Red Bay Grocery

Red Bay GroceryA rural community takes the road less traveledBy Scott Jackson

Small rural communities dot the Northwest Florida landscape with iconic landmarks reflecting their bucolic character. The “mom and pop” grocery stores — with a single gas pump, sun-faded signs, basic products, quaint amenities and homegrown food — are run by the warmth, earnestness and grit of their owners. Before the advent of our country’s electronic connectivity and social media, these grocery stores were the gathering spot to share news and life. 

For generations, everybody knew everybody and mealtime was the venue for connecting with each other. Most of these communities depended solely upon agriculture and a handful of services for its economic engine.

But as people left these communities for job opportunities elsewhere and large retail chains absorbed their spending habits, many of these stores were closed and abandoned. Red Bay Grocery in eastern Walton County is recapturing that social and entrepreneurial spirit.

Neither Red Nor Bay

It would be easy to miss Red Bay Grocery, if not the town of Red Bay itself. The store is located on State Road 81, one of the primary feeder routes to Interstate 10 from the coast. Giant, moss-draped oak trees line either side of the winding highway, and the scenic drive is filled with pastoral scenery.

Red Bay is a peaceful, close-knit community; the town’s largest roadside sign directs people to three local churches. However, because of its small population, the town can’t support all three, so residents rotate services every Sunday between the Methodist, Baptist and Presbyterian churches.

“We are known as Metho-Bap-Terians,” said longtime resident Ouida Miller.

The smallness of the town contributed to the closing of the local grocery two years ago — yet it was also a contributing factor in the rebirth of the business.

Opened in 1936, Red Bay Grocery had 28 owners before closing in 2008, shuttering the only local gathering spot and forcing locals to drive 20 miles for bare necessities. It was a tough blow for the town’s 100 or so residents.

“When the store closed, this community lost a big part of what it takes to make a community,” said Charles Morgan, a resident of Destin for 34 years and owner of Harbor Docks Restaurant. Morgan has owned a horse ranch in Red Bay for the past 10 years.

“We needed to do something,” he said.

Seeds of a Plan

One day, while riding their horses past the shuttered building, Morgan and business partner Katie Barrineau discussed the idea of reopening the store.

“We talked about bringing in locally produced food and recipes and making everybody in the community a part of it,” said Barrineau.

According to Morgan, the value of this type of eating was natural to the locals.

“The folks here in Red Bay didn’t need a bunch of hippies to tell them about the value of growing foods locally,” said Morgan. “They’ve been doing that for 200 years.”

The Community Buys In

“We had a meeting at the community center and all decided that we would like to reopen the store,” said Morgan. “We didn’t want to run it like it had been for 70 years. If 28 people couldn’t run it why don’t we try and run this together. Maybe we would have a better shot at it.”

On Jan. 5, 2009 at the Red Bay Community Center, they did just that. After hearing Morgan’s proposal for a partnership of 50 shareholders investing $1,000 each, the community bought into the dream.

“They just fell right in with it,” said Ouida Miller, one of the shareholders. “There was no quibbling or anything about it — everybody just wanted the store.”

All available shares were sold within 48 hours. There are now 64 shareholders in the store, according to Morgan. In order to make decisions quicker during the renovation and reopening Morgan was originally a 51-percent owner.

Twenty-eight year old lifetime farmer and owner of nearby Cypress Cattle, Luke Langford, staked his claim as a shareholder with what he knew best. 

“I paid in vegetables,” he said.

For Langford, the land’s bounty is as good as cash and the food’s homegrown freshness is what sets Red Bay Grocery apart.

“I provide produce that can last as long as possible on the shelf,” said Langford. “That often means picking vegetables before they’re ready. If it stays local, I can wait till it’s perfect. Ain’t nothing like a vine ripe tomato or a tree ripe peach. Folks have been missing out for so long they’ve forgotten that.”

Today’s blue plate special of brisket with cabbage and new potatoes was typical of the homegrown fare served up by James Atkins who Morgan brought from Destin.
 

Pulling Together

Because of Red Bay’s rural isolation, the shareholders had to rely on one another.

“This place is surprisingly in the middle of nowhere for the state of Florida. We are 20 miles from Freeport and DeFuniak Springs,” said Morgan. “We have a lawyer, a carpenter, a plumber, an electrician, farmers and chefs. But most importantly we have wonderful people in this community.”

Barrineau is the store’s manager. When she calls for assistance from one of the shareholders, they come quickly. 

“I know where you live, I know how to get you if I need you,” Barrineau playfully said to one of the shareholders leaving the store.

Barrineau, who grew up in Fort Walton Beach, first started working for Morgan at Harbor Docks when she was 15 before heading to Atlanta.

“I was doing private events planning for a restaurant group in Atlanta,” said Barrineau. “I loved the company but wanted to get back close to family and slow down some. I begged Charles for the job.”

HomeGrown

In reopening Red Bay Grocery, Morgan realized that bringing in locally produced food by some of the shareholders would assist them in getting their products to market sooner.

To help get some of the products to market Morgan has made arrangements with a company to bottle their sauces, jellies and jams.  He knows full well the value of keeping the money at home.

“We know that of $100 spent in a local area, $45 stays in the community,” said Morgan. “Money spent at a Walmart ends up in Bentonville, Arkansas within 24 hours.  Corporate-owned chain stores have long been the bane of business communities. Locally owned restaurants, grocery stores, pharmacies, gas stations and retail shops have almost become a thing of the past.”

The Grocery Returns

The hard work is paying off and other communities are taking note. Morgan said the communities of Lake City and Laurel Hill have expressed an interest in this business concept and have visited the store several times.

“If this becomes sort of a template for small communities to regain their economic destiny, well that’s great,” said Morgan.

Although the store reflects a lot of its early motif, it does have one concession to modern day technology — wireless Internet access. Otherwise, the Red Bay Grocery carries just the basic needs and homegrown delights as it had for over 70 years.

“We are carrying our own baked goods and fresh produce along with family recipes that have been around for generations,” said Barrineau. “Definitely not the type of food you would expect along the side of the road when you haven’t seen anything commercially for 20 miles.

“The food that comes out of our kitchen is homemade and we can keep the costs low so the people around us in the area can afford to eat it,” Barrineau added. “I would definitely prefer to eat a tomato that was from here rather than one that was from Mexico. 

Barrineau explains that buying it in bulk locally rather than from another country is less expensive. And it supports the local community.

“I know exactly where it is coming from,” he said. “I know it is supporting Luke Langford and his family and farm that they have had for three generations. That is what is important right now.”

Location, Location, Location

Red Bay’s primary roadway, State Road 81, wasn’t paved until the 1940s to link the town with Bruce to the south and Ponce de Leon to the north. Although it remains off the beaten path, Morgan is optimistic about capturing traffic to and from the coast.

“We are on a tourist route and hope to get some of their money as they pass through,” he said while also noting the volume of cyclists and bikers who are drawn to the roads that wind through the hills in the countryside. “Last Saturday and Sunday, there were probably 100 bikers and bicyclists come through here.”

 Even though an occasionally celebrity will drop in the store, the warm folksy charm doesn’t waver — everyone is welcome.

According to Morgan, Destin resident and Fox News Channel pundit Wayne Rogers stopped in one day for coffee on his way to Tallahassee. After he left, a local deputy dropped by; when told that Rogers had been there, he wondered, “What was Wayne Rogers doing in here?” One of the shareholders, Ramon McDonald, casually replied that “he just came by to have a cup of coffee and chat for a little bit.”

Now down from a 51-percent to a 36-percent shareholder, Morgan has not had to refund anybody’s share, a tribute to the community’s commitment to the business plan.

“This is sort of a forgotten group of people, forgotten area and forgotten way of living,” he said. “We have provided a place for this community to come together and show off what we are good at.”

 

 

Spicy Zucchini Bread

    3    cups all purpose flour
    1    tsp. baking powder
    1     tsp. baking soda
    1    tsp. ground cinnamon
    1    tsp. ground nutmeg
    1    cup chopped pecans or walnuts
    ½    cup yellow raisins
    ¾    cup vegetable oil
    3     eggs
    2    tsp. vanilla   
    3     cups unpeeled shredded zucchini
    2    cups sugar

Combine first five ingredients in a mixing bowl, make a well in center of mixture, and set aside. Combine eggs, sugar and vanilla. Stir in zucchini, oil, nuts and raisins. Add mixture to dry ingredients, stirring just until moistened, spoon mixture into pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour. Cool 10 minutes in pan. Remove from pan and place on wire rack to cool.
Recipe courtesy Ouida Miller

Red Bay Grocery Panéed Chicken

    2     tbsp. olive oil
    4-6     boneless skinless chicken breasts
    16     oz. heavy cream
    1     bunch fresh basil
    1     cup parmesan cheese
    2     oz. minced garlic
    2     oz. fresh lemon juice
    4     oz. white wine
    2     tomatoes, de-seeded and diced
    1     16 oz. box penne pasta
    ½     stick salted butter
    1 ½     cups flour
    4     eggs
    8     oz. milk
    1 ½     cups Panko Japanese bread crumbs
        salt and pepper to taste

Prepare pasta according to package directions. Prepare egg wash by whisking together the eggs and milk. Put egg wash in refrigerator. Place chicken on hard surface, cover with plastic wrap and pound to ¼ inch thickness. Lightly dredge in flour, dip into egg wash then coat with Panko, set aside. Heat butter in sautéed pan on medium to high heat. Add chicken and cook 3 minutes per side or until golden brown and cooked through. Combine in sauce pan olive oil and minced garlic until golden brown. Add wine, basil and heavy cream. Simmer on low and fold in parmesan cheese. Add pasta and diced tomatoes. Remove from heat and add chicken.

Recipe courtesy Red Bay Grocery