HOLD ME CLOSER, TINY GROCER

'Tiny' grocery store and eatery squeezes into South Austin neighborhood

Tiny grocery store and eatery squeezes into South Austin neighborhood

Farm to Market Grocery South Congress Austin
Tiny Grocer is taking over the former Farm to Market Grocery space on South Congress Avenue.  Farm to Market Grocery/Facebook

Not-so-tiny changes are underway at the former site of neighborhood shop Farm to Market Grocery. But never fear, Austin, as much about the incoming concept will be in the spirit of the South Congress staple, which closed in November after 15 years in business.

Hospitality industry vet Steph Steele purchased Farm to Market, located at 1718 S. Congress Ave., from owner Peg McCoy December 1, with plans to open a neighborhood market of her own in the space. But the idea for Steele’s Tiny Grocer, which she hopes to open in February ahead of Valentine’s Day, has been in the works for much longer.

“Peg and I have been talking about this for two years,” Steele says, noting the two met March 10 to finalize paperwork, but that plans changed with the onset of the pandemic. “In October, I suddenly had an inkling I should check back in with Peg. And sure enough, she was starting to sell the business. … We were able to negotiate and make it work.”

Farm to Market's closing, though coming at the end of a notably difficult year for small businesses, was not brought on by the pandemic. Rather, the shop — and the grocery sector, in general — have flourished this year.

“Peg was 100 percent not put out of business by the pandemic,” Steele says. “She just wanted to retire.”

Steele, who spent 25 years with Whole Foods Market and recently partnered with McGuire Moorman Hospitality on the Swedish Hill refresh, is an expert in the grocery and hospitality industries, but she’s quick to credit McCoy for her innovations. Tiny Grocer, Steele says, will be an updated neighborhood shop while honoring Farm to Market’s significance in the community.

Construction and renovations recently began on Tiny Grocer, with Steele making intentional design choices that speak to both aesthetics and functionality. In addition to replacing the vinyl flooring with polished cement, adding wooden cabinets, and painting the space white to evoke a pristine feel, she’s also repurposing a somewhat hidden door in the space into a serving window to the street, which will allow her to serve quick-grab items like coffee, matcha, pastries, and soft-serve ice cream to sidewalk customers — an added benefit for patrons not wanting to shop inside during a pandemic. Likewise, she may add a grocery delivery service for neighborhood customers who aren’t venturing out much these days.  

As for Farm to Market’s well-known radish sign, Steele plans to replace the outdoor signage with a Tiny Grocer sign, and will have an additional indoor sign featuring her shop’s tagline — “Hold me closer, Tiny Grocer” — but she also aims to pay homage to McCoy and Farm to Market by repurposing and displaying the former store’s neon radish open/close sign in the redesigned space.

Tiny Grocer will carry an assortment of sandwiches and premade salads, as well as deli offerings like cheese and charcuterie, and the wine to pair with them. Steele says she plans to source from local farmers and partner with other local brands when possible. To that end, she says Tiny Grocer will carry Rebecca Meeker’s Lucky Lime products, as well as coconut-milk-based ice cream from Sweet Ritual.

In addition to Steele’s focus on local products, her deep industry ties have enabled her to tap other established experts — a “powerhouse of a team,” she says —  to ensure Tiny Grocer evolves into the concept she’s dreamed about for years. Chef Page Pressley of Emmer & Rye and Uchiko fame is helping with recipes and menu development, and a couple of her longtime fellow Whole Foods colleagues have joined the team, including Jason Sprague, who will take point on the management side of things.

While opening a business during a pandemic certainly provides its challenges, Steele is eager to let her future customers and employees know she is taking great pains to make Tiny Grocer a safe and clean environment. She’s swapped out the air-handling system with one featuring UV light and will place touchless hand sanitizer stations throughout the shop.

“It’s a weird time to open a business, I know,” Steele says, noting she has great hope for 2021. “But let’s thrive. For other entrepreneurs, if you have had a plan and it’s a solid plan and it’s the right time for you, depending on the concept, let’s get out there and continue to make Austin thrive with small businesses. Let’s champion small businesses and let’s work together.”