Argus Farm Stop: One-stop shopping for local food

Bill Brinkerhoff likes to shop and eat local, but he says doing so can entail "a scavenger hunt, almost."

"If you wanted to buy a dinner, you could go to the farmer's market for some things, you could kind of hunt out the local section of a store for another, you could call another farmer you know to arrange for something else," he says. "We just thought it was a little harder than it should be."

Brinkerhoff and Kathy Sample are the owners of the recently opened Argus Farm Stop, a year-round all-local market and coffee shop in downtown Ann Arbor. The married couple first hatched the idea last summer when they discovered a similar business, Local Roots, while dropping their son off at school in Wooster, Ohio. 

"When we saw it, we said 'Ann Arbor really needs a place like this,'" Sample says. "It was just a natural thing."

Less natural was the career transition Brinkerhoff, 49, and Sample, 53, were to embark on. After meeting while in business school at U-M, he worked in the startup phase of several biotech companies, she in industrial gases and the auto industry. But as they settled into middle age and an empty nest, they were ready to make a change. Sample says they did their research, consulting over 100 local farmers, real estate developers, city leaders and other community members.

"We were pretty methodical," Sample says. "We made a list and we said, 'Here are the things we've got to do. We need to find somebody who tells us this is a really bad idea.'"

Not hearing any such negative response, the couple went ahead and selected a site for the store –a former automotive garage at Liberty and 2nd Street. Brinkerhoff says the building checked off each item on their wish list for a location: "downtown, accessible by foot, affordable…cool and a little bit funky." 

The finished market is cozy and inviting, with an assortment of chairs and tables for customers to relax out front and decorative corn growing overhead on the roof. A coffee bar sits right inside the front door, and beyond that the market proper.

Produce, meats and dairy are each sorted by grower; Argus deals with 60 Michigan and Ohio producers, who set their own prices and take home 80 percent of the gross. The business is incorporated as a low-profit limited liability company, a legal entity bridging the gap between a non-profit and a traditional LLC.

While Argus might seem like a competitor to the Ann Arbor Farmers Market, Brinkerhoff and Sample intend for the two to complement each other in bringing customers to local producers. 

"It seemed like a good opportunity for people to get my product other than at farmers markets, because I'm only at markets two days a week," says Ann Arbor farmer Joan Ernst, who sells at Argus and the Ann Arbor Farmers Market. "Sometimes people can't get there, or they need something else on weekends."

Since Argus opened in August, Brinkerhoff and Sample say most of the surprises they've encountered have been good ones. They've had to restock their inventory more often than planned due to a very steady flow of customers, particularly on football Saturdays. Brinkerhoff says the couple had originally projected it would take 12 to 18 months to reach the kind of sales numbers they've already achieved.

Brinkerhoff and Sample say they feel relatively well prepared to tackle their first winter, due to the number of suppliers they work with who extend their growing seasons using greenhouses and hoop houses. If all goes well this winter, Sample says she wants to work on bringing educational programming to the farm stop in the spring–classes for adults, school visits for kids. Brinkerhoff says he and Sample are thrilled with how quickly they've "developed a place in the food community," and they want to keep stepping that up.

"More than 99 percent of food goes through the traditional channels now, and less than one percent is purchased directly from farms like we're doing here," he says. "So we're looking to join with any of the stores–big, large, the farmers markets–to increase that one percent in Ann Arbor."

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and lead writer for Metromode and Concentrate.

All photos by Doug Coombe

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