Chain grocery stores won’t go near Poolesville. The town of 5,000 is too small to support a big supermarket.
But three days a week, Monica Bulat opens the doors of Mixed Greens Market, the nonprofit local store she started in July, selling everything from locally grown lettuce to mint-chocolate vegan cupcakes. She has been expanding her product lines — and her hours.
As large chains have eschewed opening a location in Poolesville, she and customers have made do, pioneering a model of how small communities might obtain their food in the future.
“It’s more of a communal social experiment,” she told a customer on a recent Saturday.
A year ago, Poolesville’s only grocery store, Selby’s Market, closed. Some of the main causes were a lack of town growth, higher costs and dwindling customer support, said Roy Selby, whose father and uncle opened the store in 1946.
“I feel bad for the community. The town needs a grocery store. But I don’t know what the prospects are,” he said.
“Poolesville’s size had something to do with [having to close] — it’s growing now. Had it been five or six years ago, like now, I might still be there. But I can’t guarantee it,” he said.
Bulat said she started asking residents, “If I opened a store, what would you want?”
She found a space after partnering with Steve Goldberg, who runs Hearthside Home and Garden, an antiques and gardening store on one of the main roads in town.
“I just thought there was a similarity between the type of client who would want an organic vegetable or herb plant in their garden or who would purchase antiques and a person who would like locally sourced products,” he said.
He let Bulat use a section of his store. A pile of pumpkins adorned a table at the store’s entrance. Donated freezers held packets of ground beef and lamb and other vacuum-packed cuts of meats. Against a cabinet in the back of the space was a stand of salad dressings and sauces by the fourth-generation company McCutcheon’s. Next to Bulat’s checkout counter, there was another fridge for her milks, eggs and yogurt.
There were vegan cupcakes, specialty goat cheese and carefully packed bags of greens — swiss chard, spinach and lettuce freshly picked from a greenhouse.
Bulat started posting her products and store hours on the town’s 1,200-member community Facebook page, using it as a way to gauge what people wanted and whether they’d really give a new grocery store a chance.
She opened in mid-July, operating on Saturdays and Sundays.
By August, she upped the store’s schedule to three days a week and in February will expand to four days, she said. She sells about $800 to $1,000 of food a week, she said. To rise above that, she will have to expand.
“Since we added the dairy component, our business has gone up a third,” said James “Chef Jim” Woods, who works with Bulat.
A box of lettuce runs $4.50. Half-gallon cartons of organic milk are $5.
Ultimately, she hopes to pay herself a salary, but it depends on Mixed Greens’ sales revenue and whether or not her board will be able to afford to pay for her, she said.
“I know I’m not going to be everything for everyone,” she said. But she said she hopes Mixed Greens could become a community-owned and -run cooperative.
Virginia Marshall, a longtime resident and teacher at Poolesville High School, lived close enough to the town’s old grocery store that she could walk to get her food every day. When it closed, it left her in a tight spot.
The new market opening, she said, “has been a godsend.”