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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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BUDDY SYSTEM: Nearly all workers are paired with a partner to match strengths. - DUSTIN CHAMBERS
  • Dustin Chambers
  • BUDDY SYSTEM: Nearly all workers are paired with a partner to match strengths.

"It's kind of ugly," says Tore Olsson, a Ph.D candidate who explored the market's role in an increasingly diverse metro Atlanta for a piece published in Southern Cultures academic journal. "It's not a pretty building. Especially in contrast to places like Whole Foods market. It's not refined in anyway whatsoever. It's not a tailored suburban experience. It's a little raw."

But, he adds: "I think people like that. It was something different from the manicured supermarket experience with perfectly waxed and glossed peppers. It was like the real world. This wasn't just going shopping. It was an experience. This wasn't just culinary tourism."

As a young child in Rhode Island, Blazer spent most of his days stamping bobby pins, overseeing the fabric department, and operating the cash register in his father's discount store in Pawtucket, a city along the border of Massachusetts. By age 10, Blazer, the oldest of three children, oversaw the shop's toy department, an assignment that required frequent shopping trips to New York City. During collegiate summer breaks, he'd help run the store and build better displays. Retail was the family business, begun by his grandfather, who recycled burlap and cotton bags. His father, a hard-working man who rarely, if ever, rested, worked in the wholesale textile business and shipped goods to as far away as India prior to opening the discount store.

"All I knew was working in that place," Blazer says.

After college, Blazer moved to Needham, Mass., where he'd wake up every morning at 3 to make the 30-minute drive to the New England Terminal Market in Quincy. He'd follow a purchasing agent from vendor to vendor, learning the trade, and purchase fruits and vegetables, which he'd then load onto the truck and drive to his father's Pawtucket store before 10:30 a.m.

"I used to put almost 50,000 miles a year on my car," Blazer says, laughing. "I was putting all the money in that car."

Father and son often butted heads at the store but could ultimately compromise, except when it came to selling perishables. "I really liked the idea of selling something fresh," he says. "Everything else was in a can or a package."

HELLO THERE: The store receives shipments from around the world, including fruit from Thailand and fish from Europe. - DUSTIN CHAMBERS
  • Dustin Chambers
  • HELLO THERE: The store receives shipments from around the world, including fruit from Thailand and fish from Europe.

Rhode Island was becoming depressed, he says, so he sold his house and headed south, settling on DeKalb County over Miami because its trees, seasons, and traditional neighborhoods reminded him of New England.

DeKalb County wasn't much different from what it is today: roads past subdivisions and strip malls that lead to more subdivisions and strip malls. Grocery stores serving the area didn't provide the high-quality produce and array of products that residents desired. Blazer, then 28, saw an opportunity. He leased a 2-acre plot of land where a skating rink had burned down at the intersection of North Decatur Road and Scott Boulevard. He poured nearly every penny into building two adjoining greenhouses totaling 7,500 square feet and slapped a plastic roof on top.

On the day of its grand opening, Robert had enough cash for one day's worth of produce, which he purchased from the State Farmers Market near Riverdale. Then he prayed.

Somehow the market, which early shoppers remember as always covered in water from the constant spraying of produce, survived the year.

Neighbors at first were keen on the idea of a nearby produce stand but soon grew weary of constant traffic and dust. An ultimatum by the county government to pave an expansion or watch his business get shut down was blocked by Manuel Maloof, the legendary DeKalb County CEO, who said his wife — who purchased peaches from the market for $2 a box — would kill him if he closed the store.

It was the winter of 1979 that nearly ended the business. A storm came through one night, and rain filled the market's gutters and covered the roof. During the cold night, a heavy sheet of ice formed. A phone call from an employee jolted Blazer from bed. The market had collapsed.

The insurance company said his policy didn't cover ice storms. Blazer asked customers for support and a loan. Write a check today, and two months later, when the store reopened, you could use the canceled check as a credit. Shoppers handed over cash. Truck drivers contributed. His brother Harry — a professional drummer for acts like Johnny Mathis, Dionne Warwick, and Doc Severinsen — joined him in Georgia as a general manager. Within eight weeks the market was rebuilt and back in business.

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