The issue of a downtown food desert has long been a rallying cry in the Chattanooga food movement, but as a new documentary reminds us, there is, in fact, a full-service, community-oriented grocery store right on Market Street.
“For Real,” a 20-minute film that turns its lens on Buehler’s Market, debuts tonight at 7:30 p.m.
Created by University of Tennessee at Chattanooga graduate Monika Groppe, the documentary will be screened outdoors at the premiere cookout party in the 700 block of Market Street.
Groppe, a Memphis native who stayed in Chattanooga after graduating in 2011, approached the project with no background in film.
She admitted that she began the process of shooting the documentary last summer without a completely fleshed-out idea of what she was doing. The initial lack of direction soon faded, and now, the film may soon be purchased by the Southern Foodway Alliance at the University of Mississippi.
“I started investigating this really unique place, just exploring and asking people in the store, ‘What do you think about this place?’” Groppe said. “But then, people started asking us to be part of the project. The stories they were telling with such pride and enthusiasm caught my attention. I realized this was a gold mine for a documentary.”
In the family
Groppe first started shopping at Buehler’s Market as a UTC student with only a bike for transportation.
She soon discovered that she might have been the only student on campus who knew about the gem beside the Big Chill and, more importantly, that the other students didn't know what they were missing.
Buehler's Market is owned by Charlie Morton, who started at the store as a bag boy and purchased the store at 24 years old. He had been working a steady schedule of 24-hour days and seven-day weeks. Most of the employees are family or, at least, longtime members of the store's family.
Groppe explained that the level of care taken with customers extends way outside the actual store and hearkens back to the full-service, small-town stores operating in the early and middle 20th century.
People can call ahead and order their groceries, which will then be ready and bagged when they get to the store. The butchers will repackage meat to the specific cuts a customer wants.
The store even has its own taxi driver—who, for the record, considers himself a service worker—to transport shoppers to and from Buehler’s Market from anywhere in the city for $4.
“Buehler’s has an old-fashioned charm to it,” Groppe said. “They actually cater more to the customers than places like Greenlife.”
She noted that she did find that the grocery store’s customer base is composed primarily of area residents from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, but there were also plenty of businesspeople and bus drivers picking up lunch during the day.
The documentary traces families that have been coming to Buehler’s Market for generations, as well as traveling significant distances to remain connected to the community at the grocery store.
The distinctive signs in the windows detailing the weekly specials? Those hand-painted signs are the work of Dwayne Dickerson, an artist who has been creating the store’s sole advertisements for years. He drives all the way from Apison, Tenn., to shop downtown and drop off the signs every week.
And on film
The tag line for “For Real” reads, “Buehler’s Market, not just a grocery store,” and the documentary chronicles Groppe’s “learning adventure” of discovering what the store is and how to translate that certain something hidden in the most unlikely of Chattanooga addresses to film.
The 20-minute reel features the history of the market from its roots as an Illinois chain to today, when it is the last remaining Buehler’s Market.
There are interviews with the Better Business Bureau, detailing the store’s top rating, and Charles Coolidge, who can remember the days of walking to the store for a Hershey’s chocolate bar.
Luther Masingill—a piece of Chattanooga history himself and a voice that several Buehler’s Market shoppers listen to in the mornings on the way to work—provides the documentary’s narration, reading Groppe’s script.
“Buehler’s Market has some [Chattanooga-area] produce, and their warehouse is in Alabama,” Groppe said. “That is a great example that there’s not a food desert downtown. There’s actually a family-owned business that employs 25 people with full benefits and is a really well-run business.”
Groppe has grounded her post-college years in community work: Her resume includes time at Mark Marking and Crabtree Farms.
She acquired most of her film skills from friends and online tutorials, as well as a little professional advice from UTC Professor Linda Duvosin, who has worked for the Discovery Channel.
Duvosin took note of Groppe’s content-writing abilities, which has led to a few opportunities for the UTC graduate, in addition to the potential purchase of the film by the University of Mississippi.
“For Real” will screen tonight at the free, outdoor event and then again on Friday, April 19 at 7:30 p.m. for an indoor showing at Lindsay Street Hall.