Two weeks before Turnip Truck founder John D**e was scheduled to open his third natural grocery market in Nashville, Tennessee, tragedy struck. Times two.
First, deadly tornadoes ripped through the city, destroying homes and taking 25 lives. In its path of destruction was a warehouse full of thousands of dollars worth of fixtures waiting to be installed in the new store. D**e salvaged what he could while his staff kept the flagship store running on generator power in hard-hit East Nashville.
Less than two weeks later, the COVID-19 outbreak caused schools and businesses to close. Unemployment skyrocketed, and toilet paper seemingly vanished from the face of the earth. D**e said his upbringing on an East Tennessee farm prepared him to adapt to the unexpected.
“On the farm, you get up early, assess, and decide what needs to happen that day,” he said. “After you get the tobacco planted, then you have to get the corn out; on another day you need to be in the hay field bailing hay. That’s the farm life. You have to adapt to survive.”
D**e launched the Turnip Truck in East Nashville in 2001, hoping to bring the delicious organic foods he grew up eating to his neighborhood, and a wider population. Eight years later, he opened a second location in Nashville’s burgeoning Gulch area near downtown. He purchased the former Cash & Carry on the west side for $5 million, and began construction in 2019. Unfortunately, March 2020 brought more challenges than expected.
“In early March, I noticed customers were really loading up their carts, buying triple what they normally would,” he said. “For about three or four weeks people were stockpiling and we had to really pivot. There were a lot of moving parts at that time.”
As customers panic-shopped, D**e adjusted the inventory at the East Nashville and Gulch locations based on what was available from distributors and farmers, and increased the number of orders to maintain supply. With the hot bar and salad bar shuttered, he shifted deli employees to the register and to the stockroom to keep lines moving and shelves full.
“We had to flip twice the size of our usual order within a matter of hours every single day so customers could shop,” he said. “Throughout the day, we had to be backstocking, making sure we were staying out of the way but having the product on the shelf. Through all this, our standard operating procedure had to be looked at every single morning. We had to discuss how we were going to adapt to the challenges before us, and as a collective group, we did it.”
D**e was focused on the customers’ needs, but he also was keeping a close watch on his frontline workers.
“I was checking in with employees every day because many were still dealing with the impact of the tornado and now being hit with the COVID crisis,” he said. “Everyone was scared. You just didn’t know what was coming through the front door.”
To protect his staff and customers, D**e outfitted the stores with hand sanitizer stations and cash registers were upgraded with plexiglass shields. He talked to employees about wearing face masks and social distancing. He encouraged them to reach out if they needed a break or just needed to talk.
Meanwhile, on the west side, a core team of employees were working 12 hour days preparing for the grand opening. With state and local permit offices closed, D**e worked the phones to make sure the appropriate signatures were in place.
“The city got behind us. We told them we needed to get groceries out to the community and they really got behind us to help us get it opened,” he said.
He also scrambled to hire an additional 40 employees within a 24-hour time span, just before the store opened on March 27.
“We knew we had a store that was ready to go for the neighborhood and we wanted to offer the community another outlet for getting their food,” D**e said. “I’m so proud to work with people that are so incredible you can stand back and just let them do their job. My team is the best.”
As pandemic concerns escalated, D**e realized his customers needed to be able to shop online and have their food delivered. He and his team quickly launched a partnership with online food delivery service Mercato.
“That was a job and a half,” D**e said. “It took us about a week to learn how to shop for a customer and pack it up properly and make sure it was right.”
D**e was also in constant contact with the local farmers who supply produce, milk, meat, cheese and eggs to his stores.
“I heard one farmer say this has been one of the best years for their weekly CSA (community supported agriculture) program, which I think is outstanding,” he said. “But there are others who are struggling. The local dairies are suffering because they are not able to supply restaurants. I’m so glad that we have these local partners. These farmers are what make the Turnip Truck great. We want them to thrive.”
D**e’s heart for local farmers is directly connected to that East Tennessee farm where he grew up, enjoying natural foods only a family farm can produce.
“There is nothing better-tasting than an heirloom tomato, or as we call it, an ‘ugly tomato,’” he said. “There’s nothing like a muskmelon. So sweet and juicy. When you know what real food is supposed to taste like, you never want anything else. Our goal is to serve as a community store, offering real, whole foods to our neighbors. I’m proud of our staff that together we are doing that.”
In the weeks that followed, D**e had another important collaboration that was affected by the precarious times: his wedding. Originally, he and his partner Gabriel LaDuke planned to fly to Hawaii in early July to marry on a sun-drenched beach. It was not to be. New spikes in COVID-19 cases across the country prompted new restrictions for travel and socializing. They decided it wasn’t worth the risk.
on a Sunday afternoon in May, with just a minister and his wife in attendance. Afterward, the newly betrothed feasted on oysters, prime rib and braised collard greens at Deacons New South with two other couples.
“It was a COVID wedding,” he said. “But it felt so right. It was so sweet, so authentic and genuine. We had friends around us, and the food was amazing, so it really was perfect.”
This article has been supported by a grant from the Facebook Journalism Project for COVID-19 coverage.