Charm and spice, and everything nice

August 08, 1993|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,Staff Writer

The crush of lunchtime customers has come and gone at Produce Galore, a Columbia market specializing in fresh produce, spices and exotic foods, but the crammed kitchen is a veritable clamor of activity.

A dozen kitchen hands are bustling about the food-preparation tables. One of them hacks up a fat, pungent onion for use in a soup. Another hired hand furiously whips a made-from-scratch basil salad dressing. A cloud of aromas, from ginger to pepper, swirls in the air.

In the middle of the bustle, hovering near a stove, is the boss, Margaret Pendleton. She is clad in soiled white apron and faded jeans, and the attire is not for show.

"I do a lot of the cooking," she says, scrutinizing a dressing being prepared for the store's salad bar.

Ms. Pendleton, who runs the store with her husband, Kent, lands in the kitchen around 3 a.m. each day. While she begins preparing soups and other foods for the store's popular hot and cold salad bars, Mr. Pendleton treks off to Jessup to make the rounds of wholesalers at the vast Maryland Wholesale Produce Market.

There he hand-picks produce, herbs, and spices for the store's inventory, and then bolts back to the shop to restock and organize produce displays. The Pendletons stay at the store until midafternoon each day.

In an era of mega-size grocery chains, the Columbia residents' bustling but casual operation has a decided rustic aura.

Produce and freshly baked breads are still displayed on wood shelving, sans refrigeration. Ms. Pendleton makes and bottles her own tomato-base pasta sauce. Mr. Pendleton buzzes around the store in flannel shirts and old jeans, constantly eyeing the produce, discreetly directing workers about and patiently answering customers queries. The store's Main Street America charm has made it something of a Columbia institution and a bit of crossroads for stop-and-go socializing.

"The store is something unique in today's world. To me it's a little like going back to Paris, where the shop owners put their produce out in front of their little stores and still know their customers," says Bernice Kisch, the manager of Columbia's Wilde Lake village, who frequents the store.

"It's ended up that when you go in there whether its for lunch or later in the day to pick up some produce you are bound to see someone you know," says Ms. Kisch. "You'll stand around and talk for a bit and catch up. That's part of the charm. The other thing that draws people to shop there is the consistency in the quality of the produce and food."

Expansion under way

Though Produce Galore competes with a Giant grocery store just a stone's throw across the parking lot in the Wilde Lake Village Green shopping center, business is so good that an expansion is in progress.

The Pendletons have decided to double the size of their store, to 6,000 square feet. The addition should be complete in the fall.

The expansion will mark the fourth time the business has grown since Mr. Pendleton launched the enterprise in 1976 after eight years of working in the wholesale produce business.

While coy about sales revenues, the Pendletons say they believe that the expansion will result in significantly greater sales.

"The last time I expanded six years ago, I expected to see a 50 percent improvement in sales, but they doubled. That probably will happen this time," Mr. Pendleton says.

An important element of Produce Galore's expansion is the addition of much-needed space in the kitchen, which will quadruple in size, say the Pendletons.

"We do a very strong business from the hot and cold salad bars," says Ms. Pendleton. "It didn't used to be that way. But people's lifestyles are different today; they are more hectic -- people have less time to prepare food."

The surge in interest in the salads, soups and hot foods, (hot turkey and dressing every second Thursday) has put the pinch on space for food preparation and produce storage in the kitchen, the Pendletons say.

The Pendletons plan to use the rest of the added space to expand areas for showcasing popular and seasonal produce, such as the Maryland peaches flying off the shelves now, and allow for more room for salad bar customers to bustle around.

'No need for the chrome'

Though the store has expanded many times, Mr. Pendleton has avoided jazzing it up with modern shelving or the latest marketing trend colors.

"I have no need for the chrome and flashy stuff," Mr. Pendleton says. "I'm not interested in looking pretty like the grocery stores. We kind of like the rustic atmosphere."

There'll be no big diversion in that respect with this addition. The dull off-white walls -- which, incidentally, enhance the robust yellows, crimsons, greens and other colors of the produce -- will stay as they are. Wood shelving and earthy ambience will go unruffled.

The Pendletons say they are more interested in keeping pace with customers' evolving tastes than with the latest fashions in store decorating.

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