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VOL. 39 | NO. 38 | Friday, September 18, 2015

Early bird Pendley gets the best produce

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Executive Chef Edgar Pendley uses his grandfather’s old truck to draw attention to his Urban Produce Company’s tent in the heart of 12South.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

Chef Edgar Pendley says he burns “a lot of diesel making sure we got good produce” for the folks in the 12South neighborhood, as well as those who may stop to purchase tomatoes, sweet corn, okra and even his own homemade bacon and sausage on their way home from work.

That diesel-fueled early morning drive and the fresh produce it brings to sell beneath the large, white canopy in the 12South neighborhood actually sprung from the melancholy in his heart when the Nashville Farmers Market changed its policy this year, only allowing folks who grow the produce to sell it at the sometimes desolate compound of booths by Bicentennial Mall.

“It’s fairly sad,” says the 30-year-old executive chef at Urban Grub – who describes his menu as “Southern centric …. We serve prime, aged beef, seafood that’s flown in every day, and we’ve got a double-cut pork chop that’s the best in the city,” he says proudly.

It was his work at the restaurant that convinced Chef Edgar – who also does the butchering and makes various sausages, bacon and the like in the attached smokehouse – to begin his regimen of climbing from his bed at 4 every morning and hitting the road for hours.

The fresh produce from Mennonite and Amish farms that used to be trucked in by other vendors to sell at the Farmers Market no longer was available after the totally local grown directive was put in place.

Intentions were good, in that it encouraged more local people to grow and sell vegetables and such. But the fruits (and vegetables) of the labor of Mennonite and Amish farmers no longer could be hauled to market by vendors who visited those communities.

Chef Edgar says that when he first discovered the Farmers Market policy, it didn’t take a genius to know there was an awful lot of fine produce with no particular place to go.

He decided he’d tap into the world of Mennonite/Amish agrarians to serve diners at the restaurant, the 12South neighborhood and even the tourists who are out to sample the color of Music City.

“I live at the corner of 7th and Church Street downtown, right around the corner from the Farmers Market. I’d stop there on the way to the restaurant.”

He says the Farmers Market policy “displaced many communities. The ripple effect was in our Amish communities, in Mennonite communities,” who no longer were supplying market vendors who’d been trucking produce into Nashville “as they had been doing for generations.”

It also meant his daily scouting for the best produce no longer would be just around the corner at the Farmers Market. Edgar’s produce quest isn’t even restricted to the state of Tennessee.

“Now I get up at 4 in the morning and I leave the house by 4:30,” heading down those long and lonesome highways to purchase from Mennonite and Amish friends who farm “at least 45 miles away” and much farther, if necessary. That takes the chef to Hopkinsville and Scottsville, Kentucky, Smyrna and Ethridge, Tennessee, and some days as far away as Huntsville, Alabama.

At the beginning, the early-morning ramble was to get produce for the Urban Grub kitchen.

The idea to open up this produce stand actually sprung from the traffic jam caused by the success of the restaurant where those vegetables were being enjoyed.

“Everybody knows there’s not enough parking in 12South.” To get customers to feel comfortable in a restaurant, pizzeria or tavern, they’ve got to have handy parking.

Chef Edgar and his bosses, Urban Grub owners Jay Pennington and Billy Inman, decided they needed a solution quickly as the restaurant’s clientele grew.

They didn’t have to look far. Just across the street, at the corner of 12th and Beechwood, there was an unused acre. They leased it and had a section of it paved and striped.

“Now we’ve got more parking spots than anyone in the 12South neighborhood,” says the chef, crossing his tattooed arms.” We pay quite a bit of (rent) money to keep cars off the street and keep the neighbors happy. And it’s worth it.”

But when Chef Edgar saw the unpaved section of the lot, he had a dream that someday he could open an outdoor curbside produce mart. The results of that dream are the watermelons, squashes, green beans – whatever is at season’s peak – being sold from bins, lined in perfect harmony beneath the white Urban Produce canopy.

The canopy is flanked by large, hard-toiling fans that stir up the almost-chewable summer air. Other oddities decorating the market include strands of Christmas lights hanging overhead and an ancient, faded, red GMC pickup with the “Open” shouting in neon from the other side of the windshield.

The truck belonged to his grandfather, Edgar notes, adding that it still runs, though it is parked here as a display to draw the eyes of commuters.

“I have all this produce for the restaurant right here,” he says, rubbing a hand against a tattoo as he rattles off the formal names of some of the fruits and vegetables and tubers. Now, when he needs to buy fruits or vegetables for his menu delights, he takes a few long strides across 12th Avenue to the white canopy.

“I’m happy to bring it across the street,” Chef Edgar says, noting that Jim McCloud – who partnered with the restaurant in the lot leasing – sells Christmas trees here during the holidays and when this spring came, he began selling flowers.

Attractive to the customers who either were living in this gentrified community or those who were commuting via 12th and its sister Granny White Pike to dandy subdivisions and zero-lot-line compounds in Green Hills, Oak Hill, Forest Hills and Brentwood.

Of course, Edgar’s main job is being executive chef at the restaurant, so he had to find good workers, folks who would know how a tomato or turnip is supposed to look and feel.

Robert Proctor organizes peaches – the most-sought items in Urban Produce’s inventory.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

He hired Peggy Mays and her life partner Robert Proctor to drive in from Nunley out in Hickman County each morning and get the day started beneath Urban Produce Co.’s white canopy.

Peggy, 48, helps get things in order and Robert, 67, lends a hand as well as helping Chef Edgar unload the big flatbed and get the produce situated for the day’s customers. Peggy, by the way, also works for McCloud during the Christmas tree and flower sales.

They both say it is worth it to play roles in Chef Edgar’s dream, even if it means getting up at 3:30 a.m., leaving the house around 5:30 and opening the produce stand at 7.

“I like to be outside,” Peggy says. “See the people. I like this kinda work.’’

Urban Produce “offers a place where they can come and get fresh, quality vegetables.”

“I enjoy it. Edgar’s a good person to work for. He’s fair and he doesn’t fuss at you. He’s a good boss.”

Robert echoes those sentiments about his accidental boss. “I was just up here to help to her, and he hired me,” he says, adding that sometimes he brings in his own produce – corn, okra, tomatoes, watermelons and squash – to sell at Grub Produce.

By the way, while Peggy will stay on and work for McCloud on this corner during the Christmas tree and flower-sale seasons, Robert has less-lofty goals.

“After the pumpkins are gone, I’m gone,” he says. “I don’t know nothing about no Christmas trees.”

While he’ll be taking it easy for a few months, he’ll be happy to return when the flowers are gone and the cucumbers and their cousins and pals fill the bins.

“So many people have told me they are glad we’re here,” says Peggy. “This community has a lot of young families with little children who come down here and get their produce. It’s neat that they are raising them healthy.”

Among those who are glad the produce stand is here is Amy Ward, 45, a nurse at Centennial. On this hot late afternoon, she’s making her second stop to get tomatoes.

“I discovered it a week or so ago …. I have a lot of shortcuts I take and I just happened to be driving by when I saw this,” says the South Nashville resident. “I love fresh tomatoes.” She vows to become a regular.

“It’s close to where I live,” says Jack Williams, 63, a retired national account manager for Hamilton Beach who lives on Lealand. He can drive the short distance to satisfy his appetites for vegetables and neighborly conversation.

Isabella Davis, who works as a hostess at the restaurant across the street, says she spends some refreshing time working the produce stand. Other Urban Grub employees also working there.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

For a moment Jack mentally and conversationally drifts to his upbringing near this now-booming commercial strip. He glances southward to the former Becker’s Bakery building.

“I was born and raised right around here. I remember my mother bringing us down there to get those ladyfingers. Man, those were good cookies.”

On this day he totes a bag of fresh produce instead of Becker’s famous cookies and cupcakes as he climbs in his car for the short drive home.

Isabella Davis, 21, is one of the young settlers in what has become an example of the gentrification of what was a perfectly pleasant rough section of town.

She’s also one of the workers at Chef Edgar’s produce stand in addition to her main job as a host at the restaurant across the street. Many of the 65 workers in the restaurant come here for short stints, to break up their days. An aspiring restaurant owner – “that’s always been my dream” – she’s trying to learn as much as possible across the street at Urban Grub.

“I think I’m going to be moved into the kitchen soon,” she says, excitement in her voice.

Even though she trains for her future inside the restaurant, she finds this produce stand a refreshing retreat. “It’s a really calm and chill environment, as opposed to over there (at the restaurant), where there’s a lot of fast-paced stuff going on.”

As evening approaches, an increasing number of shoppers, mostly leggy, shorts-wearing young women from the neighborhood, descend on the market. Others, commuters, pull their cars off 12th and park in the brand-new asphalt lot.

“We barely break even,” Chef Edgar says, adding quickly that the big advantage is he can buy more produce from the Amish and Mennonite farmers to fill the needs of both the restaurant and the produce place. “Instead of three bushels of heirloom tomatoes, I’ll get 2,000 pounds (a week).”

The chef culls through the produce – he visits the stand about once an hour – to shop for the best stuff to put in his Southern centric dishes across the street. What’s not good enough to sell may end up in a pot at the restaurant.

“We make jams out of fruits that aren’t acceptable. We make sauces out of tomatoes.”

Chef Edgar also discovered two young musicians with a shared passion for honey bees. The result is a steady supply of honeysuckle honey from right inside the neighborhood.

The most important product coming from this corner is: “Goodwill in the neighborhood,” he says.

“We’ve got people in the neighborhood who seem to like to walk around a lot. They like the small community feel we’ve got on in 12South.”

Neighbors also like the opportunity to get produce in their urban, gentrified community, gently pushing baby strollers along the sidewalk, instead of having to battle with booster seats and seat belts before driving to some big grocery store, where the babies constantly wail as stressed and sweaty parents push them along in shopping carts and other customers politely hide their disgust.

There’s a quarter-second’s break after Edgar is asked what’s his best seller.

“Peaches. I didn’t even have to think about that. It’s peaches from South Carolina. We’ve got a really good guy who brings them here specifically for us on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

“We buy 100 bushels a week.”

One thing he laments is that the poorer neighbors, just north of 12South’s glamour, don’t feel comfortable enough to walk down here to hipster central for fresh produce.

The gentry have reclaimed a good chunk of what had been their neighborhood.

If he can’t convince them to come to him, Chef Edgar already is plotting how to get the produce to those neighbors in the food dessert down near Wedgewood.

“I’m thinking that next year, I will take a truck and go down there and sell produce.”

Yes, there are sausages, bacon and fruits aplenty. Heck, for some ungodly reason he even sells Brussels sprouts (I suppose to people who don’t know any better), but the most important product that comes from this stand is good will.

And Chef Edgar just gives that away with a gentle smile.

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