Once a week, on a sun-bleached highway running through the mountains of Central Colorado, a truck driver pulls into the Mosca Pit Stop for a refuel. It's a daily run for Bill Clark Trucking, but on Thursdays that refuel comes with an extra load—fresh foods dropped off the evening before by a handful of local farmers, packed into the gas station's walk-in until their morning ride arrives.
That food is on its way to market in the town of Salida, population 5,300. Oh, and it gets there on $25 and the good will of a growing and tenacious Colorado community.
It was day five of their cross-country road trip when Kerry and David Nelson rolled into Salida. They'd just taken a year off from their jobs in Philly to travel the country, and finding a place in the Southwest where they could eventually lay down roots wasn't far from their minds. It turned out to be an easier process than they could've imagined—for the Nelsons, Salida had it all: a thriving, receptive community, an active arts scene, and a stunning mountain vista.
And then, of course, there was the "Blue Beast," a 4,000 square foot building on the outskirts of town, in desperate need of repair. "For us, buying buildings was like buying a pair of shoes," explains Kerry, who'd spent years working in property development on the East Coast. The purchase, it turns out, was the easy part—deciding what to do with the space was the real challenge.
As with many small towns in rural America, jobs in Salida are scarce; the median household income is $24,000. Kerry and David only knew that they wanted to transform the building into a vital element of the local economy. How could they create a small business that would not only
Then they realized that the answer had been right in front of them all along. Literally.
Their eureka moment struck when they were gazing across the street at the Safeway, the town's main supermarket. Why not create an alternative to imported produce and processed goods? One that would offer more consistent hours and options than a farmer's market, all at reasonable, accessible rates. A whole lot of research and legwork later, and the Nelsons had begun forging relationships—and a shared vision—with dairy and vegetable farmers, orchards, and packaged goods producers in the surrounding area, many of whom were struggling to make a decent living.
The Blue Beast is now known as Ploughboy, a year-round marketplace that sells local, sustainably produced and distributed foods. That means pastured meats, organic produce, and hacked trucking and transportation. "My vision was to have a Whole Foods, only real," Kerry (the store's sole owner) elaborates. And sure enough, since opening in 2010, Kerry and David have managed to tap into a vast network of local producers. Not only are the majority of products sourced from within 100 miles of the store, but all come from within Colorado. If that sounds like a tired theme, consider this: to the best of her knowledge, Kerry says her store is the only one in Colorado to exclusively sell in-state goods.
When Kerry designed the space, she also decided to include a fairly large commercial kitchen on the property. "We wanted people to have a spot to start their business," she explained. "Sort of like an incubator kitchen." That kitchen is now home to the Salida Bread Company, an independently owned and operated small-batch bakery that has the benefit of operating within the space that markets its goods (and at no extra cost, to boot). This fall also saw the opening of North Fork Cellars, a tasting room featuring Colorado wines, ciders, and even a selection of honey meades. With a burgeoning roster of community workshops and events, David and Kerry seem to be making rapid strides toward realizing their goal of small-scale revitalization.
"My goal is one million dollars in revenue," Kerry proclaimed. "90 percent of the dollars we spend go right back into Central Colorado." In 2012, that meant a gross revenue of $580,000, $526,250 of which was spent locally. With any luck, it won't be much longer before Ploughboy doubles those numbers.
Ploughboy is a finalist for the people's choice 2013 Nature's Plate Award presented by The Nature Conservancy. To support their efforts, vote here!
About the author: Niki Achitoff-Gray is the associate editor of Serious Eats and a recent graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education. She's pretty big into oysters, offal, and most edible things. You can follow her on Twitter at @eatandcry.