The 2017 South Carolina Female Small Business Person of the Year was a tie of sorts. Mary Walsh and Jacqueline Oliver, owners of the Swamp Rabbit Café and Grocery in Greenville, are this year’s recipients.
According to a news release from the Small Business Administration, Walsh and Oliver “represent a commitment to the community and the region by answering some of the food problems in their area.”
Located at 205 Cedar Lane Road, along the Swamp Rabbit Trail, the business is in a part of town that was designated as a food desert by the United States Department of Agriculture, meaning residents in the area didn’t have access to fresh, healthy foods within a two-mile radius.
“We saw a big gap in the market of a place to go and get food from farmers and fresh baked goods, that you could also get to and from safely, be it by bicycle or walking,” Walsh told GSA Business Report. “We set out with a goal to sell local food, and to make really good food.”
The building had been condemned and the property was going to be turned into a scrap metal yard. Walsh happened to know the landlord who took an interest in the idea of doing something else with the property.
“He really believed in revitalizing the area, and so he believed in us,” Walsh said.
At the onset of the business, Walsh and Oliver spent long hours just getting started, working 16-hour days.
“I would come in at like 5 a.m. or 6 a.m. to bake, and we would start getting deliveries at like 7 a.m.,” Walsh said.
“And I would stay until 11:30 at night,” Oliver said. “It’s like the typical small business story.”
The Swamp Rabbit Café and Grocery now employs about 50 people, with most part-time, Walsh said. And in addition to growing the employee number, Walsh and Oliver also have expanded the site and offerings over the years.
In 2013 Walsh and Oliver expanded the kitchen and last year expanded the grocery store to an upper level, with the café and seating on the main level. And this year they began offering pizza.
Walsh said they buy fresh local products from 175 small farms, and other items, like crackers and chocolate, from another 100 vendors. If they can’t get items locally, they make sure they are organic, like bananas and avocados. And everything is labeled in the grocery so customers will know where the food comes from, she said.
Oliver said they initially had to look at lists of farmers and travel to a bunch of different places to cultivate suppliers. “Now customers will recommend suppliers or they’ll reach out to us,” Oliver said.
The two owners know the value of their local suppliers and they share that with their employees. Every two weeks “we visit at least one farm and take the staff too so they can meet the farmers and see where everything comes from,” Walsh said. “Our goal is to visit four farms a month.”
What’s next for the Swamp Rabbit Café and Grocery? A butchery offering fresh local meat. Walsh and Oliver expect it to be operational by the end of the year.