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This is Your DeKalb Farmers Market

For 35 years, Robert Blazer has won by gambling on Atlanta's love of fresh food. And now he's ready to bet big once again.

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To newcomers and regulars alike, it's a spectacle.

Immediately upon entering, they're confronted with row after row of fruits and vegetables one never knew existed, from the prickly, stinky durian to the Costa Rican chayote. The quizzical smell, which the AJC's John Kessler once described as a "fecund overload of fish heads and wet mops," permeates the air. And there are rules upon rules, which regular visitors abide by and take slight umbrage at when others violate: do not split the bananas; do not poke the watermelons; if you break the ginger root, you buy it. In an age of stores painstakingly laid out to maximize purchases and the flow of customers, Your DeKalb Farmers Market, the hulking 140,000-square-foot building just outside of Decatur, remains a unique free-for-all.

Around 1 a.m. on a recent Friday, hours before the hordes of shoppers will converge on the store to pick over papayas or select cuts of lamb, Mike Emkin lumbers through the Scottdale store's bakery. Emkin, in charge of the overnight shift, walks past pairs of workers clad in white smocks and gloves. They knead dough, smear strawberry jelly onto 15-foot-long lines of pastries, and blast muffin mix from an industrial filling machine into trays. Each batch is tasted. Two pairs of workers hover over flour-covered tables cutting dough to make loaves of potato bread with cheese. Once arranged, they are loaded on trays, placed on an elevator in the middle of the bakery, and rolled across the market to ovens located behind the U-shaped meat section. Though the quarters are cramped, there is no chaos. Just a blizzard of work.

"If you were here on a Friday night, we wouldn't talk to you," Emkin says with a laugh. He is wearing a gray fleece jacket to combat the market's constant 65-degree temperature. He is referring to the hectic prep work for weekends. The tall Massachusetts native joined the store six years ago to overhaul the massive food market's bakery, a move that required tossing out the premade bread mix the market had long used and teaching employees, some of whom spoke minimal English, how to make every organic croissant, baguette, and bialy from scratch. He overcame the fact he didn't know how to bake by trial and error.

THAT’S A LOT: The expanded market’s possible plans include adding more than 2,600 parking spaces. - DUSTIN CHAMBERS
  • Dustin Chambers
  • THAT’S A LOT: The expanded market’s possible plans include adding more than 2,600 parking spaces.

For the past few days, Ethiopian workers Mekonnen and Issa have tested recipes for English muffins, the latest product that, once perfected, will be added to the available baked goods. Emkin, whom two workers describe as "like a father," takes them aside to politely critique the latest attempt. They were too dry in the middle, he says, news that brings frustration to their faces.

Come 9 a.m., the market will be overrun by a parade of men and women speaking in exotic tongues maneuvering shopping carts packed with equally exotic fresh and organic produce underneath almost 190 custom-made flags of the world. The crowds will pore over six types of pears, 12 types of apples, and mangosteen, a fruit imported from Thailand that's a hit with Vietnamese shoppers. Beeping forklifts will stack pallets of dry goods more than 20 feet in the air. Live crawdads might, as they occasionally do, escape their containers and be found wiggling along the floor near the seafood section. Employees in blue jackets, always working in pairs, stack boxes and stock fresh lettuce pulled directly from delivery trucks onto homemade wooden stands. A construction crew out back, outside the view of shoppers, smooths poured concrete on 14 fruit-ripening rooms which will be used to fine-tune bananas and papayas. Come 9 p.m. the visitors, some of whom travel as far away as Tennessee to shop, will be ushered out. Unsold fish will be packed away, and the overnight process will begin anew.

The brains behind this 24-hour operation, founder and owner Robert Blazer, watches over the market through an expansive glass window high above the market in an office he shares with his wife, Barbara. Dressed in a tracksuit, the tall, humble man occasionally moseys alongside shoppers to soak up the atmosphere and observe the goings on. He never wears a name tag. He's not looking for recognition (he declined to be photographed for this article). And he kind of likes it that way.

On June 2, this market will quietly mark its 35th year of selling exotic fruits, live lobsters, fresh flowers, and a wide array of cheeses at better-than-reasonable prices. There will be no fireworks or county proclamation, which is characteristic for the no-frills store that began with one man and now employs more than 800 people from more than 40 countries. The market that managed to become not just a destination but an institution has cemented its status as metro Atlanta's most well-stocked food market — as well as a link to the cuisine immigrants thought they'd left behind. The produce food stand that once only opened four days a week is now essentially a 24-7 operation that ships and receives food from all over the world — almost more a logistics hub than a food store. Blazer gambled everything he had on selling high-quality produce and, in the process, helped shake up metro Atlanta's palette and influence the country's grocery industry. Along the way there has been family strife and questions about the way the store has been managed, but through it all the business has prospered. And if a proposed massive renovation goes according to plan, the market ultimately could triple in size in the next 10 years — becoming the largest grocery store in the United States.

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