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Red Hill General Store's Raleigh Garden

Changing the way we think about veggies


There are more ways than one to explain the produce garden grown just outside the store's front door. We love this article that was published in the North Raleigh News August 20, 2011.

I never thought of myself as a farmer. Overalls don't look good on me, and straw hats make me itch.

I certainly never gave much thought to growing my own food. That all changed when I got involved in a community garden in downtown Raleigh. I began growing cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce and more. I began to eat of my own bounty. And it was easy. My garden was just a plot about the size of a picnic table top. So why do people still rely on the grocery store for vegetables when a small piece of land can yield so much? Tom Largen, owner of the Red Hill General Store at Falls River Town Center in North Raleigh, wonders that, too.

"In a backyard in Bedford, you could grow enough to preserve your own food," Largen said. "You could grow enough to probably live all summer on just veggies and things like that."

And he's not just philosophizing. He backs it up with action, namely, a vegetable garden in front of his store. The garden is small: Where other stores might have flowers or bushes, he has tomatoes, giant cucumbers, peppers and more. Red Hill General Store sells just about any item you can imagine: clothes, ice cream churners, canning jars, lawn equipment, cow bells and, of course, fresh produce. With the garden, customers can now go outside and pick their own vegetables. But this isn't just about making a sale for Largen, it's about teaching customers a different way of thinking.

"They're going to go to Food Lion, which is OK," he said. "But during the summer it's sort of silly. You can have all the tomatoes you want."

When I met Largen, I got a sense of a guy who is not just operating a business, but spreading a lifestyle - a lifestyle you might have seen back in the days when general stores were more prevalent. Red Hill grew out of nostalgia for those very stores. Largen grew up in Hillsville, Va., a small town that has had a succession of general stores over the years. Largen was always interested in those little mom-and-pop shops, and he decided to start an Internet business based on the general store model. That was in 1998. Eleven years later, he branched out into brick and mortar in his hometown of Hillsville. In March of this year, he expanded to Raleigh, where he lives part time. I asked Largen what captivated him so much about general stores.

"It's not just a person working there," he said. "This person works there, has an interest, believes in the product... that's something we're missing now."

And he and store manager Suzie Marquardt are developing a rapport with local residents that you usually see only in a small-town business.

"When people walk in the door, instead of heading right to the product, they open the door and say, 'Hey Suzie, Hey Tom,'" Largen said.

The customers coming in Sunday when I visited were motivated by curiosity, nostalgia and need. Andrew Helms was there with his wife, Diane, who was hoping the store would have dollhouse furniture. No such luck, but a general store is definitely the kind of place you would go for a hard-to-find item like that.

"These types of stores are great...because they have a whole lot of things you can't get in the big places," Andrew said.

I found 81-year-old Al Thomas standing around an old-fashioned ice cream churner with his wife and friends. Most people today just buy ice cream at the grocery store, but Thomas said he recalls when he used to churn it himself. Red Hill General Store is bringing a little bit of the past into the present, it seems. And in the process, it's becoming a role model. Neighboring Nantucket Grill is growing its own vegetable garden. Largen even gave them some plants to help them get started. Through his store, Largen wants people to become aware of all their options. And get a little perspective.

"My God, we're sitting here talking about oil and all the problems we have with energy, and we're paying somebody to grow produce in Chile and send it to us," he said. "It just doesn't make sense. We have it here in North Carolina. We should utilize it here in North Carolina."



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