Photo courtesy Southern Season
“People come from 100 miles away just to come to the store,” says Clay Hamner, the owner of Southern Season, a gourmet food store located in Chapel Hill, N.C. A second opened last summer in Charleston, S.C., and Richmond will join the ranks this July, when a Southern Season opens here in the brand new Libbie Mill development on Staples Mill Road. Gumenick Properties spokesman Ed Crews says, "This is our first store [at Libbie Mill] period." Once anchor store Southern Season opens, Richmonders will see the completion of a three-story Henrico County library to replace the Dumbarton branch, plus mostly infrastructure work on the property before the developement can move forward on the planned residential, retail and office space. "Construction is well underway for the store and on track [to open in the summer of 2014]," he says.
“Richmond is a natural progression for the store,” says Hamner. “Richmonders are educated and have an interest in food, and they fit our Southern food focus.”
When I asked Hamner how Southern Season would compare to other Richmond grocery stores like Whole Foods and Ellwood Thompson Local Market, he quickly clarified that Southern Season is not a grocery store. “We are a specialty food store,” he says. “We don’t sell staples — no milk and eggs, but we have take-out food, cheese, wine, ethnic food, hard-to-find items, coffee, a large candy section ...” The list goes on. Southern Season also sells a wide variety of cookware and kitchen gadgets, and boasts a bakery, coffee bar, full-service restaurant and a cooking school.
The restaurant and cooking school are both slightly adjacent to the store itself — the restaurant has an outside entrance, as well as one inside the store, and is a sit-down dining experience. “It’s high-end Southern, not country cooking,” he says. The cooking school is visible to shoppers and open to all on a first-come, first-serve basis. There are one or two events every day, some of which are hands-on with only ten participants, and others are much bigger — open to up to 50.
“We bring in celebrity chefs,” says Hamner. “The classes usually sell out in advance.” (Matt and Ted Lee made an appearance in the Charleston store in 2013.) There are cooking classes for kids as well, and free cooking schools for underprivileged students and community members through Southern Season’s outreach program, Share the Food Foundation. “We focus on education, engagement, entertainment, and service.”
The gift baskets are revered, their chefs have won multiple awards, and according to Hamner, Southern Season sells more coffee and more chocolate than anybody else in North Carolina. “Some people come every day, some come once a week for wine, some come once a year for Christmas,” he say