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Business Spotlight: Market Made Local

Rountree’s Culture Counter aims to move beyond last year’s challenges

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Culture Counter owner Bryce Gott doesn’t deny the hardships his grocery market and cafe experienced in 2021, as the store’s first full year in business ended short of revenue projections.

Still, he’s hopeful that the impact last year by the coronavirus pandemic and a lengthy road construction project within walking distance from his 607 E. Pickwick Ave. shop in the Rountree neighborhood won’t spill into 2022.

“They were well below expectations as COVID and construction didn’t give me a true reading,” he says of $250,000 in revenue for 2021. “This year should really give us a clearer picture of what’s possible. Ideally, I’d like to be in the half a million range.”

The June 2020 opening of Culture Counter marked the second neighborhood grocery to launch in the 1,300-square-foot space in the span of a decade. Ryan and Amanda Owens started Homegrown Food in 2010 and shuttered it in 2018. The couple maintained ownership of the building and Gott signed a three-year lease for an undisclosed rate with them in 2019.

“It was this space or bust. I wasn’t really looking to get it started in other places,” says Gott, who grew up in Rountree. “I wanted to keep that as a resource for the neighborhood.”

Gott moved back to Springfield in 2017 after three years in Portland, Oregon, with the goal of “connecting people with the earth,” which inspired the market and cafe concept.

Fresh format
The cafe serves breakfast and lunch, including soup, salad and a waffle bar, and has a half-dozen indoor tables and counter seating, along with outdoor space it shares with Cherry Picker Package and Fare. Gott says he first connected with his landlords through Cherry Picker co-owner Josh Widner, a friend since kindergarten. A walk-up window sells drinks, such as cold-press juices and kombucha, as well as ice cream.

“My elevator pitch when someone new comes in is this is a fresh-format market and cafe,” Gott says. “Everything on our shelves is locally sourced or certified organic. We upcycle those goods through our kitchen to make all of our foods and drinks. A large majority of the ingredients that are going into our food come from what’s on the shelves – the same food that you’re buying.”

Head chef Dylan Cody leads the kitchen, which produces grab-and-go items, such as salads, hummus, pesto and peace patties. Gott says the patties are like falafel and include cashews, carrots, onions and quinoa served with a chili cashew cream.

Roughly 25 vendors have products for sale in the market, including Springfield-based Urban Roots LLC, Date Lady Inc. and Prairie Pie LLC. Gott notes there’s “plenty of opportunity” to build the store up with more local product. That could include items currently not being made locally. For example, he says the store doesn’t carry potato chips because they’re single packaged and there aren’t any local manufacturers making them.

“Hopefully, somebody gets the idea that there’s room in the market and creates that,” he says. “My rule of thumb is anything that is a prepackaged product that we’re not making in house here is a local product.”

Aside from being a regular customer, Jake Herren also is one of Culture Counter’s vendors. The owner of Jake’s Burgers supplies the shop with meat-free alternatives for its freezer section, and these include burgers, breakfast sausage patties, Italian sausage grounds and vegan butter.

“I have all of my products that are commercially available for sale there,” Herren says, noting he fills new orders for Culture Counter every couple of weeks.

Order sizes average roughly six packages of each product, he says, declining to disclose pricing.

“If it wasn’t for places like Culture Counter that are small and willing to take a chance on new local products like me, I wouldn’t be in business,” he says.

Rountree residents make up around 50% of the customer base, Gott says, and the shop brings in a lot of visitors from nearby towns. These people are seeking healthy foods or have specific dietary needs.

Navigating hurdles
Gott says the path to open Culture Counter took longer and cost more than he expected. He did a lot of the renovation and infill work himself, and combined with the pandemic, pushed the opening months past the original plan. Startup costs exceeded the original $125,000 estimate.

“It was considerably more; I would say that,” he says. “The pandemic held us up for a little bit. We just didn’t want to jump the gun if things were going to be shutting down.”

To Gott’s surprise, the city’s construction for a traffic-calming project in Rountree last year was more damaging to his business than COVID. It became difficult for those outside the neighborhood to access his shop due to road closures.

“First, it was the gas and water lines that they replaced. Then it was the traffic calming stuff,” he says.

“All told, that took about five months away from us, and sales from that were actually down 20%-25% month over month compared to our first year, which was during the pandemic, when we had no idea what we were doing.”

Construction wrapped in October, and Gott says he’s excited to move forward on some new ideas when weather warms. One of those is in-store vendor popup events, which he envisions as a miniature farmers market that could be in collaboration with drinks served by Cherry Picker. Expanding the made-to-order food options also is in the works.

“We’d also like to do some educational workshops centered around food but not exclusively so,” he says, adding farming and permaculture are among topics under consideration.

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