May 20, 2021
John Dyke knew a store like The Turnip Truck could work in his neighborhood.
Before the store opened in 2001, he knew of just one other all-natural grocery store in Nashville, Sunshine Grocery. It was a bit of a haul to drive from his home in East Nashville to Belmont Boulevard, but Dyke — who grew up on a farm in Greeneville, Tennessee — thought the drive was worth it if he could pick up fresh, locally-sourced groceries.
The more he shopped there, the more he saw his East Nashville neighbors shopping alongside him.
“I fell in love with that little grocery store,” Dyke said. “I really thought that East Nashville deserved the same thing that Belmont Boulevard had.”
The original Turnip Truck on Woodland Street celebrates its 20th anniversary this month, and the all-natural, locally-owned grocer has developed a cult following as it’s added stores in the Gulch and West Nashville. Nashville’s grocery scene has changed in the past two decades, with national chains such as Publix, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods replacing standbys such as Sunshine Grocery.
But Dyke said the Turnip Truck — and the community that’s blossomed around it — is ready to keep growing for years to come.
“I truly believe that we are the local grocer,” Dyke said. “We’re the local person that connects the consumer back to the farmer.”
“I have found something that I absolutely love doing every single day.” – John Dyke
On a visit in May, the West Nashville store was stocked with Tennessee-grown items ranging from strawberries and salads to beef and milk. Products are sourced locally whenever possible, and the store rigorously vets suppliers to make sure their offerings are free from “unnecessary” additives.
“I love the selection, and we’re supporting a lot of local people with our groceries. I just think it’s great quality,” said regular shopper Chip Parrott. “It’s kind of (like) going to a farmers’ market but air-conditioned.”
Dyke said 2020 was the toughest year for The Turnip Truck since it opened. The March 3 tornado delayed the opening of their Charlotte Avenue store, and the onset of the coronavirus pandemic created an unprecedented demand for grocery stores, especially early on.
Dyke’s team kept trucking, and the new store opened on March 27, 2020. Throughout the pandemic, the stores added new safety protocols, online ordering and delivery options and supported organizations such as the Second Harvest Food Bank and Nashville Food Project.
“2020 was a heavy burden, but I know that I can help with my amazing team,” Dyke said. “We made the changes necessary on a daily basis.”
One member of that “amazing team” is Dolly Patton-Thomas, who wears a nametag labeled “Miss Dolly.” She started working at The Turnip Truck 13 years ago, and her time there inspired her to start an obesity-focused nonprofit and get a nutrition degree from Belmont University.
“John has been so supportive. Whatever crazy idea I come up with, he believes in me,” Patton-Thomas said. “Local businesses can help you build your dreams, which in turn inspired me.”
That attitude is important to customers like Erika Montijo.
“They vet their suppliers. They pay and treat their people fairly,” Montijo said while shopping at the Charlotte Avenue store. “The money is spent here and stays here.”
Dyke said he’s not worried about the arrival of large national chains. The store has a unique role in Nashville; as he likes to tell customers, “It’s y’all’s store — we just happen to own it.”
“We have a special type of customer,” Dyke said. “What we need to do is develop more customers like that and develop that amazing relationship connecting them back to the food and what they’re taking home.”
That might not always be easy, but Dyke said he’s in it for the long haul.
“I have found something that I absolutely love doing every single day,” Dyke said. “I wake up every day, and that feels really good to know that you’re helping someone.”