Wholesome produce is the gateway, with that spirited southern idiom, ‘I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck,’ for good measure.
Originally printed in the March 2023 issue of Produce Business.
Alongside fast-growing Nashville — the evolving middle Tennessee region it calls home — the Turnip Truck is expanding its winning trusted, distinctly local footprint. Leading with health and wellness is what Turnip Truck is all about, and the produce department is the organic gateway, both figuratively and literally.
Founded in 2001 by John Dyke, ratcheting his Greene County, TN, farming roots, Turnip Truck remains the only locally-owned and operated, full-service, natural food chain in Nashville.
Produce Business selected Turnip Truck as a finalist for its 2023 Innovative Independent Retailer Award. Winner of the award, Sendik’s Food Market, was featured in the February 2023 issue.
As Dyke playfully puts it, “I didn’t just fall off the Turnip Truck.” That feisty southern expression inspired his catchy, alliterative store banner, representing a wholesome brand built on transparency, community and homespun values, with a passion for fresh produce — emphasizing local and organic.
In fact, a remarkable point of difference, 85-90% of Turnip Truck’s fruits and vegetables are exclusively certified organic, with no conventional alternative, according to produce buyer Kat Britt. In addition to local, year-round hydroponically-grown items, Turnip Truck also supports local and regional farmers, some who follow many organic practices but don’t have the money to do certified organic, says Britt.
Britt estimates around 20% of produce and floral is locally or regionally farmed. “As we know, not everything that can be grown in Tennessee will look as good as if it grows in California. But if we are providing the best quality products for our region, and really know what grows very well here, we can teach our customers and advocate for the things that we believe in,” says Britt.
“John has farming in his blood. He is a champion for independent farmers, to make sure people respect the farmers and where their food comes from,” says Britt. “We really try hard to source responsibly and ethically and sustainably. We don’t just carry organic, but we have a list of unacceptable food ingredients we’ve banned from our stores.”
“John has a very special place in his heart for produce as a conduit for health and wellness. Turnip Truck is a space where people can get everything they need to really live the healthiest version of themselves,” says Britt.
Sure-footed in its mission, Turnip Truck is undeterred by a field of retail competition, including Amazon’s Whole Foods Market. The burgeoning chain is looking to grow beyond its fourth location set to open in late summer/early fall 2023, walking distance to Vanderbilt University in Midtown Nashville.
Britt says Dyke is mapping other spots of demographic opportunity in neighborhoods seeking access to fresh fruits and vegetables, areas such as Madison, Franklin and Mount Juliet as well as a few others.
“We get calls every day to ‘please build a Turnip Truck’ in these different areas that are not as accessible, where people must go a long way to get groceries,” says Britt.
Part of the growth vision is to find a space for a central warehouse and commissary, where eventually all the chain’s in-house products can be made. “And as we get bigger and bigger, to standardize more quantities and improve buying purchases and consistency across locations,” says Britt. “That’s something that’s always been on the horizon.”
Britt was a chef for 20 years before joining Turnip Truck in 2020, after the restaurant where she worked shut down because of the pandemic. “I know how to prepare food and what things go well together, so it was a natural transition.”
The Turnip Truck’s local produce vendors in the Nashville area include Bloomsbury Farm; Caney Fork Farms; CC Gardens; Delvin Farms; Greener Roots Farm; Import Flowers; Tucker’s Pepper Co.; and Yarborough Organics.
Britt explains the staple produce items are all organic — its entire wet wall or fresh case; apples; bananas; pears; loose citrus; mushrooms; potatoes; onions; avocados; all of its greens, like collard greens and kale, broccoli, cucumbers, celery and loose carrots. Brands include Jose’s Organics, Organic Mann’s and Organic Girl.
The only commodities that go back and forth between organic and conventional are tomatoes and berries, and a couple items are conventionally grown, such as Brussels sprouts and jalapeño peppers.
While Turnip Truck is not a certified organic produce department, Britt says it has procedures to merchandise organic to keep it from contamination with conventional and follows a lot of the practices of certified organic retailers. “So, if I do carry anything conventional, I usually try to keep it in a bag so it’s not exposed to any of our loose organic product.”
“Our values are respect, integrity, passion, excellence and accountability. And we really try to embody that with our buying practices, staffing and training, and how we show up in the community,” says Britt.
And people will shop at The Turnip Truck because of the produce.
“We like to hit people in the face with our produce department,” Britt says. “Produce is the first thing you see when you walk through our doors. It really sets the tone for the rest of your visit.”
She thinks of the produce department as the “kitchen” of the store — the high-traffic area where people gather — “where people are always going to be drawn to whatever is going on, and all your senses are stimulated.”
“Our idea about merchandising is a big box of color, bold, eye-catching displays with beautiful signage. I really love to do large, hand-stacked tables, something you don’t see a lot of anymore,” she adds.
The Turnip Truck produce department has a symbiotic partnership with the stores’ juice bars and foodservice departments, which both use produce products that may not be 100% beautiful, but could be utilized without having to be thrown away.
As a former chef, Britt’s goal is to guide customers to health and wellness through recipes and meal ideas, and the store has been developing a program of more active floor sampling. Education extends to staff, as well.
“When we send out advertising items to our staff before they go live, we talk about the tasting points, health benefits, merchandising and everything under the sun with this product, what you can do with it, where to place it in the store, what the price is,” she explains. “And a little bit of background and history of the product, as well, where this variety came from or if it’s a hybrid, etc. We’re really getting people more engaged.”
THE WELLNESS CONNECTION
Turnip Truck is committed to getting people’s minds wrapped around healthy eating through an integrated approach. The wellness connection involves extensive in-store education and social media posts highlighting intriguing nutritional benefits and health tips. For example, the retailer promoted a Happy Healthy Heart Day, to kick off a month of raising money for the American Heart Association, where a lively costumed character dressed as a Heart stopped by stores to help load up shopping carts with heart-healthy veggies, interacting with customers, and to say thanks to the community for raising money for AHA.
One strategy is a collaboration between the produce department and the health and beauty department, with similar objectives. The two biggest stores and newest designs have an open floor plan designed with produce and health and beauty when you walk in, notes Britt.
“They’re very parallel and kind of co-exist together. They’re going to be talking about foods to help you absorb these nutrients or help you absorb these supplements, or help you feel better,” says Britt.
“We’re able to build sets around holidays and health themes. For example, in February, Turnip Truck did a cleanse set with an apple cider cleanse incorporating ginger and lemon and some herbal teas.”
The departments also learn from each other through onsite training. The health and beauty department gets training from vendors and through specific supplements, “and they get to learn about all these produce items that work together with these specific herbs and supplements and remedies they’re selling,” Britt explains, “so, we’ve integrated that into our training, as well.”
APPEALING TO DIVERSITY
Before the pandemic, Turnip Truck was viewed as more of a niche, “appealing to the more affluent and people who were already health-centric anyway,” says Britt. But the demographics of each neighborhood is reflected differently in each store.
The east Nashville store is the most diverse, with more family residences and mixed-use buildings with apartments. “We have people who live in bigger, older houses, who’ve been in the neighborhood forever, and brand-new condos a block down the street.” In the oldest Gulch store, it is mostly businesspeople, construction workers and single people, Britt explains.
On the west side in the Charlotte store, “it’s family-centric with a lot of neighborhoods, but also young people.”
“We see an influx of people interested in us because of the amount of information out in the universe now,” Britt adds. “A customer goes on Instagram, learns all the benefits of celery, then comes to Turnip Truck, and says, ‘juice me some celery.’”
The newest store underway near Vanderbilt University is “going to be a completely different beast because it’s being built from the ground up, and it’s not like any of our other locations,” Britt says.
“That’s going to be our biggest opportunity going forward. Every neighborhood is going to have a different take on what The Turnip Truck produce department can provide for them.”
Like other retailers, one of the biggest challenges is staffing and finding the right people, says Britt, adding, “We treat people like they’re part of our family.”
Another challenge is supplier issues, with inflation and price volatility. “It really forces us to make hard decisions on what products to carry. Are we going to look for this product from one of our local vendors or are we going to go out to these farmers’ markets and look for them ourselves,” she explains. “The biggest challenge is providing consistency in stock and having the basic organic items in produce.”
SUSTAINABILITY ON A LARGER SCALE
Dyke is conscious and concerned about the stores’ impact on individuals and collectively the Earth, says Britt. “Our customer base really does look at the amount of plastic we use in our produce department and our stores. We try to limit as much plastic as we can, but unfortunately to be able to provide that kind of separation between organic and conventional, we do the best we can.”
Turnip Truck’s east Nashville location maintains beehives on the roof, contributing pollinators to the plants and gardens in the neighborhood, in partnership with Greenwood Urban Farm. “We have a local beekeeper who tends the bees, and then they harvest the honey and sell it back to us to use in our juice bar smoothies and foodservice. We harvest enough now to be able to sell in stores, as well,” explains Britt.
Solar paneling at the Charlotte store, one of its newer locations, is conserving the energy it’s using, and it’s a great touching point for how Turnip Truck is evolving, notes Britt.
“We try to buy sustainably and responsibly, and source the most recyclable and compostable products that we can,” Britt says. “We can try to find companies that align with our values and can provide us products that lessen our footprint. I think it benefits everybody, not just us, but the world.”
701 Woodland Street, Nashville, TN
Operates three stores in the Nashville area, with a new store set to open later this year.