Essential Business – A Business Journals Special Report: Small Business, Big Mission
Neither a tornado nor the COVID-19 pandemic could derail the Turnip Truck’s expansion plans
Nashville Business Journal
By Marq Burnett
May 27, 2020, 10:58pm EDT
During the first five years, John Dyke exhausted every ounce of energy and used every penny he had.
He tapped into his home equity “a couple of times” to keep his business afloat. He often worked 10- to 12-hour days, seven days a week. There were even countless times when feeding himself meant buying and eating what Dyke calls “expired product that I knew was still good.”
“Instead of having the loss, I would put my own money back into the store and I would eat any of the loss,” Dyke said. “I did that for a very long time. It kept the store healthy.”
This month marks 19 years of Dyke owning The Turnip Truck, a trio of local grocery stores in Nashville built around natural foods. He’s a long way from the days of having to “eat any of the loss.”
But similar to his time opening the first Turnip Truck, the March 3 tornado and Covid-19 forced Dyke back into working 10 to 12 hours, seven days a week.
The Turnip Truck is considered an essential business and has remained busy throughout the coronavirus lockdown.
Initially, Dyke couldn’t devote all his attention to Covid-19 because he spent early March dealing with the tornado that struck Nashville and Middle Tennessee. He spent six or seven days digging out equipment from his warehouse that took a direct hit.
But one day, he had to pause as he saw a spike in sales.
“How we noticed the impact of Covid-19 was the customers coming in and the basket sizes they were buying had almost tripled at that time,” Dyke said. “I knew that it was here, and people were showing it with their shopping.”
Amid this crisis, Dyke has added more shelves and hired more employees. At the beginning of quarantine in March, Dyke opened The Turnip Truck’s third location, a store in West Nashville. He also introduced an e-commerce platform and announced the stores would be hiring 30 employees.
One area of the business that has been hurt the most is The Turnip Truck’s food-service stations, which include hot and salad bars. While the stations account for 20% of his business, Dyke closed them for safety reasons. Dyke said reopening the stations in the short term means having employees pre-pack salads and other meals to avoid them becoming high-touch points.
While the circumstances are tough, Dyke remains willing to do whatever is necessary to save his business and provide what he believes to be a necessary service.
“I love this business. It’s the first thing I’ve ever done in my life where I feel like I’m giving back to the community,” Dyke said. “You can go to other grocery stores. But when you come into The Turnip Truck, we care about your lifestyle. We care about your health. People come in here looking for answers on how to make themselves feel better, and how to have a healthier lifestyle. It makes me happy to be able to serve them.”
Dyke opened The Turnip Truck in May 2001 after more than a decade in medical sales. Dyke had grown tired of the grueling travel schedule that kept him on the road for five days each week.
Dyke spent his formative years on a family farm in Greenville, Tennessee. That’s where his love for natural foods began.
It culminated three years prior to opening The Turnip Truck as Dyke immersed himself in the natural food industry by reading literature and attending every natural food expo he could.
“It reminded me of all the fresh gardening we did growing up,” Dyke said. “How much was raised. How much was canned. It reminded me that all the food I ate as a kid was grown outside my house or across the street. From spring on to summer, there was some sort of crop coming in. I always go back to the tomatoes: Some of the best tomatoes are homegrown. That was the best part of the year, getting a homegrown tomato out of your garden during that time because it tastes so much better. They had full flavor, they were juicy and they tasted like what a tomato should taste like.”
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