(Photo courtesy of Zelalem Midekssa)

Photo courtesy of Zelalem Midekssa

A culinary mecca expands

November 29, 2014

Starting as a small produce stand in 1977, Your DeKalb Farmers Market (DFM) is embarking on its largest expansion yet.

In terms of facility size, the DFM will be three times as big, reaching a total 675,000 square-feet. Over 2,000 new parking spaces along with two new entrances will accommodate twice as much business. One of the two entrances will allow Decaturites to enter the parking lot more quickly from East Ponce de Leon Avenue.

The initial phase of construction will begin during the fall of 2015. Despite the current goal, the projection depends on the earthwork needed on the property as well as the money available.

According to Robert Blazer, founder and owner of the DFM, busy weekends revealed the facility’s inadequate space for customers, employees and products.

“As time went on, we just got too busy for the amount of space we have to really work in,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of production going on here, and it was never designed for a lot of food production.”

Blazer also feels the expansion will add a personal touch to the facility itself “rather than just one big place, like a Walmart.”

“Each department would have sub-departments so that people could be more specialized in understanding the product that they’re selling . . .  and maybe a more personal way of arranging things,” he said.

 

WHERE IT ALL BEGAN

Blazer describes the DFM’s first startup stand as “just a dream,” and his reasoning behind it all began with a love for selling fresh food.

“I worked in my father’s business up north and developed a retail produce business. I thought the most important thing I could provide for people was a high-quality fresh food source, direct from the growers.”

After recognizing his zeal for working in the produce industry, Blazer chose Atlanta as the ideal place to begin because it “seemed like a growing place.” After moving to Atlanta, he rented a piece of property off of Medlock Road and built a small greenhouse-type structure with $30,000 of start-up money.

“I had enough money for one load of produce, and if I didn’t sell it that day, that would’ve been it,” Blazer said.

After the small building started to draw business, an ice storm hit and the facility was completely crushed. Blazer did not have enough money to cover the damage. All was not lost, though, he said. “The neighborhood came out to save the place.”

“We were selling product in the rain — whatever we had left — trying to salvage the equipments, but then the customers gave me money . . . Actually, the customers rebuilt the market,” he said.

When his customers donated money for a new building, Blazer returned the favor.

“Customers gave me checks that were repaid with food once we reopened,” he said. “Some gave us checks and never asked to be repaid.”

The community that supported the small stand through that ice storm continues to support the growing business now.

Today, familiar faces of customers that grew up in shopping carts at the old market now shop with their babies. While Blazer said he “could’ve gone anywhere with the market,” he wanted to stay in the area ever since the day his customers showed interest in keeping his business afloat.

“It’s fine to talk business, but fundamentally, this market contributes an understanding of people,” he said. “Food is important, but if we don’t learn how to get along with each other, nothing else matters.”

 

Months of Moving Mountains 

Right now, the landscape around the parking lot of the Dekalb Farmer’s Market is marked by mountains of red soil. To prepare for the expansion, construction workers began clearing the property in March.

The process entails grading the hills and the building “reinforced earthen walls” around the exterior of the property. Blazer said that while customers have expressed anger about cutting down so many trees, he plans to replant more trees than before to make the property a “green looking place” in the end.

Construction head Mitchell Blackwell not only started working on the grading last spring, but he also worked on the first expansion of the DFM in the 1970s. He said that the market is something he’s “always been interested in, construction-wise.”

Blackwell said that the earthwork could take until summer, which is when the crews can move forward with construction.

“[By summer], we should begin to start the foundation work and the superstructure — roof on, walls up and floor ready to pour — for the building, which will probably take us until December of next year,” he said. “It will probably take us another year to year and a half to finish the inside before we open it to the public.”

Despite crews running into more rock than expected during the initial earthwork phase, Blackwell still predicts that the new structure will open in early 2017.

 

EMPLOYEES’ PERSPECTIVE

Frank Velasquez enjoys interacting with customers to hear their stories. “The kids get so excited when they walk in and see all the fresh fruits and vegetables,” he said. “I saw a guy that came in last week, and he said, ‘Man, I was a little baby and now I’m in college, but I still remember my mother used to bring me [to the fish department].”
“I tell the people that work here, when people come here, they’re not coming to a building,” Blazer said. “The DeKalb Farmers Market isn’t a building — it’s you guys. You’re the face of the market. How you handle the product and how you deal with the people is what they’re coming here for. What you have to give them is what they’re here for.”

Hyunsil Choung has worked for the DFM for a little over 30 years. In 1984, her aunt suggested that Choung move from Los Angeles to Atlanta to work in the market, which has connections and similarities with her home country, Korea.

As a 21-year-old Korean, Choung started as a cashier and then changed positions to a produce buyer. She loves to work in the produce departments because of the immediate network she formed with the people.

“This is what all humans need. All humans need to eat,” Choung said.

Her affinity for produce evolved into a place Choung now associates with Korea.

“The market is like my family . . .” Choung said. “It’s my home.”

Similar to Choung, Reti Camaj is a long-time employee of the market.

When Camaj first came to the United States from Albania, she took refuge in the DFM. Ever since her first visit, she believes the market is “the only place to shop for groceries” because of the fresh food and a feeling of home.

Camaj applied for a job as a cashier, and after working for four months at the cash register, Camaj moved up to a position in human resources to recruit and work with employees.

“I started with 300 employees. Now we have [about] 750,” Camaj said.

Vaishali Desai came to Atlanta from India, and after shopping at the DFM, she worked as a cashier. Like Camaj, she was promoted later to the department of human resources. Today, Camaj and Desai work together in the department at their adjoining desks, excited for the new opportunities that will come with the expansion.

Camaj looks forward to the further growth of employment in the future. Desai is ready to see the current issue with lack of space translate into a better working environment for all the employees.

“We work as a team. That makes us stronger [and] can make a difference to others,” Desai said.

 

THE FAMILY SCENE

To Blazer, the DFM is not just a place for customers to build family-like relationships, but it is also a place where his own family sprouted.

Robert and Barbara Blazer raised their son Daniel Blazer in the DFM. Daniel can remember growing up in the market’s environment since he was little.

“He used to ride around and nap on the back of the trash train,” Barbara said.

As a boy, Daniel formed relationships, especially with Frank Velasquez, a Puerto Rican employee. Today, Velasquez and Daniel call each other brothers.

“Frank used to take care of me when I was a baby,” Daniel said.

After leaving the market scene for college, Daniel returned to the DFM for the unique job atmosphere.

“I like the changes in the market with the products. It’s a fast moving business, and nothing’s ever the same. There are always challenges, so it never gets boring. It’s not a cubicle job.”

Daniel believes that the culture of the market helped focus his career pathway and personal interests. He studied finance and various languages in college to incorporate his interests into the business.

Daniel looks forward to working in a “more efficient place to work and produce product.”

Velasquez looks forward to working with and learning from new people with more space and resources available.

“To me it’s like going to school,” he said. “The most enjoyable thing about being at the market is interacting with the people.”

The diversity of the market, evident among the employees and the products, allows the DFM to reach a wide range of people.

“People in Ethiopia have heard the things about [the DFM] on the streets and in the marketplace,” Blazer said.

Blazer envisions an even wider consumer base with the new facility space, expanding on the 38-year relationships while building new ones.

“Given the friendly and efficient design,” he said, “I think there is going to be a great facility that will last for generations.”

 

 

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