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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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NEXT MOVE: The proposed market, which would be built over 10 years, could become the largest grocery store in the United States. - JOEFF DAVIS
  • Joeff Davis
  • NEXT MOVE: The proposed market, which would be built over 10 years, could become the largest grocery store in the United States.

"They've fled dictators, wars, civil wars, everything," says Canaj, the human resources manager who left her job as a bank manager in Albania to move to the United States. "Here you have doctors, lawyers, engineers, all types of professions. And here they have the opportunity to grow."

Adds Bollinger: "The shipping and receiving guy used to be a high-level government official in Ethiopia. The people who used to cut up fish years ago are now in senior management."

Though the market doesn't offer health insurance to its employees, it is sensitive to the different needs of its workforce, including juggling hours to accommodate doctor's office appointments for vaccinations and, until recently, providing English tutoring.

"It's a stepping stone," Bollinger says. "To be sure, it's not a workplace for everybody. They work 'em hard there. It's not necessarily as brutal as chicken catching or live hanging at the poultry plants. [But] it's not for the faint of heart."

For some, the skills learned could prove useful. Issa, the bakery supervisor who left behind a wife in Ethiopia for an opportunity to live in America, says his dream is to one day return to the African country and open his own store. Many employees started ringing up lettuce at the cash register and later climbed the ranks to the executive offices.

AFTER HOURS: The market closes at 9 p.m. every day but really only shuts down for less than 48 hours a year. - JOEFF DAVIS
  • Joeff Davis
  • AFTER HOURS: The market closes at 9 p.m. every day but really only shuts down for less than 48 hours a year.

There have been ample opportunities for Blazer to follow his brother's example and build a sister location, but he says employees voiced their opposition to splitting up the store.

Cashing out and unloading the company to a national chain is out of the question, Blazer says, despite that numerous such offers have been received. Lately, Blazer says, Barbara tosses them in the trash.

The husband and wife, who were married in the market's main meeting room above the bank of 58 check-out registers in front of 300 guests, say the market is their life. "We've committed ourselves to it," he says. "If I take time off, it's to get energy to do this. If you're a painter, you're a painter 24 hours a day."

In July, Blazer turns 64, near traditional retirement age. He is planning the opposite. Much like he did when he expanded the old market along North Decatur Road to handle future growth, Blazer want to gamble again.

For years, Blazer, an engineer by training, has been concerned about the store's layout. Bread must be transported downstairs and pushed through the market's main aisle to reach the ovens in back. He feels truly sorry for the customers who find themselves playing chicken with shopping carts down the pepper aisle. Every inch of space is used.

To end this, Blazer plans a massive renovation that, over 10 years, would nearly triple the store's size — and, once complete, would become the largest grocery store in the United States. According to documents filed with the state, Blazer would build a new complex with up to 718,367 square feet in warehouse space and a new 518,000-square-foot retail area. The new store and warehouse would require two new driveways, one of which might connect to DeKalb Industrial Way to the west and could open as early as next October. In addition, the market would add 2,637 new parking spaces, bringing its grand total to 3,400.

Blazer did not share renderings but says he has meticulously planned the project, playing out every scenario and layout in his mind and on paper. If growth continues at its traditional pace, the new store could employ as many as 1,500 people. The existing market could be used solely for the market's wholesale business to other markets and restaurants, which makes up a large chunk of YDFM's business.

But if and when the new market is built, Blazer wonders, will the customers come?

"We shall see," he says as he rests his head against the wall with a thin smile. "It all continues on."

WATCH: A day at Your DeKalb Farmers Market - in a little more than a minute

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