An engineer and a biologist walked into an abandoned building — and helped spark Greenville’s local food revolution with the Swamp Rabbit Café and Grocery
Mary Walsh and Jacqueline Oliver didn’t have years of entrepreneurial experience when they started Swamp Rabbit Café and Grocery. In fact, they had none. But they were idealists with a shared passion for local foods.
Their store, located just off the Swamp Rabbit Trail on Cedar Lane, has become a hub for local foods and artisan products, carrying everything from greens and meats to soaps and deodorant. It’s also a local icon booming with customers.
It all started when Walsh, 34, moved to Greenville in 2006. The civil engineer had lived in New York her entire life. She became a water protection specialist for Upstate Forever.
During her time at the Greenville-based conservation group, she met Oliver, 33, a biologist specializing in land use protection. They became friends, sharing a passion for local foods and farms. That shared passion grew into an aspiration.
“We both shopped at the downtown farmers market a lot. But we felt that there wasn’t a place you could buy local, organic foods when it closed. We wanted to do something that could fill that void,” said Walsh. “It’s about working directly with the farmers.”
In 2011, the duo left their stable jobs to open a locally sourced grocery store that could provide organic, local foods and double as a café. Both researched and conducted countless phone calls to similar grocers across the country, curating a sound plan.
Their plan was fueled by a staggering trend in the food industry. According to the Organic Trade Association, consumer demand for organic foods has doubled since 1990. Organic sales increased from $3.4 billion in 1997 to more than $39 billion in 2014. Produce accounts for $13 billion of organic sales.
The duo not only had a data-driven plan to reassure their dream but also a location that would provide them an ever-growing customer base — the Swamp Rabbit Trail.
During a routine ride one morning, Walsh found a 15,000-square-foot building that was once a meatpacking operation. Located at 205 Cedar Lane, it would provide a thoroughfare to the trail’s countless users. But it wasn’t available.
That unfortunate fact led them to the building’s owner, Scott McCrary, owner of Greenville’s TTR Bikes. Walsh and Oliver, who had never pitched a concept in their life, convinced him to lease 2,600 square feet of the building’s first floor for their store.
“Being that I’m an entrepreneur myself, I knew that you had to believe in your dream for it to become a reality. And the way they talked about their plans … I could just tell they were completely dedicated to it,” McCrary said.
Walsh and Oliver met with a consultant and began to brainstorm a funding plan for their store. According to Walsh, the projections showed the duo working more than 70 hours a week and earning $12,000 annually. It didn’t discourage them.
They decided to use a third of their savings as well as a $25,000 microloan from Greenville County to fund their dream. And with that decision, Walsh and Oliver, alongside their husbands, started construction on the space in February 2011.
During that phase, Walsh and Oliver began to figure out their roles. Walsh developed recipes for the store’s menu and Oliver called farmers to establish an inventory. Their differences strengthened the partnership.
“We were able to split all the responsibilities. And if one of us reached a hurdle, the other presented a solution,” said Oliver. “I think we would’ve quit had we not partnered.”
Juggling entrepreneurial tasks
After months of installing refrigerators and other store necessities as well as undergoing state and national health inspections, the duo opened their store in September 2011.
It was challenging. Walsh and Oliver were without employees for the opening day, leaving them to fend for themselves as hordes of customers entered the store. The duo hired their first employee just two days after opening and recruited the help of friends and their husbands, allowing for more growth.
“We just did whatever needed to be done, because the trail just brought in a lot of business,” said Walsh. “It was nice, though. We didn’t have to advertise the store. And word-of-mouth was big for us.”
Despite a growing customer base, the store didn’t bring profits the first year. But the duo’s dedication to their dream kept it open, evidenced by their ability to juggle motherhood and a business.
A month after opening the store, Oliver had her first child, Thomas. Soon enough, she was in the store with her son strapped to her front. And it wasn’t long before Walsh was pregnant with her firstborn, Eli. Each had another son in late 2015.
“We’ve always worked with our kids on us. It’s hard to suit their needs and run a business, because they don’t always do what you want them to,” said Oliver. “But people have helped us raise our kids in this store. They’ve watched them grow up.”
Connecting with local farmers
The duo’s multitasking has never deterred them from their mission of highlighting local foods, which has brought exposure and customers to Upstate farms.
“For them, it’s about connecting with the farmers. That follows through in the store. I just don’t know of a grocer that does that,” said Chris Sermons of Bio-Way Farms. “They’re also marketing our farms on social media and putting our name out there.”
“Local products are their priority. They don’t just give it lip service,” said Margie Levine of Crescent Farm. “They’re really good about labeling products. You’ll know that our produce is from our farm. A lot of small grocers won’t do that. It brings us business.”
The store’s inventory has continued to grow since opening. In 2011, the store carried products from 72 farms. Now it uses 248 farms. Each product is local and fresh.
In fact, the store’s employees drive to Sandy Flat Berry Patch in Taylors every morning during strawberry season to ensure freshness.
Growing a community icon
The store is inspiring other businesses to adopt a local food mindset.
Greenville farmer Chad Manaton joined the store as an employee in 2014. That’s when he got the idea for a local food distribution service, “The Farm Cart.” His business now services restaurants, distributing products from more than a dozen Upstate farms.
“It can be overwhelming when you start a business. I approached Jac and Mary with the idea and they encouraged me to move forward with it,” Manaton said. “They’re a big reason why I’m doing this today.”
Walsh and Oliver’s mantra of “local products only” has brought about more than just an expanded inventory at the store. It’s brought income and expansions.
In 2012, the duo made enough money to pay off their microloan and earn a profit. They also added a walk-in produce room, allowing more inventory. Walsh and Oliver then rented the building’s upstairs space to build a kitchen in 2013. And about a year later, they built a kids’ play area in front of their store on the edge of the trail.
The store has continued to grow through the years. It serves about 450 customers a day. In 2014, their growing brand led to acceptance into the downtown TD Saturday Market. It brought more customers. However, it also created a need for more space.
A 2015 grant from the the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Local Food Promotion Program allowed Walsh and Oliver to begin a long-planned expansion project, now nearing completion, which will expand the store’s 2,600 square feet to 6,100 square feet.
The expansion should be complete in September.
Adding more to the menu
In the meantime, Walsh and Oliver are planning another kind of expansion. The duo wants to add wood-fired pizza to the menu. The pizza kitchen will be housed in a 20-foot-long shipping container alongside beer on tap.
The duo ordered a shipping container from Craigslist that features doors and windows. From inside the container, various local products will be combined with flour from Carolina Ground, a North Carolina-based milling company. The menu will include various flavors using local kale, sausage, pesto, cheese and more.
WATCH // Bringing “Swamp Pizza” to life >>
The store will also be getting a new outdoor seating area that includes additional tables and benches, which will complement the pizza kitchen. Another canopied area will be added as well. According to Oliver, pizza will be available for lunch and dinner.
The outside expansion project is expected to be finished in September. But that’s only if the store raises enough funds. Walsh and Oliver started an Indiegogo campaign on June 1 to raise $50,000. It’s raised about $2,000 and ends in a month. Walsh and Oliver haven’t ordered pizza supplies yet, hoping that the community embraces the fundraiser.
“We’re a community-driven business. So it just made sense that our customers have a hand in it,” said Oliver. “It also allows us to do it sooner. But if it doesn’t fund, we’ll still do the pizza kitchen. It will just be delayed for about a year.”
If the project is funded, the store’s wood-fired pizza will have some competition with Sidewall Pizza, Kitchen Sync’s pizza station, Coastal Crust and Stone Pizza Company already open or coming soon.
“It’s scary but good. It will just force us to be better. I also think pizza is just one of those things that people love. So you can’t have too many pizza places,” said Oliver.
Building a future
As the duo plans for the future, they’re considering more expansion and changes. And while a second store isn’t happening at the moment, it might in the future.
“The idea of a second location gets more feasible as we get more time on our hands,” said Oliver. “But we just don’t want to wear ourselves thin.”
The new store would retain the “Swamp Rabbit” branding if located along the Swamp Rabbit Trail. However, it could be named something else if not, according to Oliver.
Another development that could happen is a new logo for the store. The duo is brainstorming a new design with Greenville’s Dapper Ink.
“We tried the whole cow-on-a-bike approach. But the proportions are off,” said Walsh. “A lot of people like our current logo. So we might just keep it.”
For more information, visit swamprabbitcafe.com.