Raleigh Provisions Owner Kim Hammer Unpacks the Art of Opening a Local Grocery | Food Feature | Indy Week

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Raleigh Provisions Owner Kim Hammer Unpacks the Art of Opening a Local Grocery

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When I walk into Raleigh Provisions, Kim Hammer's new micro-market on the corner of East Davie and South Wilmington, she's surrounded by a gathering of Taste Carolina food tourists as she presides over a table laden with local jam, lemon curd, and clotted cream from The Blakemere Company in Chapel Hill. Wearing a big grin as she tells the group about herself—that she owns the drink-and-dessert bar Bittersweet just a block away and opened Raleigh Provisions in late March—it's clear that Hammer is in her element. It's also clear that she is really, really excited about everything in the store. Especially this clotted cream.

After the tour disperses toward the Crude bitters and Boxcarr cheese, the Firsthand sausage and Melina's lasagna, Hammer and I sit down to chat at a table by a little collection of cookbooks and a big, bright window, where we can watch the city scurry by.

INDY: What inspired you to open Raleigh Provisions?

KIM HAMMER: I grew up in Raleigh. After I left and came back, what struck me the most, especially in the last three years since I opened Bittersweet, was that the majority of my customers and my employees are not from here. The wonderful thing about bars is they're a community center in a neighborhood. I get a lot of, Hey, where should I go for such and such? Then I get to brag about these awesome vendors and it starts so easily [at Bittersweet] with Counter Culture and Maple View Farms. Somewhere along the way, I thought, wouldn't it be great to have a retail store that has all these wonderful North Carolina products in one place?

How do you think the concept reflects Raleigh right now? Or, did you see a gap that you wanted to fill?

With business being healthy at Bittersweet, having personal relationships with my regulars, I knew that there were people eating how I eat. When you do a concept that's completely different than what people know, you spend the first year showing people what you are. After that, they get it. And more than get it, they explain it to the people they bring. It's an old bar thing—your regulars will market your bar for you.

Have you started to notice regulars yet?

We have people we see every day. A couple people I see once a week, always the same day. Some of the Red Hat people we'll see every day. But we're only a month in. You never know what's going to bring everyone here the most.

Are any popular sales surprising you so far?

Our most local product is that honey right there [Mr. Buzz]. His name is Ben Crawley and he teaches people beekeeping. They're downtown bees making the honey. We've had three shipments come through already.

And the Mamasitas! Tortilla chips. They're from Newport. I had this girl scream with joy the other day when she came in and saw these. Literally, they're the best tortilla chips I've ever had in my life. We've had them maybe three weeks and we have to order them again already.

Do you have to explain to customers why the products cost more here than at a grocery store?

It's pretty even between people who understand the ethos and don't. The reason I don't worry about that is, if it is imbalanced, we're turning it, and I know we can do it. When we first opened Bittersweet as a predominantly gin bar, we thought, 'Oh god, everyone around here is bourbon.' One of the bartenders said, very early on, 'Do we know that there are this many people who like gin?' And I was like, 'We're going to make them.' So it doesn't seem insurmountable—it's just education.

The food ethos you keep mentioning—how would you describe that?

Most of the shop is local. The only things that are not from North Carolina are things that we cannot get in North Carolina. There are no artificial colors or flavors or chemicals. We want to be able to explain [our products' ingredients] to our customers.

Kim Hammer - PHOTO BY BEN MCKEOWN
  • photo by Ben McKeown
  • Kim Hammer

I'm curious about the range of the selection. There are books and magazines, beers and wines, meats and cheeses, cleaning and beauty products.

If something is a North Carolina product and it's made with good ethos and it's shelf stable and it tastes good, I'll bring it in. We're a beautiful retail shop where you can come in and be excited to get something because it's a North Carolina thing.

As we're heading into summer, do you think you'll increase the produce selection?

The jury is still out on that. We get asked to have produce all the time, but it doesn't move, so we started asking people, 'What do you mean when you say produce?' And they'll say, 'bananas or avocados.' But we don't grow those in North Carolina.

Whether we have produce or how much we have will be directly decided by the neighborhood. I've got it right now because it's beautiful. If, a year from now, we don't anymore, I would still want to promote it adamantly. I would love to be a CSA pickup for a farm, because I will always try to promote people cooking and using local produce.

I imagine taking a blank slate and filling the shelves was a pretty massive project. How do you begin? Start with shoo-in products and go from there?

Josh [Lamm, Raleigh Provisions manager] and I started writing down products we loved and knew we wanted to have, vendors we already knew. Then we started growing and subdividing into categories.  

What was one that you knew you wanted to have?

I always knew that I wanted to have Helen Pfann's bread [from Night Kitchen in Seaboard Station]. She's incredibly talented and that was one of the things I was most excited about—to be able to take her wonderful bread and plop it in the center of downtown.

What about some vendors or products that were really great discoveries for you?

Amanda [Fisher from The Blackmere Company] is a great example. No one does what she does. No one else makes lemon curd or clotted cream. And discovering Jones von Drehle. They're an estate vineyard, so every grape they use, they grow. They're in the Yadkin Valley, which is probably the epicenter of great wine in the state.

When I first walked in, it felt like a cross between a market and a gallery. How did you design the space?

So many of the products, like Slingshot, Big Spoon, and French Broad, I can see that a lot of time and thought and money went into the branding. I've always admired that they never went, Oh, this is what peanut butter looks like, so I'll just make it look like that. I felt like this place should somehow reflect those products. And to me, the best way to do that is to put them on beautiful display, to show all the thought that went into them.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Market Savvy."

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