Whole Foods they tell you where food came from, but I don’t want tomatoes from California. Some people will get annoyed that we don’t have tomatoes right now, but they’re not in season. We focus on regionally sourced food. This winter we’ll probably do more greenhouse grown stuff. It isn’t as good, but over the winter it’ll get us by.
Borderstan: How has your life changed since you became a small business owner?
Smucker: It’s definitely different than the office. It’s nice on Monday afternoon when I can go do something, but on Saturday and Sunday I have to be here. But even at my old office job I was usually working all the time. I want to have seven or eight stores in D.C. to scale up, and we’re building a really good team to do that.
Borderstan: What’s the biggest challenge of being a small business owner in D.C.?
Smucker: Figuring out what people want. I think we’ve been really responsive, listening to what people want to see on the shelves then getting it there, sometimes the next week. We get deliveries twice a week, and getting certain things [with a short shelf life] down to a store like this isn’t feasible. It may be at some point, but right now it’s not. If only one or two people buy something, I can’t sell it. You can’t be everything to everyone. That’s Whole Foods’ job, not my job.
This was formerly an office space. The process to get the zoning changed to a grocery store was much more than anticipated. I was told so many different things on so many occasions [at the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, DCRA]. You’d do one thing and it was right for somebody but wrong for somebody else. The DCRA is still a Byzantine process. And you know what? I should have hired an expediter, but my arrogance got the best of me. It was my first store. Next time around I’ll know.
Borderstan: What advice do you have for anyone wanting to start a small business?
Smucker: Give yourself much more money than you’ll need, but try not to bring in any outside investors. Start slow and small, and work from there. Make sure people like what you’re doing.