Tuesday, December 12, 2017
Opinion

Ruth: Success sprouts at Duckweed grocery in downtown Tampa

Call it the little grocery store that could.

When Brent and Michelle Deatherage moved to Tampa a little more than four years ago to take up residence at the SkyPoint condos they noticed their downtown enclave was missing something — like a head of lettuce.

Sure there were growing numbers of bars and restaurants to frequent. Museums were on the rise and the Tampa Theater remains a civic gem. But for downtown residents like the Deatherages there was nowhere to find even the most basic grocery store supplies. No eggs. No produce. No cheese. No bread.

The couple waited for someone to come along to fill what seemed to them was a growing need for a grocery store catering to the thousands of people moving into Tampa's downtown. No one did.

And so a few years ago, despite having zero experience in the grocery racket, the Deatherages opened the itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny 600-square-foot Duckweed Urban Market on Polk Street. There are urban pioneers and there are cucumber pioneers.

Like any entrepreneur, they made their fair share of mistakes. But Duckweed, named after one of Florida's smallest indigenous plants, took root and grew.

And blossom it did. Last week, Duckweed moved into a 2,750-square-foot space in the Element apartments at 803 N Tampa St. The business also grew from four employees to 14, specializing not only in organic offerings, but putting an emphasis on locally grown produce. Even the dog food is Tampa produced.

For Michelle Deatherage the expansion says a great deal about downtown Tampa's revitalization. "A grocery store says you're stable," she said amid the clatter of last-minute touches to the business. "I hope I can cultivate other people to come here."

There is much more to an inner city's character than a proliferation of bars and restaurants, although there is certainly nothing wrong with a healthy menu of bars and restaurants.

On that score Duckweed says a great deal about downtown Tampa's rebirth from a veritable Deadwood just a few years ago.

The grocery recognizes downtown is not just a place where people work. It's where they live. And these people need some cheese — now.

Duckweed is also a classic story of two young people — Brent is 44, Michelle is 41 — who were willing to take a risk. While the big chains like Publix busy themselves with their linear charts and focus groups and calculations on where to open their next store, the Deatherages listened to their gut to fill a void in the downtown economy, beating the big guys to the punch.

Good, good for them.

The Deatherages also bring a decidedly uncorporate management style to the business. Michelle Deatherage wants to be able to encourage and help fund trips for employees who want to travel to explore new and different food concepts.

Who knows what the future will hold for Duckweed? But it is worth noting that the Austin, Texas, Whole Foods empire began in a very similar fashion — a couple of young, eager folks with an idea.

And let's face it, Duckweed is a much catchier, whimsical name for a grocery than Whole Foods.

Recently the couple moved to a new residence in the Channelside area. For the admittedly detail-oriented obsessive-compulsive Michelle, living too close to the store would be problematic.

"You can't love something this much and be apart from it," she laughed, hoping Duckweed's customers will feel the same way.

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