If you’ve ventured outside the gates of the Bluff, you’ve no doubt at some point made it out to downtown Bluffton proper. If you haven’t, you should.
Because in downtown Bluffton, you’ll find that authentic small town that so many small towns simply pretend to be. You’ll find a main street that has served as the heart of town for hundreds of years. You’ll find locals who have a story to tell concerning just about everything and everyone, who are content with nothing more than watching an afternoon dip into twilight while recounting each tale.
Bluffton has grown up considerably in the last few years, to be sure. Restaurants like The Bluffton Room reflect an up-and-coming community that, just a few years ago, could never have kept a fine dining restaurant busy. A proliferation of kayak tours and a healthy historical society point to something unheard of in Bluffton until recently: tourism.
It’s a different Bluffton than it was when Scotts Market first opened, but you’d never know it by walking inside. (If you ask for the year of the opening, you’ll get the response ‘Which time?’)
The Scott family, for whom the store is named, has been a part of Bluffton’s fabric since the beginning, selling everything from fence posts to French fries. George Scott was one of the first grocers in town, managing the S&N Grocery, where Stock Farm Antiques now stands, and turning it from a convenience store into a full-fledged grocery and meat market.
Down the street, where Scotts Market now sits, the family was also doing a bustling trade in fried chicken. Its Bantam Chef restaurant was so busy, the family decided to open up shop with a Piggly Wiggly right next to it. The iconic Scotts Market sign, itself one of Bluffton’s most enduring symbols, actually started advertising the restaurant.
If you look at it, the top of the sign is shaped like it is because it was a frying pan,” said George’s son Jeff Scott, talking history while slicing a flank steak with practiced ease. “The ‘T’ section on the bottom used to say ‘Hamburgers: 19 cents.
A fire and the shifting needs of a small town experiencing the first stirrings of growth saw the chicken restaurant/grocery become just a grocery store, a Piggly Wiggly, which then became an IGA, and the IGA finally became Scotts Market.
And while everything from the location to the name has changed, the genuine smiles behind the meat counter and the small-town feel of a shop that sells everything from craft beer to locally-sourced bell peppers create an atmosphere of bucolic Americana that rings with the same authenticity as everything else in Old Town Bluffton.
When Adam Simoneaux, third-generation owner of the market, pauses in the butchering of a chicken to exchange smiles with a recurring customer, and resumes his quartering while inquiring about ongoing repairs to the customer’s boat, you wonder how you can ever go back to the impersonal sterility of a big box store again.
“Everything’s customer-driven,” said Simoneaux. “You can’t compete with big guys, so you have to honor customer requests, bring things in that the big box store can’t.”
That includes everything from specialty cuts of the finest organic and grass-fed beef (“You won’t ever see a hanger steak in a grocery store,” added Jeff with a chuckle) to membership in local farmer co-ops.
“We partner with Pinckney’s Produce,” said Simoneaux, pointing to a wire rack brimming with leafy green vegetables. “Every Friday he brings that cart, and every basket has a name on it. These people have paid in for the season, and they come in every Friday with their empty box, and they walk out with a full box for 10 weeks or 12 weeks, and they do it again in the fall. That was something that just happened.”
Of course, honoring customer requests as a rule does lead to a few odd situations, as it did back in either 1978 or 1979. (Again, this is a Bluffton story; facts just get in the way.)
“A live pig was the oddest request we ever got,” said Jeff. “One of our customers wanted it as a pet. Our pork supplier raised hogs, so we were able to get it from there. He had to keep the pig in his office. When he brought it in over the weekend, that pig had escaped and just tore his office up. He said ‘I’m so glad to get rid of this thing; I almost brought him to you in pieces.’”
Yet with the high-end meat selection, local produce and occasional office-destroying pet, perhaps the greatest offering at Scotts Market can’t be found on the shelf. It comes in stories, moments shared across the counter that create something more than a bond between grocer and customer.
Even as we spoke, the regular cadence of an interview was interrupted at intervals by customers announcing their presence via inside jokes. These weren’t customers; they were family, drawn in by the grandest of Southern traditions, to set a spell.
“The thing that would draw me in as a customer here is you can actually talk to everybody,” said Simoneaux. “You can talk to anybody here any time. The same people are here every time. People ask me ‘Are you going to be here Saturday?’ and I just laugh. If the lights are on, I’m here.”
As Bluffton grows from sleepy summer getaway to sophisticated side trip, and the world moves away from the small-town grocer to the Krogers and Walmart’s of the world, Scotts Market holds the line. It’s every bit a part of Bluffton as the palmettos lining Calhoun Street and the tide rising and receding along the May River.
If you haven’t made it out to Old Town Bluffton, you owe yourself an immersion in this marvelous small town. And if you want to pick up a crash course in what makes Bluffton unique, and maybe something special to throw on the grill, now you know where to go.
Written by Barry Kaufman
Photography by Rob Kaufman