This is the fourth installment of Crystal Magazine’s year-long series highlighting women business owners in Eastern North Carolina. In each issue we plan to feature a different woman and her business experience – the good, the bad and the ugly.
Morehead City native, high school and college All-American in basketball, US surfing title holder, now wife and mother, Mindy Ballou Fitzpatrick is driven and passionate in all areas of life. She and her husband own Friendly Market, and Mindy is responsible for the wildly successful Mindy’s Baked Goods – and her famous tomato pie. But Mindy is quick to add that her husband Matt was the brain behind this whole operation. He said, “It really stemmed from our love of gardening, flowers, things of that nature. Also watching the town kind of drift away from localism, and watching small mom and pop motels and restaurants leave the area in exchange for chain resorts, chain strip malls, restaurants, things like that. We kind of tied those two together and tried to save a little bit of the Crystal Coast feel by bringing in anything local.”
Q: Why did you decide to open the market?
A: My parents died years ago. They owned the property and it was considered a very valuable commercial piece. About eight years ago when the economy wasn’t good at all, my husband had the idea. His idea was to put up a little farmer’s market with fresh local produce and plants and flowers. I was really a very small part of the picture then. I started off as a tent in the back. We had Saturday vendors, and I was one of the Saturday vendors. I didn’t want to do anything that anyone else bakes. I wanted to kind of take a chance and do stuff that I really was into, but that would be different. From the get go, the foods took off. It just grew every year. We go through great efforts to keep foods at a very high quality, to really find things that are different, that have never been done, and I think our whole market has evolved like us, too. We constantly try to do new things, work with foods in season, and the whole market has grown, similar to how Mindy’s Baked Goods has grown. We put everything back into this business, so do our farmers at the produce stand and the plant stand. I went from a tent in the back to a small kitchen on site, after a couple of years we added the store. We learn from things that didn’t work, embrace things that do, and enhance that. I’d have say that one of the neatest things is working with Matt every single day. He was the engine in this. He was the one that thought this would be a good idea. I like that we’re a constant work in progress, there’s still so much to do. What may be the most rewarding part of this business is that we grow because of this community. If the community didn’t embrace us like they have, I might still be a tent in the back. And I would be OK with that, but it’s nice to have that community support. I think that anyone that’s part of Carteret County, from Carteret County or visits Carteret County can say that they’ve really helped in building this corner.
Q: How is opening a market different from a storefront?
A: With us, I don’t think we ever thought we’d be this type of business. When you have a storefront, you kind of already dictated what you have to do and where you’re going to be. We’ve never done that here. We’ve expanded as our business has grown. One of the greatest assets we have is the people that are involved with us. You have to support local farmers, local fishermen, local businesses, and we’re 100 percent that. When you come on our property, the way we’ve changed the most is you can look around, you see we have our own gardens. One is our son’s, which Matt helps him with, one is our family garden. Our plant farmer who runs the plant stand, makes us look gorgeous. That’s stuff you just can’t plan on in a storefront. We’re on a corner where we can expand and grown and be as pretty as our farmers are talented. It’s amazing. When you come down the road and see us now, it speaks volumes about our farmers. In the same sense, when you go to the produce stand, that’s local produce. And maybe the proudest thing about being here is that we can showcase how wonderful our farms and farmers are.
Q: Did you have any struggles opening the market?
A: Sitting here now, with all that’s happened and the reception from everybody, you kind of forget. Thinking back, you’ve got to play by so many rules, and they’re there for a purpose and I embrace that. Regulations on our kitchen, our property, what the city wants us to do, impact fees, it’s stuff you have to do. I won’t say they’re struggles – it’s learning how to do business and do it the right way. I’m not much on the negative side of things. I think there’s always a way to look at it and embrace it. In any business, you have ups and downs. The way you handle all that is you learn and become better prepared. We also learned that there are different groups out here. We love helping nonprofits. We love being the community market. And the key to that is everybody communicating and wanting to go forward together.
Q: What was the market like when it first opened?
A: We had only tents. We had produce and plants out here seven days a week. We had a Wednesday and Saturday market where we had arts and crafts, baked goods. It wasn’t so cleared out. Over the years, my father-in-law has done most of the clearing when he’s here in the winters. It has changed a lot. Again, I keep bringing up my husband, but his ability to adapt and have us grow, he’s amazing when it comes to his foresight on how to have us grow and look natural and do it the right way.
Q: Do you have plans on expanding anymore?
A: Yes we do. A lot is based and dictated by our customers. We have had such an overwhelming amount of support, compliments. We aren’t the type to get complacent and be content. We use all this to motivate us to keep going, to make it more and more a market that this city and this county can be proud of, and more of a destination. I think we want to keep making more available to our customers as far as plants, flowers, produce. It seems like every time we add on to our store, we need more of our foods. We’d like to feature other North Carolina products that are like us. That’s part of the fun, wondering what we’ll do next and doing it together. Our kids are involved out here too. They’re very good at working here. Matt, Jr. is well known out here; he either works the garden or the front of the house. Everybody knows Annie, too. Matt, Jr. is older so he’s a little more adjusted to working out here. That’s a comforting feeling. This is a really wicked fun place to be, whether you’re working or visiting. The staff we have at all these locations are perfect for what we do. I have to say that the staff we have in the kitchen that work with us – we’re real big on that, no one works for us, we all work together – it is a very fun place. I think that’s why we can put out the amount of food that we do at the level we do. My farmers take credit and debit, we do not. We take check or cash, but we’ve developed our own way of charging people if they don’t have either one. We call it friendly credit. We simply let you run a tab. Or if you live out of town, or not coming back this way, we even provide you with an envelope and a card with how much you owe, with our address and a stamp on it. Our customers dig that. Some run a tab for the month and then come back and pay it at the end of every month. If they want to run in and get cookies, or if they have a party, or if a realtor has an open house, they can duck in and grab stuff and we put it on their tab. That’s kind of the feel we like out here. We are going back to the basics and the simple things in life. Promoting what’s important in today’s world, which is supporting local.
Q: What drives you to keep going?
A: I think it’s probably the athlete in me. I’m very very passionate. My priorities are number one, first and foremost, my husband and our kids. This is something that we can all do together. That passion transcends to doing what you do and loving what you do. This is not only where I work, it’s my happy place. I love being here on a daily basis. I love that he’s beside me and that our kids are into it. Truth be known, he’s the strength behind all of this. I get all the credit, and sometimes that’s not fair. I was a point guard, and I’m good about picking teammates and having people that are better than me around me, and I think that’s part of why we’re successful. I love the thought of us moving forward and finding the next thing, the next cool food. We have a lot of trademarked items, the foods we have here, you can only get here. Matt has some unbelievable recipes. Some of his are our best sellers. Things happen lucky. I did a blue collar dip that people loved. We’re the only people in the world that have tomato cheese. And that’s not pimento, that’s tomato. And that’s because our son didn’t like pimento. The combination just works.
Q: Do you have any advice for women looking to start their own business?
A: I’m very big on, don’t ask anybody for anything except for an opportunity to make your own way. If you believe in something, it’s worth all your time and your money to do and do it right. You can’t afford not to. Have passion. Passion makes all the difference in the world. I think it’s contagious. I think the staff and everyone associated with everything out here feels the same. When you have that, you have a pride and you don’t sacrifice that, you keep things at a level and you keep going up. Always embrace the community because it’s the most rewarding gift back to you. Knowing you’re doing something to make the area a little better. An opportunity for people to showcase what they have and do. And then it’s like it is every day here. It’s not work; it’s doing what you love to do, and doing it with the best people.
Q: Is there anything you wish you knew before you started?
A: No, because I think part of being in business and being successful is having that optimism and learning the right way. If you make a mistake, not being mad, not saying, ‘I wish I would’ve done this,’ not having any regrets. It’s embracing every situation. That’s part of the fun, figuring out where we’re going to go next, figuring out how we’re going to do it. Figuring out the players, who are in here with us. I’m a pretty positive girl about just about everything. I just think there’s a lot of time wasted on thinking about what could’ve happened, or the negative side of things. I’d rather use any energy like that as a positive to make us better, make me better.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
A: Part of being here and doing this and part of our success has been helped along by the North Carolina Dept. of Agriculture and the Tobacco Trust Fund. They are people like us that understand and support local and local farmers, and they have seen us as a viable option, and that’s awfully nice to have that kind of support. To be able to go to people I admire and look up to for advice – that makes all the difference. And a lot of that has come through the Seafood Festival and being on that board, I’ve learned a lot about business.