Barry Burnette, owner of The Produce Place in Nashville, Tenn., looks like a younger version of fictional wizards Gandalf or Dumbledore. He has a shaggy brown mane and a craggy nose. He speaks in the softened drawl of an Atlanta native, and he works his magic in two ways: with people and with produce.
Burnette worked in grocery stores for six years before he ventured into his own business. "I didn't want to get my toes wet. I just wanted to jump all the way in," he says.
When Burnette opened The Produce Place in 1988, it encompassed only 600 square feet. But just three years later, Burnette was able to move down the road to the 1,900-square-foot location where the current Produce Place still stands. It is a quiet area just outside Nashville, not far from the railroad tracks. With fewer than a dozen parking places around the building, there's still a slow, steady stream of customers.
The hometown familiarity of the staff and customers belies the fact that the store is only about four miles from the hustle and bustle of Music Row. Burnette's father used to come up once a month from Atlanta to help out at the cash register. His claim to fame is that he once sold produce to Grand Ole Opry star Minnie Pearl.
"He just couldn't hardly get over it," says Burnette, laughing. "Told everybody at church, everybody at work. He still talks about it."
Back when Burnette got started, all he had going for him were his people skills and love of produce. The expertise came later. Now when he speaks of tomatoes or apples, he sounds like a vintner comparing terroir.
"Now, a Golden Delicious apple is not necessarily a Golden Delicious apple. They taste different if they're comin' from Washington or up north or even just across the street from each other in two different orchards," Burnette says. "It depends on how the sun hits it and soil composition, but you bite into one and you know, this is a Golden Delicious apple."
Not all his produce is organic, so Burnette tries to stock what he calls "destination items." The Produce Place is known around Nashville for its tomatoes. "Tomatoes are what got us to the dance," Burnette says. "We've got some good tomatoes right now, but really great tomatoes start comin' in around the Fourth of July. Probably the biggest wave to knock me over came when I found out how much people love homegrown tomatoes in the summertime." Burnette believes that tomatoes have good and bad vintages just like wine. "Last year we had great tomatoes for the first time in 10 years. I hope it's not another 10 years before we get more great tomatoes."
Burnette's secrets for great produce are that he has developed relationships with all the local produce merchants and he tastes everything before buying. He claims that suppliers know not to waste time trying to sell him something subpar, but if they have produce that isn't pretty but tastes great, Burnette will give it a chance.
"Some Dixie Belle peaches came in, and they tasted amazing but had little black spots on 'em," Burnette says. "I just put a little sign that said, 'Look bad, taste great,' and people bought 'em right up."
That's another part of Burnette's magic. His customers know and trust his judgment. Shoppers come in and ask, 'What's good today?' and Burnette will recommend something. If Burnette is not there, his staff can answer the questions just as well. Three of Burnette's employees have been with him since 1992.
"In a grand total of 42 years' total service between the three of 'em, I think they've had a total of maybe five or six sick days. My guys are great," Burnette says. "When people say they can't find good help, I just don't know what they're talkin' about."
Burnette's dream team—Eric Morrison, Steve Marshall and Burhan Sadiq—wander in and out of the small office at the back of the store, working like a well-oiled machine. Burnette's philosophy is to give his employees latitude so that they "run it like it's theirs." He tells his employees that if they don't like their jobs, it's their fault.
The Produce Place has had to compete with Wild Oats and Harris Teeter, which moved nearby in the last decade. Burnette added several sections over the years. He started out with just produce and then added other natural and organic grocery products. He bought a reverse-osmosis water filtration system in 1992 to sell filtered water and has been doing prepared food, such as salads and sandwiches since 1995. Another star employee, Heidi Ostrander, has been creating prepared salads that fly off the shelves. Burnette is hoping to expand prepared foods this year.
"We've got a unique customer," Burnette says. "They're easy to deal with but hard to please." Burnette listens to what his customers ask for and then tries to find a good product. Most recently his customers requested dark chocolate and kombucha, and Burnette has been happy to comply.
Burnette stocks many local products, including cheeses and homemade strawberry popsicles, to help stand out from his competition. But what it all comes down to, Burnette says, is people skills.
"You see," he points out, "Nashville's a big little town."
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 5/p. 50