The Corner Market
6051 Hwy. 100. 352-6772
8:30 a.m.-7 p.m. Mon.-Fri.; 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Sat.; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Sun.
”Attention Foodaholics.“ These two words, printed 12 years ago in the help-wanted section of Nashville’s two daily newspapers, served as the humble beginnings of The Corner Market, a little store that has since made an immeasurable impact on the city’s cooking and eating habits. The ad was placed by Nashville native Emily McAlister Frith, who with her husband Jim had just leased space in the Westgate Shopping Center in Belle Meade. Her vision was to open a market and deli that would offer gourmet and specialty food items, fresh produce, soups, and sandwiches.
The ad was answered by Steve Scalise, who had recently moved from New Orleans to Nashville and was looking for work as a chef. ”Steve walked in here with his New Orleans accent and said, ‘I get along with fish really well, and I’ve got my mama’s recipes,’ “ Frith remembers. ”I told him to go cook me something and bring it back. He brought some pimento cheese, some chicken salad, and the best gumbo I had ever tasted. He was the first person I hired.“
Although their chicken-salad philosophy clashedScalise adds sweet pickle relish to his, while Frith adheres to the traditional Southern versiontheir approaches to everything else in the business have proven to be so complementary that they are still working side by side, albeit in a much larger venue. On April 5, Corner Market unveiled its brand-new look: The 4,000-square-foot space now sports an additional 3,700 square feet; a refurbished, larger kitchen; new tables and chairs; additional shelving; more deli cases; new rest rooms; and an overall interior redesign. The store, closed more than three weeks for the transformation, reopened not a moment too soon for its loyal customers, who were literally banging on the doors as employees and construction workers toiled inside.
That first day of the new Corner Market was busier than opening day in 1988, but not nearly as terrifying, says Frith. ”The space seemed so big to me back then,“ she remembers. ”It looked like a bowling alley. We only had two shelves, one tiny case for cheese and meats, and a 3-foot sandwich bar. Before we opened, I had gone around to my neighbors to let them know we were coming, and Evalina Andrews at McClures asked me to put in some tables so the people who worked in the neighborhood would have a place to eat lunch. We put in three.“
Since its inception, the store has striven to respond to its customers’ wants and needs, often before the customers have clearly defined those needs. In essence, Frith and The Corner Market’s first employees were their own model for their targeted demographic.
Frith first learned to fix traditional Southern fare from her grandmother’s cook during summer afternoons in Monteagle. She began baking bread while in college, then started poring through Julia Child and James Beard cookbooks, which is how she taught herself to cook more sophisticated fare.
After college, she teamed up with another Nashville native, Martha Stamps, and together they formed a catering company. ”We didn’t do very well,“ remembers Stamps, now an acclaimed cookbook author, chef, and caterer (and occasional Scene contributor). ”We did a lot of tea parties and luncheons for our mothers’ and grandmothers’ friends. We were not very professional.“
”We did a fried-chicken boxed lunch for 200 members of the Colonial Dames that about killed us,“ Frith says with a laugh.
Around this time, she and Stamps were working their way through the Silver Palate, one of the most popular cookbooks of the ’80s. ”Emily and I were cooking out of the Silver Palate and reading Gourmet and other food magazines, but we couldn’t get the ingredients listed in the recipes here in Nashville.“
It was then that the idea of opening a store really crystallized. Emily and Jim, who was then working in commercial real estate, began looking for space. In 1988, the dry cleaner that occupied the corner of the Westgate Shopping Center went out of business, and the Friths snatched it up, pulling together the financing from wherever they could. ”My mother came up with the name. I was going to call it The Uncommon Market, but she said that was too hard to remember and suggested The Corner Market. It was perfect.“
After signing on Scalise as chef, Frith’s next precipitous hire was her friend and former partner Stamps, who began as a cashier but within less than a month was back in the kitchen with Scalise. While Scalise heated things up with his Louisiana-influenced cooking, Stamps brought a regional sensibility to the food. She also contributed one of Corner Market’s signature items, the Eclectic Tossed Salad.
”Martha was making herself these lovely salads for lunch every day, just a little of this and a little of that,“ Frith remembers. ”They looked so good, I suggested she make them for our customers.“ The salad is still there today, along with the wildly popular sesame vinaigrette, a top-secret concoction invented by John Perrin, who has been with the market since the beginning in a variety of roles including handyman, coffee buyer, and logistics manager.
One of the hallmarks of The Corner Market is how each employee, from stock person to executive chef, contributes his or her individual talents and interests to the quirky but charming personality of the Market. Scalise has made Corner Market the most reliable place in Nashville to get top-quality seafoodif you get there before he sells out. He did it by being, he says, ”a real jerk“ to purveyors, sending fish that didn’t meet his standards back to local distributors and cultivating his own suppliers, including one who drives to New Orleans once a week.
Two former chefs, Beverly Preciado and Heath Williams (now chef at Provence), built up the Market’s vegetarian fare. Former manager Kenny Jackson was a cheese head before coming to Corner Market, but really developed that department as his expertise grew. Two years ago, Scalise recruited fellow Louisianan and longtime friend Ken Koval to take over his role as executive chef. Koval has not only built up the menu, he has expanded the employee base as well: His wife and two sons both work there in different capacities.
From the store’s original two shelving units, there is now shelf space all over the floor. Frith buys from more than 100 vendors and stocks more than 1,600 items. Produce has a large department in the addition, which also houses new cases for prepacked entrees, side dishes, desserts, and salads, along with non-grocery items like serving dishes and candles.
The kitchen, seating area, and various service counters are all in the original portion of the store, where a coffee and smoothie bar has been added as well. Customers can now dine in comfort, without knocking knees and elbows with their neighboring diners. The salad and sandwich menu has been expanded, most notably to include po’ boys every day, and not just on Mardi Gras, as has been the tradition. Other new sandwiches include the seaside special (featuring fresh fish of the day), Italian prosciutto, the TLT (smoked trout, lettuce, tomato, and horseradish mustard), and a New York nosh (smoked salmon on a bagel).
One of the Corner Market’s most significant contributions to Nashville has been in raising the bar for other retail outlets. Twelve years ago, you couldn’t find a bottle of balsamic vinegar in this town; today, your neighborhood Kroger has several different brands. But Corner Market remains unique, and even at twice its original size, the store and its staff are eminently knowable and accessible. ”Attention Foodaholics“ was placed as an ad seeking help to fulfill a vision, but it ended up being a clarion call to a city of hungry gourmets.
All in the family
Another longtime Nashville dining fixture is undergoing some changes. Brothers Houston and Dick Thomas, who opened Sperry’s restaurant in 1975, have sold the venerable institution to Houston’s son Al Thomas. Aside from his genetically inclined bent toward foodbrother Dan is a chef and graduate of Culinary Institute of America, and sister Anne is the Clayton of Clayton-BlackmonAl brings a solid résumé of restaurant experience to the table, including stints at Cajun’s Wharf, Houston’s (no relation), L&N Seafood, and Princeton’s Grille.
Don’t look for any immediate major changes, though Thomas has begun sprucing up the grounds and exterior of the property on Harding Road in Belle Meade. But he does have some plans up his sleeve. ”Sperry’s is a comfortable shoe. I don’t want to change anything too drastically, but I do want to pump it up, put some energy back into it. I’ll be tweaking the menu some and tuning things up. I want to put this restaurant back on the map.“