Deena C. Bouknight Contributing Writer
Alan and Hannah Edwards, founders and owners of Yonder, a farm-to-table kitschy café concept that gained a quick and loyal following in its almost two years of operation, had to regroup when the March shelter-in-place Phase I mandate in North Carolina determined that restaurants could not seat customers. Since their 90% locally sourced breakfast and lunch menu items were made to order and their space in the Crystal Falls shopping center on Highway 441 was small, the couple determined they would not be able to feasibly meet take-out order demands. Instead, within a week after the pandemic mandate went into effect, the Edwards began offering an online-ordering Yonder Farmers Market opportunity at www.eatrealfoodinc.com so customers could pick and choose items from local sources. Customers ordered produce grown locally, farm-raised meats, honey, vegetable plants, jams, and more and were given a time slot to pick up the order, which occurred once weekly from the Yonder café.
However, after a few weeks of operating their temporary marketplace – to maintain some income and to continue to support at least a dozen local suppliers – the couple was given a cease-and-desist order by their landlord. Popularity of the weekly online orders had grown to close to 100. “People became instantly interested in healthy eating and building their immune system,” said Hannah. “And what can be healthier than eating locally grown and made foods?”
The Edwards had already purchased a kudzu-dense property on the corner of Georgia Road and Hillcrest Avenue, across from Rizzo’s and close to downtown Franklin, and were clearing it and restoring existing buildings to eventually operate a local market. Yet, they planned to continue with their Yonder café, since it was an original concept “so awesome and rewarding,” explained Hannah, who has been in the food service industry since she was a teenager. “Our food was made from scratch and had heart in it. We served quality food in an inviting space with a friendly vibe.” Alan built the long eat-at bar by hand, eclectic vintage dishware was used, old black and white western movies were shown, and local art adorned walls.
“We were just getting started and had regulars and seasonal people who loved our place,” said Hannah. “It was the epitome of the American dream.”
“We just don’t want people to think we failed or that we just randomly closed,” said Alan. “We were planning to continue, but we just started doing the online market to get us through [quarantine].”
Currently, close to 100% of online customers for the ongoing www.eatrealfoodinc.com were loyal Yonder customers, yet Hannah pointed out that new people are “finding them” weekly.
Work weeks for the couple involve meeting suppliers and farmers, spending Wednesdays driving all day (sometimes 12 hours) picking up fresh produce, eggs, milk, and more to satisfy the week’s orders, meeting customers on Thursdays and Fridays at their new location and, with masks in place, putting boxed or bagged orders in cars as customers drive through the circular driveway. Then, on Friday afternoons they upload available items so that the order cycle begins again. The ordering online window, in fact, is from Friday at 8 p.m. to Sunday at 8 p.m.
The Edwards met in Charlotte and moved to Otto four years ago. Their intention in starting Yonder was to support the local community by offering people access to the freshest, local foods. They noticed that people in Charlotte supported widely the “eat local” initiatives and markets that encouraged people to stay, visit, eat, enjoy music, and more.
When purchasing the property, the Edwards envisioned a similar marketplace concept. The loss of their café, Yonder, accelerated their plans so that they had to move the online weekly order pickups of local foods to what they are now calling the Yonder Compound. Assisted by Adam Garrett, the couple renovated an existing 1940s garage, adding hand-built cedar doors and siding and new paint, to store weekly orders. It will eventually become retail space where customers can come in and shop for local goods – instead of just ordering them online for a weekly pickup. They plan to name the retail market space Edwards Grocery in honor of some of Alan’s family members, who, for many years operated a store with that name in Hawkinsville, Ga.
A cleared “park-like” space under mature hardwoods that provide shade will eventually be a space with picnic tables where customers can hang out and visit and listen to live music. Plans are to offer mead and cold-brew coffee on tap, as well as wines. And a future goal is to once again cook for customers via a food truck or trailer.
“We just plan to keep expanding, looking at new area suppliers, and visiting farms,” said Hannah. “We are always looking at suppliers that practice sustainable methods. As a society, we have to get away from not knowing where are food comes from. Everyone needs good food and we can’t make the most out of our day if we’re not well.”
Alan said their Yonder Compound is “evolving” and he and Hannah point out that they hope people will stop by to see the progress and learn all about what will transpire on the property.