Turnip Truck Celebrates 20 Years of Healthy Shopping
After two decades, the grocer remains instrumental in bringing local products to the market
PHOTO: DANIEL MEIGS
Two decades ago, the local landscape for anyone searching for organic and local groceries was pretty bleak. Kroger stocked more generic Cost Cutter beer than organic produce, and Whole Foods had yet to roll into town to separate desperate shoppers from a good portion of their paychecks. John Dyke found himself frequently schlepping across the river from his home in East Nashville’s Edgefield neighborhood to shop at Sunshine Grocery on Belmont Boulevard, and he noticed something intriguing.
“I wasn’t that educated in natural foods at the time, but I did shop at Sunshine,” says Dyke. “Then I saw that there were so many of my neighbors shopping there that I thought, ‘East Nashville needs a store like this!’ ”
That idea was the seed that would ultimately grow into Turnip Truck.
PHOTO: DANIEL MEIGS
Stepping away from his career in surgical supply sales, Dyke reached back to his youth growing up on a farm in East Tennessee for more inspiration. “I was in my 30s the first time I felt like I’d found my passion,” he says. Dyke spent his time attending organic food conferences and educational seminars to learn about the burgeoning industry. “I fell in love with local organic produce, and I felt like a kid in a candy store.”
He leaned on his East Side neighbors for advice as he put his business plan together. “I reached out to see what they wanted,” says Dyke. “Turnip Truck has been a gift to me and a gift to the neighborhood. I happen to own it, but it’s the neighborhood’s store. I just kept slowly building it.”
The building on the edge of the Five Points neighborhood that would eventually house the original Turnip Truck also helped shape Dyke’s business model. “It was an H.G. Hill grocery store in the early 1900s, and I was fascinated by how the Hill family ran their stores,” explains Dyke. “They always located their stores on the right side of the road on the way home from work, often at the top of trolley lines. They sourced a lot of local stuff, buying seasonal products from farmers who grew for these small local stores in the days before chemicals were used in produce. I felt like I was completing the full circle that was coming back around.”
In 2001, Turnip Truck hosted one of Nashville’s first neighborhood farmers markets in its parking lot to help create awareness and demand around locally sourced products. Dyke was also an active member of the Tennessee Organic Growers Association and was instrumental in developing what he calls a “clean list” of ingredients that drive the merchandising at his stores — now expanded to three locations in East Nashville, the Gulch and Sylvan Park. “I started out with organic and natural, plus no hormones or additives, and local whenever possible,” says Dyke.
Turnip Truck COO Kim Totzke explains why this list is so important to the store and to shoppers. “It’s a big part of our core mission,” she says. “Because of that unacceptable ingredients list, shoppers don’t have to look at the back of the box, since we can’t bring it into the store unless it’s a clean product. We take a lot of care in sourcing.”
Totzke has been instrumental in the Turnip Truck’s expansion efforts. Soon after opening his second store in the Gulch in 2010, Dyke realized that he needed some professional help. “I was running two stores, doing all the buying and concentrating on keeping excellent relationships with our employees,” he says. “But I had to start trusting other people to take on responsibility. It was a hard lesson.”
Dyke knew Totzke as an East Nashville neighbor and had worked with her and Adam Williams when the duo ran operations for Provence, whose main production bakery at the time was right across the street from Dyke’s new Gulch store. “I’ve seen visionaries/founders/CEOs build great businesses,” explains Totzke, “and eventually they reach the point where they’re wearing too many hats. John realized that he had grown the business to the point where he couldn’t teach everyone everything anymore, so he brought Adam and I on so that he could focus on innovation, and we could establish the operating procedures and structures to support his entrepreneurship.”
With Totzke handling operations and Williams managing finance and technology as CFO, the trio has developed into something of a dream team. “We’re a good three-legged stool,” jokes Totkze. “We let John dream and plan for innovation and expansion. Adam figures out how we can pay for it, and I figure out how to execute it all. It’s going really well, and it’s nice to see John make suggestions and see them happen.”
PHOTO: DANIEL MEIGS
“I do miss the customer interaction on the floor and working directly with employees,” says Dyke, referencing Turnip Truck’s early days. “But I’m proud that we have built a business that can help people lead a healthier life.”
Another unheralded benefit that Turnip Truck has contributed to the city has been introducing shoppers to local purveyors and artisans who might have previously only been able to sell their products under a 10-by-10 tent in a field somewhere at a market or crafts fair. “People really want local,” says Totzke, “and we want to be Nashville’s grocery store. Our local program has an enormous number of vendors, even if it complicates the buying process. Every item we buy from a small vendor means a separate purchase order, as opposed to a big vendor where we can order a whole pallet of products with a single P.O. But it’s really important to us and our customers, and we like to offer a choice in who you’re doing business with.”
Some local heroes Turnip Truck has been instrumental in bringing to the market include Professor Bailey’s Pimento Cheese, TN Homegrown CBD, Delvin Farms, Ousley Ouch salsas, The Honey Pot personal hygiene products, Blister Hot Sauce and many others. Dyke notes that there’s an inherent difficulty involved with helping raise the visibility of these smaller purveyors. “Once they get discovered, there can be a huge demand to buy directly from them at farmers markets,” he says. “And sometimes we get left out and have to beg for more product for our stores. Still, it feels good to know that as we grow, the community is growing around us.”
PHOTO: DANIEL MEIGS
Dyke also demonstrates his commitment to the community through behind-the-scenes initiatives in his business. The new Sylvan Park store retrofitted its power grid to generate 15 percent of the building’s electrical needs from solar panels that cover almost every square inch of the roof. The current East Nashville outpost — which relocated a few blocks from the original East Side spot in 2016 — has hosted a number of beehives on the roof, until last year’s tornado blew most of them away. “We had grown from one to 10 hives,” recalls Dyke, “but the storm took out all but three of them. We’re installing new hives to regrow the colony and renovating the East Nashville store to include native plants as part of a biodiverse community with the bees.” Turnip Truck will sell honey inside the store and feature some of the bees’ products at their juice bar as well.
Having grown up on a cattle farm, Dyke has always been interested in beef, and he recently purchased a small operation named Richland Hills Farm where he will raise grass-fed beef to sell through the Southern Natural Farms brand. “I love the land,” he says. “It gives me peace. I didn’t intend to farm beef cattle; I thought I’d grow produce. But I’ve been reading about regenerative agriculture and want to concentrate on raising the beef and cultivating the grass underneath them as a CO2 filter that they graze on.”
To celebrate 20 years in business, Turnip Truck has a series called 20 Days of Giving planned for May. Follow them on social media to discover the daily schedule, including $100 gift card giveaways, surprise cart purchases, free soup and sandwich offers from the food bar, deals from their butcher selections and supplement specials.
“The sales will be crazy,” promises Totzke. “We want to give a reason every day for 20 days that you’ll want to come in for.” They’ll also be donating products to local organizations like local outreach organization The Store and raising funds to donate to schools.
“We’re excited to be heading into our 21st year, so we’re giving away stuff and giving back to the community,” says Dyke. “They’re the ones that have given me the gift to make it 20 years.”