Apart from winding creeks, salty river edges, and live oaks dated back before our great-great-grandparents, roadside produce stands are arguably one of the oldest staples of the Lowcountry. They have always offered a place to buy and sell homegrown produce, plants and local artwork, while boasting an unscripted meeting place that allows your neighbors to turn into your friends.
Because the rich and moist environment of the U.S. Southeast promotes such fertile soil, we get an impressive amount of plants and produce that thrive in this area. Farm lands abound and many people have learned to cultivate their land – extracting some of the most vibrant fruits, vegetables, flowers and more. Even average folks who may not consider themselves “farmers” are starting to experiment with produce, herbs and flowers on the balcony terrace of their downtown apartments.
In fact, our entire American culture overall has seen a movement toward acquiring more locally grown foods and more healthy eating habits all stemming from the roots of its regional gardens and crops. From schools to hospitals to restaurants, it is trending (and rightfully so) to be more conscience of the foods we are putting into our bodies.
From these clean living and clean eating ideologies that have recently, and thankfully, become a larger part of our society (ok, ok, the South may still have some catching up to do – but fried chicken is still so good) also stems from those who are passionate about seeking out the best local farmers, buying their crop, and selling it to lucky consumers like you and me so we can enjoy the richness of our land.
Thus the birth of Davis Produce – a roadside stand on Talahi Island right outside Savannah, Georgia. It’s a place hard to miss while on the way to the beach at Tybee Island because of its usual booming parking lot, oversized boiled peanut kettle, and big red tomato painted across the top of the building. It’s a roughly 1,300-square-feet, non-conditioned, garage-style store that was designed by owner Randy Davis and has been in the same location for 22 years. It developed from a roadside table of fruits and vegetables a few days a week into a well-established market that is now open seven days a week.
As I walked through the market this summer, my senses were intrigued with the smells and colors of peaches, butter beans, cucumbers, bananas, lemons, limes, melons, nectarines, tomatoes, squash, boiled peanuts, jams and pickled everything! (Just to name a few.) I wanted to sample everything, but remembered first-things-first – I was here to interview – not to eat and/or shop. (Although, I did just that afterward. Nearly impossible for me to turn down their perfectly salted boiled peanuts. I’ve been stopping there to get them hot out of the kettle since I was a little girl.)
SAVANNAH ICON: HEZEKIAH POLK
Hezekiah Polk – a name that many Lowcountry natives may recognize.
For 46 years, Hezekiah “Big Da” owned a small produce market in the heart of downtown Savannah, Georgia, that he coined “H. Polk Produce,” affectionately referred to as “Polks” by the locals.
Big Da spent the majority of his life hauling produce all over the Southeast and beyond. “He followed the crops,” explained Sherry (Polk) Davis, co-owner of Davis Produce and granddaughter of Hezekiah. “Much like we do now.”
From years of traveling for the freshest of the fresh, the family respectfully learned which states provide the best fruits and vegetables during particular seasons and travel near and far (mostly North Carolina to Florida) to load up their trucks and dump the juicy goodness to us on Talahi Island.
As the downtown Savannah store grew, Big Da realized he needed more help. In 1982, he hired 14-year-old Randy Davis to help with day-to-day chores. When Hezekiah’s granddaughter, Miss Sherry Polk, met Randy, “I couldn’t stand him!” she chuckles. “He used to annoy me so bad!”
Now, after 25 years of marriage, the two can chuckle at how their relationship started and eventually grew into a beautiful marriage rooted in juicy tomatoes, voluptuous peaches, and hot summer days.
THE EXPANSION OF THEIR ROOTS: FROM POLKS TO DAVIS
The ever-growing demand for fresh produce left Randy and Sherry with no other option but to venture off and open a second produce stand in 1990.
As word spread of this mouthwatering table on the side of the road that locals were starting to rely on for weekly produce, the couple knew it was coming time to create an actual establishment. So they took their table and turned it into a brick-and-mortar store in 1994. Randy, inspired from a Florida produce stand that he frequented when hauling produce, drew up some rough plans and they built a garage-style market that is now thriving with business. So much so that locals actually line up to buy produce directly off the trucks when deliveries are made on Tuesdays and Fridays.
And as expected, the Davis’s still remain in close contact with all of Big Da’s friends, farmers, clients and customers. In fact, the majority of the farmers who now provide for the bustling produce market have been in business with this pioneer produce family since Big Da’s time.
It’s no surprise that Davis Produce has a parking lot full of folks no matter what day of the week you go. They offer year-round produce unlike many produce stands because a number of farmers they do business with plant a second crop in August and pick again over fall months, which in turn provides Davis with gorgeous winter squashes, citruses and sweet potatoes.
The owners and staff also consider their customers as family, and it’s sure easy to feel that love as soon as you walk in and meet Mrs. Sherry Davis.
THE DAVIS FAMILY, AND THEIR BELOVED EXTENDED FAMILY
After following Sherry around the store for an hour and observing her interact with her customers, you’ll soon realize the Davis family is much bigger than only immediate family that share the same last name.
The Davis family extends to neighbors, friends, employees and customers – some of whom stop by one time a year on their way to vacation on Tybee – and to others who show up religiously every week. One man and his toddler daughter walked in while I was chatting with Sherry and she immediately ran over to speak to them and hand the little girl a peach. She walked back over to me after a few minutes, watched the daddy/daughter duo load up in the car, and loving said “People have stuck with us like family. I get attached to them. I really love our customers.”
The walls of their steamy establishment tell the story of their life, and are lined with fans (because let’s be honest – it’s hot down here), photos, newspaper articles, and an extremely eclectic array of “antiques.” I noticed an old, well-used mop hanging from the ceiling in one location and couldn’t help but ask. Sherry was quick to tell me it was Big Ma’s (Hezekiah’s wife and her grandmother). She called it her “sweepa” and would sing while she cleaned.
Near the mop is a decent-sized piece of old Styrofoam (another head scratcher), which was a part of Sherry’s life jacket when she was a little girl. There is an old green purse that Big Ma used to carry around, which apparently has an old pair of her shoes inside. A giant Jamaican banana… a guitar case… horse gear… signs galore… I could go on, but you get the point.
With no advertising besides t-shirts, this humble family has become a staple of the Savannah barrier islands simply by word-of-mouth as they provide delectable goods to our area for over half a century.
HOME OF THE KILLER TOMATO & ENDLESS SUPPLY OF BOILED PEANUTS
When in Georgia, it’s expected (and almost a duty) to bite into a fresh, juicy peach. And Davis Produce keeps them stocked for just that reason.
However, Sherry couldn’t help but smile though when the conversation went from peaches to tomatoes. It’s her signature thing – the market carries vine-ripened tomatoes all year long.
“One of our beloved customers walked in one day and said ‘Lemme get some of those killas,” explained Sherry, “And it stuck. We became the home of the killer tomatoes. It’s even painted on our building.”
They also carry a nearly endless supply of one of my favorite summer/fall addictions: boiled peanuts. If you’ve never sat on the beach with a bag of warm boiled peanuts and your favorite ice-cold brew, I’d suggest you do so. Very little compares in my opinion.
STOP BY FOR A SPELL
With an impressive number of local Lowcountry markets now providing fresh produce, meats, and herbs to consumers and restaurants, it is becoming more common than not to have a variety of local, organic, homegrown foods both at home and at a restaurant, and I think we can all appreciate folks like the Davis’s who help to make that possible.
“If you’re in the neighborhood, stop by and say hi!” says Sherry. And when you do, get a killa tomato, a bag of boiled peanuts, or a juicy peach – you won’t regret it.
Fall/Winter – 10:00 AM – 6:30 PM
Summer/Spring – 10 AM – 7 AM (Sundays 10 AM – 5 PM)