Cover Story: 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.
To newcomers and regulars alike, it's a spectacle.
Immediately upon entering, they're confronted with row after row of fruits and vegetables one never knew existed, from the prickly, stinky durian to the Costa Rican chayote. The quizzical smell, which the AJC's John Kessler once described as a "fecund overload of fish heads and wet mops," permeates the air. And there are rules upon rules, which regular visitors abide by and take slight umbrage at when others violate: do not split the bananas; do not poke the watermelons; if you break the ginger root, you buy it. In an age of stores painstakingly laid out to maximize purchases and the flow of customers, Your DeKalb Farmers Market, the hulking 140,000-square-foot building just outside of Decatur, remains a unique free-for-all.
Around 1 a.m. on a recent Friday, hours before the hordes of shoppers will converge on the store to pick over papayas or select cuts of lamb, Mike Emkin lumbers through the Scottdale store's bakery. Emkin, in charge of the overnight shift, walks past pairs of workers clad in white smocks and gloves. They knead dough, smear strawberry jelly onto 15-foot-long lines of pastries, and blast muffin mix from an industrial filling machine into trays. Each batch is tasted. Two pairs of workers hover over flour-covered tables cutting dough to make loaves of potato bread with cheese. Once arranged, they are loaded on trays, placed on an elevator in the middle of the bakery, and rolled across the market to ovens located behind the U-shaped meat section. Though the quarters are cramped, there is no chaos. Just a blizzard of work.
"If you were here on a Friday night, we wouldn't talk to you," Emkin says with a laugh. He is wearing a gray fleece jacket to combat the market's constant 65-degree temperature. He is referring to the hectic prep work for weekends. The tall Massachusetts native joined the store six years ago to overhaul the massive food market's bakery, a move that required tossing out the premade bread mix the market had long used and teaching employees, some of whom spoke minimal English, how to make every organic croissant, baguette, and bialy from scratch. He overcame the fact he didn't know how to bake by trial and error.
For the past few days, Ethiopian workers Mekonnen and Issa have tested recipes for English muffins, the latest product that, once perfected, will be added to the available baked goods. Emkin, whom two workers describe as "like a father," takes them aside to politely critique the latest attempt. They were too dry in the middle, he says, news that brings frustration to their faces.
Come 9 a.m., the market will be overrun by a parade of men and women speaking in exotic tongues maneuvering shopping carts packed with equally exotic fresh and organic produce underneath almost 190 custom-made flags of the world. The crowds will pore over six types of pears, 12 types of apples, and mangosteen, a fruit imported from Thailand that's a hit with Vietnamese shoppers. Beeping forklifts will stack pallets of dry goods more than 20 feet in the air. Live crawdads might, as they occasionally do, escape their containers and be found wiggling along the floor near the seafood section. Employees in blue jackets, always working in pairs, stack boxes and stock fresh lettuce pulled directly from delivery trucks onto homemade wooden stands. A construction crew out back, outside the view of shoppers, smooths poured concrete on 14 fruit-ripening rooms which will be used to fine-tune bananas and papayas. Come 9 p.m. the visitors, some of whom travel as far away as Tennessee to shop, will be ushered out. Unsold fish will be packed away, and the overnight process will begin anew.
The brains behind this 24-hour operation, founder and owner Robert Blazer, watches over the market through an expansive glass window high above the market in an office he shares with his wife, Barbara. Dressed in a tracksuit, the tall, humble man occasionally moseys alongside shoppers to soak up the atmosphere and observe the goings on. He never wears a name tag. He's not looking for recognition (he declined to be photographed for this article). And he kind of likes it that way.
On June 2, this market will quietly mark its 35th year of selling exotic fruits, live lobsters, fresh flowers, and a wide array of cheeses at better-than-reasonable prices. There will be no fireworks or county proclamation, which is characteristic for the no-frills store that began with one man and now employs more than 800 people from more than 40 countries. The market that managed to become not just a destination but an institution has cemented its status as metro Atlanta's most well-stocked food market — as well as a link to the cuisine immigrants thought they'd left behind. The produce food stand that once only opened four days a week is now essentially a 24-7 operation that ships and receives food from all over the world — almost more a logistics hub than a food store. Blazer gambled everything he had on selling high-quality produce and, in the process, helped shake up metro Atlanta's palette and influence the country's grocery industry. Along the way there has been family strife and questions about the way the store has been managed, but through it all the business has prospered. And if a proposed massive renovation goes according to plan, the market ultimately could triple in size in the next 10 years — becoming the largest grocery store in the United States.
"It's kind of ugly," says Tore Olsson, a Ph.D candidate who explored the market's role in an increasingly diverse metro Atlanta for a piece published in Southern Cultures academic journal. "It's not a pretty building. Especially in contrast to places like Whole Foods market. It's not refined in anyway whatsoever. It's not a tailored suburban experience. It's a little raw."
But, he adds: "I think people like that. It was something different from the manicured supermarket experience with perfectly waxed and glossed peppers. It was like the real world. This wasn't just going shopping. It was an experience. This wasn't just culinary tourism."
As a young child in Rhode Island, Blazer spent most of his days stamping bobby pins, overseeing the fabric department, and operating the cash register in his father's discount store in Pawtucket, a city along the border of Massachusetts. By age 10, Blazer, the oldest of three children, oversaw the shop's toy department, an assignment that required frequent shopping trips to New York City. During collegiate summer breaks, he'd help run the store and build better displays. Retail was the family business, begun by his grandfather, who recycled burlap and cotton bags. His father, a hard-working man who rarely, if ever, rested, worked in the wholesale textile business and shipped goods to as far away as India prior to opening the discount store.
"All I knew was working in that place," Blazer says.
After college, Blazer moved to Needham, Mass., where he'd wake up every morning at 3 to make the 30-minute drive to the New England Terminal Market in Quincy. He'd follow a purchasing agent from vendor to vendor, learning the trade, and purchase fruits and vegetables, which he'd then load onto the truck and drive to his father's Pawtucket store before 10:30 a.m.
"I used to put almost 50,000 miles a year on my car," Blazer says, laughing. "I was putting all the money in that car."
Father and son often butted heads at the store but could ultimately compromise, except when it came to selling perishables. "I really liked the idea of selling something fresh," he says. "Everything else was in a can or a package."
Rhode Island was becoming depressed, he says, so he sold his house and headed south, settling on DeKalb County over Miami because its trees, seasons, and traditional neighborhoods reminded him of New England.
DeKalb County wasn't much different from what it is today: roads past subdivisions and strip malls that lead to more subdivisions and strip malls. Grocery stores serving the area didn't provide the high-quality produce and array of products that residents desired. Blazer, then 28, saw an opportunity. He leased a 2-acre plot of land where a skating rink had burned down at the intersection of North Decatur Road and Scott Boulevard. He poured nearly every penny into building two adjoining greenhouses totaling 7,500 square feet and slapped a plastic roof on top.
On the day of its grand opening, Robert had enough cash for one day's worth of produce, which he purchased from the State Farmers Market near Riverdale. Then he prayed.
Somehow the market, which early shoppers remember as always covered in water from the constant spraying of produce, survived the year.
Neighbors at first were keen on the idea of a nearby produce stand but soon grew weary of constant traffic and dust. An ultimatum by the county government to pave an expansion or watch his business get shut down was blocked by Manuel Maloof, the legendary DeKalb County CEO, who said his wife — who purchased peaches from the market for $2 a box — would kill him if he closed the store.
It was the winter of 1979 that nearly ended the business. A storm came through one night, and rain filled the market's gutters and covered the roof. During the cold night, a heavy sheet of ice formed. A phone call from an employee jolted Blazer from bed. The market had collapsed.
The insurance company said his policy didn't cover ice storms. Blazer asked customers for support and a loan. Write a check today, and two months later, when the store reopened, you could use the canceled check as a credit. Shoppers handed over cash. Truck drivers contributed. His brother Harry — a professional drummer for acts like Johnny Mathis, Dionne Warwick, and Doc Severinsen — joined him in Georgia as a general manager. Within eight weeks the market was rebuilt and back in business.
The Blazer brothers' resilience paid off as the store expanded and added hard-to-find cheeses, meats, and seafood to the shelves to meet growing customer demand. They even showed a sense of humor: When a silly local rumor spread suggesting snakes were hiding in the lettuce, Robert Blazer made shirts depicting a cobra pouncing from leafy greens with the words "DeKalb Farmers Market Snake Patrol."
"You have to realize that we were doing stuff way, way, way ahead of the curve," says Brian Maloof, the owner of Manuel's Tavern and son of Manuel, whose first job was selling watermelons at the market. "We had these seafood trucks, and they'd put this whole giant tuna on pallets that'd be 400 pounds or bigger, and they'd drive 'em in on a forklift and people would ooh and aah. We'd lay it on a table, and 10 people would cut fillets so perfectly. And as fast as people put them on ice people would buy them."
Customers from all walks of life, including the area's growing immigrant community, shopped alongside local notables such as the late community activist Hosea Williams, always clad in a red shirt and overalls and with an entourage.
"We used to open every day with lines of people trying to get in," Maloof says. "We had to tape pads to the shopping carts because the aisles would get so crowded that people's heels would get hit. Around Thanksgiving you couldn't get anywhere around that place. And here this man was, a New England Jewish guy in the South, providing jobs for people from Ethiopia and India and all sort of places. It was an awkward thing that was going on but it was so beautiful."
By the mid-1980s, the market was serving an estimated 70,000 people each week. The store had outgrown its footprint, and Robert Blazer, who spent a lot of time bargaining with tow truck drivers who tried to haul off customers' cars — knew a new site was necessary. He purchased 100 acres along East Ponce de Leon Avenue, including the old Scottdale mill, and began personally designing and overseeing the construction of the market's next phase. Work crews, aided by some South Georgia farmers, graded and prepped the property for three years.
What resulted was a 100,000-square-foot rectangular store flanked by a parking lot with strict rules for traffic flow modeled after — and designed by the same company responsible for — Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport's lot. Upstairs included a giant auditorium that hosted company meetings, fundraisers. Now not only did the market finally boast refrigeration, but entire divisions set to different temperatures.
The years following the move to the Scottdale location would cement YDFM's reputation as a fundamental part of metro Atlanta's food culture, a haven for gourmets and the wildly diverse demographics changing the face of the region. But they also proved tumultuous for Blazer personally.
In 1987, his brother Harry left over what news reports describe as business and personal differences. Several months later, Harry Blazer opened "Harry's," his own mega-market in Alpharetta. The store leaned toward more high-end offerings and ready-to-eat meals. It soon spawned two other locations and a chain of smaller shops — and the occasional brother vs. brother news story in the local papers.
By many accounts, Harry's grew too fast. In the early 1990s, the company went public. Several years later, amid news reports of padlocked executive offices and boardroom disputes, Harry's appeared to be running into trouble. In 2001, the chain was purchased by Whole Foods. (Efforts to reach Harry Blazer, who several years ago opened a farmers market in Aurora, Colo., and now lives in Montana, were unsuccessful. Robert Blazer says they keep in touch and that, last he heard, his brother was racing cars. Internet search results show an involvement with a Montana-based music nonprofit.)
"He didn't start it for the community," Robert Blazer says. "He did it to show he was better. That's why he called it 'Harry's.' That's why I called it 'Your DeKalb Farmers Market.'"
Not long after Harry Blazer left the market, brother Robert had another worry on his hands. In 1988, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit on the behalf of eight former employees against the market alleging they were fired or forced to quit after they refused to follow the teachings of "the Forum," a motivational program developed by Werner Erhard, the leader of the controversial 1970s "est" movement. Blazer, who joined the self-help program at the suggestion of a customer (he and wife Barbara met at a Forum retreat in the Catskills Mountains), said the program had given him a strongly needed boost of self-confidence, and he denied the allegations through an attorney. The case was settled the following year later for an undisclosed sum.
"It played out the way it played out," says Blazer, who said he began to see the Forum's limitations. "It's not an esoteric cult, which is how it was played out to be. That's just not true."
Jilted by the lawsuit and struggling personally, he started searching for answers.
"I had a marriage fail with my son's mother, my reputation in the community was ruined by what people had said, the relationship with my brother and sister wasn't what I wanted," Blazer says.
As a child, he says, Blazer obsessed with understanding how people could better work together rather than compete — an interest that might have been triggered by watching his parents quarrel, often times over money. In business school he searched for months for a focus — and later a job — that involved organizational development, but to no avail.
"I couldn't understand why people had to compete with each other rather than work together," he says. "When we support each other, we do better."
In February 1989, around the same time his father was diagnosed with lung cancer, Robert had an epiphany while sitting at the desk in his office. He pulled out a pen and wrote "The Stand," a 78-word manifest that dictates what could create the "World Market."
"We declare that the world is designed to work," says the credo, a copy of which hangs outside the market between the two entrances. "We are responsible for what does not work. We make the difference. No matter how technologically advanced we become, we cannot escape our fundamental relationships with food and each other. The possibility of these relationships is the world market. In this context, the world works for everyone free of scarcity and suffering. We commit ourselves to the possibility this world market is for the future generations of this planet."
Two months later, after Blazer's father's death and more prayers, the market owner started finding answers to the questions he'd wrestled with his entire life. The philosophy serves as the foundation of the market's employment management system, part of which requires nearly all workers to pair up. Though Blazer declined to discuss specifics, it involves one person serving as the yin to another's yang, balancing out each other's talents. Employees wear a white or black dot to signify which they are. Over time, the workers, some of whom work together for years, naturally bond. Even the store's human resources managers Reti Canaj and Vaishali Desai work side by side, with desks pressed against one another.
The system, however unorthodox, is largely credited with helping effectively manage such a huge, sprawling operation, according to Blazer. For years Blazer and his wife have worked on a book about the system and the philosophy, which he plans to finish this year and release before the market's 36th anniversary next June.
How the market is able to provide such a large array of products and produce at such low prices is a study in slow, controlled growth and the perks of private ownership. Some of what's sold in the market is produced by its "World Direct" brand on farms either owned or contracted by the Blazers.
In South Mexico, the company partnered with a mango farm operated by retired professors that was losing money during the packaging process. Blazer's team came in with new equipment, taught them new methods of packaging, and both sides, he says, benefit.
Upstairs in the executive suite, just outside Robert and Barbara's office, nearly 30 employees work phones and follow shipments under a massive world map. The diverse team, some of whom have been working at the market for more than a decade, is in constant contact with transport companies and farms throughout the Western Hemisphere. Blazer's son from his first marriage, Daniel, a Woodruff Academy graduate who took a one-year break to learn the family business before attending Emory University, spearheads the wholesale and international side of the business. Fluent in Spanish, the younger Blazer maintains relations with and finds new farms.
Though today more than 80 percent of store employees are Ethiopian — their name tags list Amharic, the country's official language — the nationalities represented on the payroll read like a roll call at the United Nations. Waves of immigration tied to changes in easing of visa restrictions, famine, and political unrest have mirrored the nationalities of employees who clock in at YDFM. With its proximity to Clarkston, metro Atlanta's hot spot for refugee resettlement, the market has become the go-to first job for many newcomers. Many immigrants to the United States, says Brian Bollinger of World Relief Atlanta, a nonprofit organization that helps UN war refugees resettle, only have "90 days to go from zero to economically self-sufficient," a financial status the market helps them achieve.
"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.
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."