Root Cellar showcases freshest produce

Sunday, January 20, 2002

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Anastasia Becker had a craving for fresh produce. "Fresher than the big groceries sell," she emphasized. "REALLY fresh, so you can taste it."

The Root Cellar came to her appetite's rescue.

In operation since late last summer, the store offers a showcase for Missouri-raised products that are sometimes so fresh their growers unpack the goods while eager customers wait and watch.

Becker paid her first visit the other day. She left with organic spinach and mustard greens, picked hours earlier in a Callaway County greenhouse.

Also in Becker's basket: Fresh brown eggs from Boone County, Italian cheese from a Mountain View dairy, beef jerky cured by an Alma meat locker and hot pepper jelly from Fulton.

"I'm delighted about the selection and when it comes down to spending my grocery money, I prefer to spend it on quality local products where it helps the area farmers directly," said Becker, of Hartsburg.

To encourage regular trade, the Root Cellar sells $100 memberships that allow customers a 10 percent discount on all purchases during the first year, and a subsequent 5 percent discount for life. About 60 memberships have been sold, but they aren't required to shop at the Root Cellar.

The Root Cellar is owned by partners Walker Claridge and Kimberly Griffin, who took a $75,000 loan to open the Missouri products store in an old doughnut shop on the west edge of downtown Columbia.

Lower overhead

Claridge and Griffin raise organic produce on their farm near Millersburg and decided grocery chains weren't practical prospects for selling local goods.

"We make a jar of excellent hot salsa and want to sell it for about $5, which is about all we would ask of the customer, but with the big groceries' 100 percent markup, it would price us out of consumers' range. We have lower overhead and can sell it at lower cost," Claridge said.

The Root Cellar is more than a grocery; the spacious, renovated kitchen in back is available for use by individuals who want to turn their products into tasty jams, jellies or other processed foods for sale. Claridge and Griffin accept finished products in exchange for the use of the kitchen, making the Root Cellar the home cooks' retailer.

Dorothy White brought in a batch of frozen blueberries and cooked them into jam in a huge Root Cellar cooking pot. She plans to peddle some at a roadside stand, while the Root Cellar will retail her products under White's "Southern Style" brand.

"My labels will say, 'Cooked at the Root Cellar,' because it's a partnership that I am so happy about. It helps hold down expenses and gets the product out there," White said as the simmering jam exuded tempting sweetness.

"We want to add value to these Missouri products by encouraging producers and connecting them with the public," said Claridge, whose experience includes helping set up an organic produce marketing cooperative in Oregon.

Claridge returned to Missouri about five years ago and started farming, meeting Griffin when she cut his hair. She still manages a beauty shop to pay the bills, while he opens the Root Cellar each morning and greets vendors, farmers and customers.

Gary Galeski arrived from his Galeski & Sons organic farm near Fulton. In one arm he carried a case of organically grown greens, neatly sorted into quarter-pound packages. In the other arm, Galeski's 2-year-old son Benjamin dozed through the delivery.

"Look at how crisp this spinach is," Galeski urged, explaining that he fertilizes naturally with waste from tilapia fish grown on the family farm. "These are different because of the quality. My slogan is, 'Hours off the vine.'"

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