Photo:  Ron Smith, owner of The Root Cellar, a fresh produce store at Third and Hill streets in Old Louisville, sells chocolate milk to Amy Schultz of Wilder Park and her son Robert Ranny, 13.  Shultz says her son told her about the store after going there on a field trip with his Cultural Geography class at Manual High School.  There are days when Ron Smith, owner of The Root Cellar, feels more like a home economics teacher than a businessman.

His establishment, at 1484 S. Third St., carries only farm-fresh produce grown within a 150-mile radius of Louisville. Smith personally visits each farm to verify the authenticity of their products, so he tends to know a lot more about his produce than other grocers. And his customers are not shy about asking questions.

“I spend a lot of time teaching people how to cook stuff, or teaching them what things are, in addition to my day job of running the store,” Smith quips. “I had a woman in here for more than an hour yesterday. She asked me about everything in the store.”

Smith, 47, is an unlikely grocer because he doesn’t come from a farming or business background. In fact, he’s actually a trained chemist. His interest in fruits and vegetables began a few years ago when he decided to teach his son, Devin, how much work went into getting food from the farm to their table. Father and son volunteered to work for James and Kathy Jackson, farmers they’d met at the Bardstown Road Farmers’ Market. Devin quickly lost interest in the work, but Smith found it helped relieve the stress from his job as a research manager at the University of Louisville. After he was laid off in March 2010, Smith started thinking about how he could work with farmers full time.

Smith says his wife Monica Krupinski, a U of L German professor, was skeptical when he decided to open a produce store. But his research convinced him that Louisville had several “food deserts” where residents didn’t have ready access to fresh fruits and vegetables. He convinced her that it was an opportunity for them. 

The Root Cellar opened for business in May 2011. Smith, who lives in the Beechmont neighborhood near Southern Parkway, says he decided to locate his store in Old Louisville because the residents there are under served and he thought the store would also appeal to U of L students and South End residents who pass by on their way home. The store boasts not only fresh produce but also gourmet items like duck eggs and organic milk and cheeses. If not for The Root Cellar, Smith says Old Louisville residents would have to go to the Highlands to purchase these items.

Smith says the biggest draw for new customers has been the building that houses his business. Built in 1927, the property at the corner of Third and Hill was a gas station for decades but hadn’t had a tenant for 15 years until Smith came along. “Everybody that comes in here has an idea about what I should be doing with the building,” Smith says. “It was empty for so long that I think people just fantasized about what they wanted here. They say, ‘You should sell sandwiches. You should have tables outside.’ I would love to do some of that stuff, but that takes money. Everything my family has is tied up in this store.”

The Root Cellar is breaking even, but it has yet to turn a profit. If things do improve at his flagship store, Smith would like to open a second location, possibly in Germantown. He believe the Root Cellar can play a part in helping residents in both neighborhoods make healthier food choices.

“It’s disheartening when you think about what they do to our food in this country,” he explains. “It’s so processed. I try not to dwell on that. I dwell on how good the food is in my store.”

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