Cornered 

Once an innovator and a Nashville institution, The Corner Market closes its doors

Once an innovator and a Nashville institution, The Corner Market closes its doors

For the second time in less than a month, I am writing an obituary instead of a review. Several weeks ago, it was the closing of the 79-year-old Nashville institution Becker’s Bakery. And this week, it’s The Corner Market, a youngster by comparison, but no less beloved to its loyal customers and inarguably a pioneer in our city’s culinary development.

Both closings came with little warning to customers and employees. Becker’s reopened as expected after the winter holiday on Jan. 6, but that very afternoon, brown paper was taped over the windows, and a “Closed” sign was posted on the front door.

The Corner Market’s demise was just as swift and sudden. On the afternoon of Monday, Jan. 19, my children and I dropped by the store’s Green Hills outlet, where we picked up a couple of sandwiches and a piece of Red Velvet cake. I was also hoping to buy a box of couscous to go with the Moroccan stew I was making for dinner that night, but couldn’t find one. I thought the inventory seemed a little low, but figured they hadn’t yet restocked for the week.

The next morning, The City Paper reported that The Corner Market was closing both stores, and sure enough, neither location opened its doors that day. Though the closing was a surprise to customers—and reportedly to vendors and purveyors as well—it wasn’t totally unexpected to founding owners Jim and Emily Frith. Nor was it a surprise that The City Paper had the story first. The paper’s publisher, Brian Brown, purchased majority interest in the market from the Friths back in the fall of 2002, leaving the founding couple with little control over the operation or direction of the business—which became somewhat erratic over the next 18 months. Inventory went down; hours were changed, then changed again; a new store was opened; new ideas were tried, then discarded.

The Corner Market would have celebrated its Sweet 16th birthday this year. It was in 1988 that Emily McAlister Frith placed a help-wanted ad in Nashville’s two daily papers with the heading, “Attention Foodaholics.” She was looking for employees to staff the space she and her husband Jim Frith had leased in the Westgate Shopping Center, with the idea of creating a market and deli that would offer gourmet and specialty food items, fresh produce, soups and salads.

Back then, foodaholics in Nashville were a rarity, as were food products even remotely removed from the ordinary. The Friths created a market for their market, feeding Nashvillians hungry for the products and foods they had previously only read about in magazines and cookbooks. With a stable of employees passionate about food, the couple helped to lay the stepping stones for the path toward culinary sophistication in Nashville.

Back then, foodaholics in Nashville were a rarity, as were food products even remotely removed from the ordinary. The Friths created a market for their market, feeding Nashvillians hungry for the products and foods they had previously only read about in magazines and cookbooks. With a stable of employees passionate about food, the couple helped to lay the stepping stones for the path toward culinary sophistication in Nashville.

New Orleans native Steve Scalise answered that ad and became the Market’s first and longtime chef. He was joined shortly after by Emily Frith’s friend and former catering partner, Martha Stamps. From the very beginning, The Corner Market found, nurtured, fostered and frequently graduated some of Nashville’s most sparkling culinary talents. Aside from Scalise (who has since moved back to Louisiana) and Stamps (who now co-owns Martha’s at the Plantation with her husband), The Corner Market was also a working laboratory for Heath Williams, who went on to become chef for several years at Provence; Kenny Jackson, who created an unparalleled cheese department; and Meg Giuffrida, who now owns Red Wagon Cafe in East Nashville. Perhaps one of the most notable contributions to Nashville kitchens and tables was the sesame salad dressing created by John Perrin, who served the market in a variety of roles including handyman, coffee buyer and logistics manager. (Perrin has since taken his recipe to Bread & Company, where the dressing is now sold.)

In early 2000, the Friths leased additional space next door to the market and, after three weeks of construction, reopened with an additional 3,700 square feet of space, a refurbished and larger kitchen, new decor, more seating and expanded deli cases and shelving.

With the hard times that faced many small, independent businesses following Sept. 11, 2001, the Friths experienced some cash shortfall and accepted a proposal from Brown that made him majority owner. Emily began spending more time in the kitchen, focusing on the catering end of the operation, while Brown explored new directions for the retail side. In June 2003, he opened the Green Hills store; sandwiches were made on site, but the cooking was handled by the larger Belle Meade store. A new chef, Raul Tallion from Nick of Thyme, came on board the week before Thanksgiving, and a Web site was developed, but inventory in the store continued to dwindle, as did the retail business.

By January, it was clear to the Friths that Brown was preparing to make a dramatic change to the Belle Meade store, though they and the employees believed it would remain open at least through the end of January. On Monday, Jan. 19, Emily Frith took her children to lunch at the original store, and it was then she found out that both locations would be closing. Frith says that over the 18 months since she had relinquished control over the business, she had dealt with the emotional fallout of that loss, but it was still sad to be hit with the reality of The Corner Market’s passing.

Items that were once introduced by, and exclusive to, Corner Market are now available in a wide range of outlets in a rapidly evolving Nashville. One no longer need place an ad seeking foodaholics: They are everywhere, stepping outside of their comfort zones to dine in independent, chef-owned restaurants, to explore the ethnic eateries that dot neighborhoods miles removed from Belle Meade, and to shop the little markets that stock product from the Middle East, Thailand, Mexico, Latin America and even Russia. What they can’t purchase locally, they simply find it on the Internet and have it shipped to their front door in time for that weekend’s supper-club gathering.

But Corner Market was always about more than the product on its shelves. It was about the passionate foodies who worked there and the equally passionate customers who came in seeking something special or unusual. It was a school, a source and a gathering place, always helpful, always friendly, always fun to visit. I wasn’t a regular customer, but I knew if a recipe called for some odd ingredient, I could find it there, or they would find it for me. And I never missed a Fat Tuesday when Steve Scalise was in the kitchen.

I can’t let the store’s passing go unnoticed, nor its undeniable contributions go unheralded. In their day, The Corner Market and all of the people who logged time there made a tremendous, valuable and lasting impact on this city’s cooking and eating habits. “It was a great 15-year run, and I have absolutely no regrets,” says Emily, who is continuing her catering business as she considers her next step. “It was great food, great times and really great people. I know other places have come along since, but The Corner Market was a special place. I don’t think there will ever be another place like it.”

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  • Re: Close to Home

    • My church wants to know about the property. My number is 615-293-5484. Thanks

    • on August 5, 2014
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