September 2016
Homeplace & Community

Family Farm-to-Fork

  Stacey Hardy with locally grown items in her restaurant; behind her is Katrina Watson, the chef.

The journey from Rosa Lee's homeplace to gourmet restaurant

As young girls, Stacey Hardy and Michelle Lowery Combs spent a tremendous amount of time on their grandmother’s farm in Cedar Springs between Jacksonville and Alexandria. When their grandmother, Rosa Lee, passed away in November 2011, the family faced not only the loss of their beloved grandmother but also the loss of the home place.

Divorced and struggling, Rosa Lee had worked to pay off the mortgage of the place earning $1.67 an hour as a mill worker. Unfortunately, she died without a will and family infighting resulted in plans for the place to be auctioned. Ten years before Rosa Lee’s death, older sister Michelle and her children lived in a mobile home on a level spot near the house where a chicken house once stood. At the time of the auction, Michelle wasn’t in a financial position to buy the place.

Younger sister Stacey and her husband, Rick, however, had means to save the farm. At the time, Stacey and Rick were operating a successful business called Wireless Expressions, which included AT&T retail stores across Alabama. She and Rick bought 25 acres of the property that included the house.

Once the family farm was secured, they got an offer from a larger AT&T dealer to buy their chain of stores.

"We went from 15 stores and 57 employees to suddenly having plenty of free time to rethink our future," Stacey recalled. "My husband bought a tractor to work our 25 acres that had been neglected for years, and I decided I wanted a tractor, too."

It was the purchase of his-and-hers tractors and the sale of their stores that led to PondeRosie Farms, which was named after the grandmother.

"Stacey and Rick started using planters to plant 320 foot rows of produce on 8 acres with no real game plan for harvesting all the produce that would come in at the same time," Michelle said. "This is where I and my family helped out harvesting 11 rows of green beans."

   
Stacey Hardy, center, with her son, Caleb Kunstmann, and family friend, Allegra Champion, at The Downtown Market selling produce.  

With all the produce that didn’t get eaten or canned, Stacey and Michelle decided to sell the excess from PonderRosie’s Farm at local farmers markets.

"This became a full-time job for us, including the seven children Stacey and I have between us," Michelle said. "I loved us being together as we watched the memory of our grandmother live on."

"We selected a large variety of different kinds of seeds just to see what would grow best in this area," Stacey said. "We were harvesting about 20 bushels of green beans each week from those 11 rows."

While working the farmers markets, Stacey and Michelle loved watching their kids interact with the customers about the vegetables they helped grow.

"Stacey was able to use her corporate world experience in sales, and I loved being together reliving my childhood experiences with my grandmother," Michelle said.

Through The Downtown Market located on Wilmer Street in Anniston, Stacey, Michelle and their children saw 700-800 people each Saturday as they sold their excess produce.

"Our best customer was Katrina Watson, a locally celebrated chef with an idea for a restaurant with the concept of farm-to-fork and gourmet-to-go," Stacey explained. "My husband and I were talking about the idea, and Katrina would bring by cooked food for us to eat each week. Once Rick ate Katrina’s banana pudding, he was convinced to invest in the restaurant."

This solitary bowl of banana pudding launched the brainchild of Katrina, one of the area’s most talented executive chefs, and Rosie’s Gourmet 2 Go was established using produce from PondeRosie Farm and other area farmers who sell at The Downtown Market.

Rosie’s Gourmet 2 Go officially opened in April 2016.

  Danann Combs, Michelle’s daughter, and a family friend, Jacie Champion, picking beans.

"Rosie’s was a natural move because my family has been so heavily involved in the local farmers markets," Stacey added. "We canned 350 quarts of green beans that first year, so I was used to the hard work that would go into the restaurant."

Rosie’s now employs 20 people. That helps the local economy and provides customers with fresh food grown locally.

"Just like the farm, our restaurant is operating seven days a week," Stacey continued. "People love our chicken salad, our homemade pimento cheese made from Wright’s Dairy Cheese, and meatloaf made from Gene Miller’s Grass Fed Beef."

On Sundays, Stacey and Katrina plan the menu for the week based on what is seasonally available. During the winter months when fresh, local produce is not available, Stacey and Katrina can keep selling.

"Many of our vegetables such as peas, corn, squash and okra will freeze well, and we can continue to offer healthy food all year," Stacey said.

Stacey is in the process of working with the health department officials and food agencies to be able to offer canned foods in the restaurant, as well.

If you are passing though Calhoun County, check out Rosie’s Gourmet 2 Go and sample their food choices. You can also try locally raised beef with the hamburger that won the Champion Best Burger of all local restaurants in that area.

Stacey says the local mayor and council have been extremely helpful with not only the support for the farmers market but they are also regular customers at the restaurant.

Rosie’s Gourmet 2 Go is located at 333 Henry Road on the newly opened 431 Eastern Bypass in Calhoun County. Their phone number is 256-342-5292 and you can visit them on Facebook where Michelle manages all social media. On Facebook, you can visit PondeRosie Farms or Rosie’s Gourmet 2 Go.

 

John Howle is a freelance writer from Heflin.