Story and photos by Eric Gorton, contributor
When farms and farmers’ markets set up online stores to stay in business at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic last spring, Tim Showalter Ehst quickly joined Local Food Drive-Thru in Staunton to sell produce from his Rockingham County farm.
With his produce continuing to sell via the online platform into November, even as consumers began returning to in-person shopping, the wheels in Showalter Ehst’s head started turning. Maybe, he thought, the online ordering-curbside pickup shopping model would remain desirable even after the pandemic ends.
With the help of Georgia Meyer, an employee of Local Food Drive-Thru, Showalter Ehst started planning a similar market for Harrisonburg. The first customers of the new business, Rooted Market, picked up their orders Monday in front of Pale Fire Brewing Co. on South Liberty Street.
“It seems there’s a consumer that’s not just the same exact consumer who shows up on Saturday morning at a farmers’ market,” the 37-year-old farmer and entrepreneur said in a telephone interview with The Citizen.
Rooted Market operates the way many online markets have during the pandemic, taking orders through its website and bagging them for contactless curbside pickup. Pickups take place from 4-6 p.m. on Mondays and Thursdays.
“You have to plan a little bit ahead,” Showalter Ehst said. “We’d love to be next-hour pickup, but we haven’t figured that one out yet.”
Due in large part to the lack of cold storage for items that require refrigeration. Showalter Ehst is using a cooler to hold some items at the pickup point and a bit of cold storage from Pale Fire Brewing, which is not an official partner in the venture but has been “super supportive” in providing the space, he said.
When customers order, they choose a 15-minute window for picking up their orders. Orders for Monday pickups have to be placed by 6 a.m. Saturday and orders for Thursday pickups have to be placed by 6 a.m. Tuesday.
In addition to Showalter Ehst’s Second Mountain Farm near Rawley Springs, Rooted Market will sell items from a number of local farms and specialty food and beverage operations.
Just as it provides consumers another way to shop, the business will provide farms and other vendors another option for getting their products to customers.
“As a small-business owner, you’re constantly thinking how do you increase or maintain sales,” Showalter Ehst said. “Generally that means you have to shift with the demand of the consumer and make it easier for everyone. So you’re constantly trying to figure out how, in a workable way from your end, you can make it easier for everyone.”
Having seen the concept for Rooted Market work provides Showalter Ehst a bit of reassurance. In addition to his experience with the market in Staunton, Showalter Ehst said he participated in and observed how Magpie Diner operated a similar market until it opened its brick-and-mortar store.
He also thinks there will be demand from shoppers who have become accustomed to ordering groceries online and picking them up. “My parents are in their 70s and during the pandemic, they got used to online ordering, which they had never done before,” he said. “It seems we should have more mechanisms locally to make that happen for our local businesses.”
Kirsten Moore, co-owner of Magpie Diner, agrees. “I also think there is a segment of the population for whom this is really important and convenient,” she said in an email. “The one-stop shop for all of those things will be awesome for people who don’t want to spend their shopping days chasing down various local products from lots of different places.”
At its busiest time this past summer, Magpie & Friends drive-thru market was getting more than 100 orders a day, twice a week, Moore said. As people figured out how to move around safely, orders dropped off some, but that’s not why Moore shuttered the operation. “We stopped offering the market as we got closer to opening our restaurant doors, simply because we needed to focus on that and the market was very time consuming,” she said.
Meyer said Local Food Drive-Thru in Staunton plans to continue operations for the foreseeable future.
Rooted Market is not targeting just any consumer, or any vendor. The products must be produced in the Shenandoah Valley and in a responsible manner. In addition to offering organic food, Ehst said the market is working hard to ensure products are responsibly produced, “taking care of the environment as much as possible, paying attention to labor rights when we can. … We’re trying to make sure there’s a place where you can go if you are interested in those things and all the products meet that standard.”
Said Moore, “Tim has done a great job recreating what made (Magpie & Friends) successful — variety, choice, high-quality foods and great vendors.”
Showalter Ehst said the offerings are a bit slim now due to the time of year, but that didn’t stop people from placing orders shortly after he opened up the website. He has done a little radio advertising and advertising on social media to spread the word.
Operating on a shoe-string budget, the employee count is three for the time being, Showalter Ehst, Meyer and Kristen Grimshaw, a 2018 graduate of James Madison University, who will be the primary manager of the pickup location.
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