A new chapter for Chicory Market

Published 7:38 pm Wednesday, March 13, 2024

Profile 2024: A new chapter for Chicory Market

By Lauren Jones
Bruce Newman photo

In the heart of Oxford, a town steeped in history and tradition, Kate Bishop and her husband, John Martin, embarked on a journey that transcended the boundaries of a simple grocery store. Their venture, Chicory Market, bears witness to the growth of local food trends, the fusion of diverse communities and a dedication to fostering a healthier, more sustainable way of life.

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Kate, an Oxford native with roots deep in the 1980s, and John, originally from North Carolina, found themselves drawn back to Mississippi after years of exploring. Inspired by their experiences in the Delta, where they witnessed the paradox of the richness of the land and a region lacking accessible healthy food, the couple developed a vision for Chicory Market.

The market’s origins were deeply intertwined with the community’s history. Once a hub for local produce under the care of Burlyn Hollowell and Liz Stagg, the original site laid the foundation for Chicory Market’s mission.

Kate and John, with backgrounds in education and the arts, respectively, saw an opportunity to build on the legacy of those who came before them. Their goal was not just to create a grocery store, but to establish a community-centric space where food brings the community together. By championing community connections and supporting a network of local businesses, the local market distinguishes itself from larger chains.

“Chicory Market, in essence, was a testament to collaboration and shared purpose,” explains John. “Working with more than 75 local farmers and vendors, we aim to grow the local food economy and make healthy, local food accessible to all income levels.”

As the market outgrew its original space, the couple seized the opportunity to expand within the old Sears building. The move allowed them to create a collaborative food space for their business, while also supporting other local ventures. The new Chicory Market became a haven for vendor partners that includes Johnston Hill Creamery, Heartbreak Coffee and Home Place Pastures.

For customers stepping into Chicory Market for the first time, the experience is more than just a shopping trip. The staff personalizes the journey, offering the chance to sample dishes from the deli to experience their diverse array of Mississippi-grown produce. The market’s commitment to providing a unique and engaging experience extends to pop-ups and direct deliveries from local farmers. From Harvest Roots kombucha to Native Son’s bok choy to fresh-baked sourdough, Kate and John’s personal favorites reflect the market’s dedication to quality and locality.

The evolution of Chicory Market mirrored the growth of Oxford itself. What started as a modest endeavor with just a few team members expanded to more than 50, transforming the market into a cornerstone for the community.

In pursuing their mission to make healthy and local food more accessible, Chicory Market joined the Independent Natural Foods Retailers Association (INFRA), gaining leverage on prices that could be passed on to customers. The larger space enabled them to offer a range of price points, catering to a broader audience and including those who had felt excluded from the local food movement.

As they look to the future, Kate and John envision additions like the Atrium – a space for community gatherings, cheese plates and even a brown bag license for onsite beer consumption. They plan to collaborate with other local markets and community organizations to develop the local food economy further and address food insecurity in Lafayette County.

Born out of a passion for community, local food and shared experiences, Chicory Market stands as a testament to the transformative power of a small-town grocery store. With each interaction and each meal shared, the market continues to weave itself into the fabric of Oxford, nurturing connections and fostering a healthier, more vibrant future.

Profile 2024: Chicory Market Q&A

  • Tell us about yourself. 

Kate Bishop is an Oxford native who co-founded Chicory Market with her husband, John Martin, in 2017.  Kate grew up in Oxford in the 1980s and remembers shopping with her family at James Food Center when it was on the Square.  She has a background in elementary education and worked for Teach For America in the Delta, teaching second and third grade in Moorhead, Miss., before moving to get her master’s of Education degree at Columbia University in New York City.

Originally from North Carolina, John Martin lived in the Delta for four years, working as a reporter at the Greenwood Commonwealth and later at the Delta Center for Culture & Learning at Delta State. He has a degree in poetry and worked for many years in the arts.

The couple has two children, Julian, 12, and August, 10.  

  • What inspired you to open Chicory/other historical details?

The original Chicory Market site had been a food space in Oxford for more than 30 years. In the early 1990s, Burlyn Hollowell ran his produce stand out of the old service station building, selling vegetables that he and his friends raised and trucking in exotics from distributors.

Liz Stagg and her husband Frank took it over as the Farmers Market and expanded the grocery offerings, tapping into a growing local food movement and catering to new immigrant communities in Oxford. The Farmers Market became a community hub for people looking for quality produce, a place where all felt welcome and attended to, and a homegrown alternative to the big supermarket chains.

We’ve been interested in food policy and local food since we lived in the Delta in the early 2000s. At that time, it really began to hit home that we were living in one of the most fertile places on earth, and yet not much was being grown there that anyone could eat.  Meanwhile, there was a health crisis going on around us because of a shortage of healthy food and an abundance of fast food chains and commodity foods.

That’s when we really began to think about the promise of a local food movement. Grad school and careers in other fields took us away from Mississippi for about 12 years. During that time we began to volunteer in local food for farmers markets and community-supported agriculture groups (CSAs).

In 2016, when Liz closed the Farmer’s Market, we were working in other fields. I was a former K-12 teacher working with school districts as a literacy specialist and consultant, and John was working in fundraising and communications in the arts nonprofit world.

We got to be friends with Liz and decided to make the career jump and come back to live with our extended family. The important point here is we’re building on the work of previous businesses and pioneers in local food to create a space where food brings people of all backgrounds together.

  • What makes Chicory unique from Kroger or other market chains? 

We are a community-based grocery, working with more than 75 local farmers and food makers. Our mission is to help grow the local food economy and to improve access to healthy local food for people of all income levels. 

When you shop at Chicory Market, you’re not only supporting a 100 percent locally owned and operated business that keeps tax dollars local; you’re supporting a constellation of other local businesses.  You’re supporting your neighbors who are growing and making your food. You’re providing opportunities for people of all income levels to participate in and benefit from the local food movement.

Chicory Market also fills the niche that a Whole Foods or a Fresh Market would if Oxford were a bigger town.

One of the things that makes Oxford so special to us is that for all the growth it’s experiencing, it’s still a small town that can support a homegrown grocery store.  We work with the same suppliers as Whole Foods and Sprouts, so if there’s anything you usually drive up to Memphis to get, please let us know.  We can usually source it and save you the gas!

  • What was the reason for the big move? What are the comparisons between the new place and old?  

We knew we were outgrowing the old space.  We knew something had to be done about the old parking lot, which was a sore spot for us and a lot of our customers. 

When the old Sears space became available, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to make what we were doing more accessible to a wider community. At the same time the more we operated in the original market, the more we realized that what we were doing was bigger than just our own business. 

We’ve been working with Johnston Hill Creamery, Heartbreak Coffee and Home Place Pastures for many years, and they do what they specialize in so much better than we ever could by going it alone.  So instead of opening a new supermarket that competes with what others are doing in Oxford, we decided to be stronger together. 

The new Chicory Market is a collaborative food space that involves and supports other small local food businesses. And so far all of our vendor partners have benefited from that model.

  • What should customers expect when they come to the Chicory for the first time?

Customers always talk about how amazing our staff is, and we agree!  We work with some dedicated people who take so much pride in the market, and they do a great job personalizing the shopping experience at Chicory Market for all customers. 

It’s a big job to work with local food because there’s something new every day. We put produce front and center as soon as you walk in because local farmers have always been at the heart of our mission. 

In addition to finding anything they need to cook, customers will find Mississippi-grown produce 12 months out of the year. In the new space, they can walk around with a cup of Heartbreak coffee and sample new dishes from the deli, including grill achiote chicken and brassica salad. They may also run into local vendors doing popups, and farmers delivering lettuces and other veggies through the front door.

  • What are a couple of your best-selling items or your personal favorites?

We love Harvest Roots kombucha from Birmingham, Native Son’s bok choy and fresh baked sourdough, and we’re excited Johnston Hill Creamery has its first batch of Lois in their cheese case now.  We rely on Small Town Homestead’s elderberry syrup to bolster our immune systems through winter.  

  • How has Chicory grown or changed since you first opened it? 

First of all, Oxford has grown so much. We’ve been fortunate enough to benefit from some good timing as people from around the state and beyond bring in their own food tastes and preferences that have helped us grow the kinds of foods we’re able to offer everyone. 

When we opened in June 2017, it was just John, Laurie and me. Blakely Burns volunteered for us, and Liz lended a hand in those early days.  Now we have more than 50 team members on staff.  That number has more than doubled over the past six months as we geared up to operate in the larger space. 

In the old space it was pretty obvious that we were busting at the seams. During our first six years, we built more and more relationships with farmers and food makers and grew our inventory of specialty goods and natural food products.

We’ve also been working on building relationships with other independent groceries across the country. In June, the market became an official member of the Independent Natural Foods Retailers Association (INFRA), which is a buying cooperative of hundreds of other small independent shops.  That membership has given us more leverage on prices, which we are passing along to customers in the new space.

Part of our mission is to make healthy and local food more accessible, and the larger space allows us to offer similar items at a range of price points. While we still offer some high end goods, we’ve done a lot of work to source organic grocery staples at big box store prices. As everyone knows, the price of food is highly volatile, and when you’re working with local people to grow and make your food, it tends to be pricier.  We’re doing all we can to include more people in what we’re doing, especially people who have felt left out of the local food movement.

  • What do you hope the future holds for Chicory? 

The immediate future holds a lot of exciting things. Soon, we’ll open the Atrium, which will be a seating area where people can eat lunch from our deli counter, work over a cup of Heartbreak coffee, get together with friends over a Johnston Hill cheese plate and host readings, talks, film screenings, and other small gatherings. 

The cat’s out of the bag about our brown bag license, so you can also drink a beer onsite with your lunch. 

We’ll have an exciting announcement about another vendor partner that will transform the Atrium into a really vibrant community gathering space. We also look forward to May, when the Midtown Farmers Market opens back up in the parking lot. In the longer term future, we hope to work with them, Oxford Community Market, and others in the local food movement to keep growing our local food economy.

We’re also going to be continuing the community outreach that we started with our USDA grant back in the summer and fall.  Our goal is to offer more support for low-income communities and to work with other community organizations like The Pantry to help address food insecurity in Lafayette County.