When the Nashville Farmers’ Market was first completed at the turn of the 19th century, it was a place where local farmers could carry their produce to the center of town on horseback.
Though the market still serves as a retail outlet for local farmers, it also serves as a showcase of world flavors. Anchoring the 16-acre campus is a two-story Market House, a year-round space where vendors serve bulgogi, bubble tea, Jamaican food, and vegan tacos.
The Grow Local Kitchen, a gleaming open cooking space on the east side of the market’s main dining area, serves as a place where those vendors can inexpensively market their concepts and flesh out their menus with the real-time feedback of market customers.
Nashville is a quickly growing city. With the road to launching restaurants becoming ever steeper, giving local entrepreneurs a hand up is crucial to their success
In the coming weeks, Grow Local Kitchen will host the excellent Korean egg sandwich pop-up Egg Drip, Dive Motel burger truck Slide Hustle, and Ocean Delight, a food truck and catering business serving fresh seafood dishes from classically trained chef Nardin Barwari. Other pop-ups will be added to the schedule.
The Egyptian-born Barwari serves classic seafood fare including buttery lobster rolls, crabcake sandwiches, and a rich lobster bisque developed from her grandmother’s recipe. Usually, the Ocean Delight truck serves from a Donelson parking lot, making it harder for many city workers and dwellers to reach.
The stomach cancer survivor and single mother, who came to the United States as part of an arranged marriage, said cooking at the market has helped earn her greater recognition. As the word has gotten out, she hopes to leverage her success to open a Market House stall.
“I’m taking baby steps to be here permanently someday,” she said. With the help of the market’s business-supporting programs, she said, “I feel like I’m supported and I’m not by myself in this.”
Teaching business skills
Nashville Farmers’ Market program manager Heather Hoch said the Grow Local program is more than just a place to stage a pop-up. It also acts as a business incubator for fledgling entrepreneurs such as Barwari, offering one-on-one coaching for vendors, who will also soon have access to a more formal series of business-focused workshops.
“That’ll be a range of topics from accounting and bookkeeping to social media, to costing your menu and ordering and wholesaling and things like that,” Hoch said.
That effort to streamline the Herculean process of restaurant ownership has helped launch a few small businesses while adding culinary diversity to the market. Grow Local Kitchen alumni include Bowl and Roll, Succulent Vegan Tacos and Music City Crepes, all immigrant-run small ventures.
The Grow Local Kitchen space was originally slated to open as a demo kitchen in 2010 but was waylaid by that year’s catastrophic floods. The kitchen was reopened in 2012 under the management of Laura Wilson, who now runs Citizen Kitchens, another well-equipped incubator for other small, food-based businesses.
The kitchen hummed along until the 2020 tornado damaged the Market House’s roof. During the repair, the roof caught fire, leading to the destruction of kitchen equipment below.
The blessing in that, Hoch said, is that the kitchen, originally stocked with a hodgepodge of donated equipment, was rebuilt with a better layout and higher quality equipment.
For Barwari, the support lets her spend more time doing what she does best: bringing good seafood to Nashville, which her extensive training in high-end restaurants has both helped her source and handle expertly. The layout and gleaming equipment also lend a more professional air to her operations.
“It’s so open, designed to let people see what I’m doing, how much I care, how is their food, how clean everything (is),” she said. “That’s very important for me as a chef, and the coaching part … it’s just setting me up for success.”
Creating sustainable businesses
Chad Newton and Gracie Nguyen, owners of East Nashville’s East Side Pho, East Side Banh Mi and their new concept in The Wash, Sweeza Super Quesadilla, said such help can be crucial to launching a food business.
That’s the impetus behind their restaurant group, You Are Here Hospitality. With many years of experience running kitchens and launching marketable concepts, the couple has knowledge to share, which they do for an hourly rate rather than a piece of future profits.
“We remember how hard it was for us to have our own concept, and to have people helping and investing in us, and how they took all of our equity, so we wanted to do the opposite and help (other chefs) with that,” Nguyen said.
You Are Here Hospitality is in its fledgling stages. The first restaurant to come under its umbrella outside of Newton and Nguyen’s concepts is Emma and Chris Biard’s SS Gai, a Thai fried chicken restaurant at The Wash.
Newton said You Are Here Hospitality will not offer a one-size-fits-all approach to business incubation. The Biards, for example, had a well-fleshed-out concept but needed a hand with business and marketing.
“I think certain people are going to bring different skill sets and around that, we can fill in the gaps of what they would need to have a successful and sustainable business,” Newton said. “Because that’s what it is at the end of the day. Anyone can have a cool concept, but is it sustainable?”
Consistency, marketability, and other basic business fundamentals, such as understanding the fine print of lease agreements, are all key to sustainability, Newton and Nguyen said.
Helping fledgling business owners navigate that world helps create a sustainable business climate for the city as a whole, Newton said. It can also help lift Nashville into the same realm as bigger food cities.
“Even though we’re in the midst of such great growth here, and things are going so well, we see how far Nashville still has to go,” he said. “We want to help set up the next steps for people so we can enjoy (their restaurants) in the future, but also the community and the industry can keep building here.”
Hoch agrees that nurturing local entrepreneurs is key to creating a diverse and sustainable food scene. A culture of supporting local food was the foundation upon which the Nashville Farmers’ Market, one of the last remaining public markets in the country, was built.
“We’re part of the city charter that was made in the 1800s,” she said. “So Nashville has consistently said agriculture is so important that we need to provide a space for it.”
That’s the same spirit that keeps the Market House and Grow Local Kitchen a space that prioritizes small, local businesses over chains.
“It would be much simpler to get a bunch of chains in this space and let it go nuts,” she said. “But what we want is to support the small local businesses.”