On the corner of Bridges Street and Friendly Road in Morehead City, a market is growing and blooming into a local landmark. From the road it looks a bit like a barn, but from the parking lot it looks like a buzzing marketplace. Matt and Mindy Fitzpatrick are the dynamic duo behind The Friendly Market. Both are energetic and intensely invested in their business, but also friendly and open. It is instantly clear that they are consistently on each other’s team, taking every opportunity to praise one another and give credit where credit is due. Mindy attributes the original idea for the business to Matt, while he readily admits that it was her cooking that brought most of their customers to the corner.
People are everywhere. Saturday shoppers meandered through the outdoor nursery and produce stand, ignoring the gathering clouds and instead focusing on the enormous watermelons and bouquets of freshly picked wildflowers. The porch in front of Mindy’s is designed as an invitation for people to sit down and stay a while, with rocking chairs and a view of the garden in bloom. The store is a revolving door of people coming in to get that night’s dinner from the refrigerated case lining the back wall or seeking a legendary dessert, and customers just perusing.
In the kitchen things are even busier. Sweet and savory smells mingle in the air as nearly a dozen employees in bright tie-dyed T-shirts peel, chop, bake and operate a mixer the size of a small bath tub. Several different kinds of pie radiate heat from the cooling rack, just a step away from trays brimming with tomato cheese biscuits. On the stove a stock pot full of chicken is slowly bubbling, while peaches are being diced nearby for sweet salsa. Everyone is hopping, but not frantic. It is an organized sense of chaos by staff members who know exactly what to do – and seem to love doing it. Mindy is at the helm, talking everything from marketing to new recipes. It's easy to tell that she never tires of this business they have taken years to build.
The Friendly started as a farmer’s market of sorts in 2008. Matt was in housing at the time and when the real estate bubble burst the Fitzpatricks could see the writing on the wall. With almost no funds to develop the idea, Matt and Mindy organized a market of pop-up tents on land they had inherited from her parents. On most weekdays the corner sold produce and plants, and on Wednesdays and Saturdays they had a full-fledged farmer’s market with art, handmade items and baked goods. At The Friendly Market’s inception Mindy was one of the Saturday vendors, selling cookies and pies out of the back of her car. Right off the bat, Mindy wanted to offer dishes that were unique, something you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find at a farmer’s market. As demand for her wares grew, the Fitzpatricks realized they needed to be open seven days a week, selling what brought customers to the corner in the first place: crack. No, not that kind of crack; the public renamed Mindy’s famous Market Pies, often referring to them as Crack Pies due to their chocolaty, addictive qualities. Classic recipes like this built the corner, according to Mindy. It just made sense to open up a kitchen to give customers more of the food they were looking for.
Although Mindy isn't a professionally trained cook, she has a keen sense for what makes truly good food. Traveling frequently with her basketball teams throughout high school and college provided her with a broad array of foods to reference in her own work. In addition to this, making food that appeals to the masses runs in her family. Her grandfather was Cap’n Bill of Morehead City’s famed boardwalk restaurant, her father a phenomenal home cook and her mother made cookies that were so legendary Mindy would get pulled over just so the policeman could get a dozen or two. Betty Ballou carefully kept the recipe for these cookies a secret until close to her death. After she passed, her family honored her request to be cremated and buried in her cookie tin. Was the recipe worth all the fuss? Named “Bettys” after their creator, the cookies are still one of The Friendly Market’s best sellers, after almost 10 years of operation.
The original kitchen was essentially a 16 foot by 20 foot box with basic kitchen equipment. Although it did allow them expand their offerings beyond baked goods (by state law any food that needs refrigeration has to be cooked in an industrial kitchen), it was not fancy by any means, Mindy admits. Their equipment came down to two fridges, a hot dog roller, a utility stainless steel table a KitchenAid mixer and one oven. But it was a basis on which to grow. And grow they have.
When the business changes, it is always a direct result of the customers. Every change has been dictated by customer response, either through clear buying habits or actual feedback. Fully aware of the challenges that come with a constantly growing business, Matt and Mindy take it on readily, knowing that the cost of not being willing to change would be even greater.
“It’s not easy," Matt said. "It takes effort, it takes creativity, it takes time and money, but you have to evolve. If we were with our original business plan right now, we wouldn't be here right now.”
As things evolved, it was obvious that there was a window to begin producing more savory food from recipes Mindy developed with input from the staff and Matt. Some of the signature dishes produced by the kitchen were almost an accident, while others took more time. Her famous tomato cheese, (think pimento, but with roasted tomatoes and more depth of flavor) was whipped up on a whim for a New Year’s Eve party. It was one of those one-in-a-million recipes that hasn't changed since. The blue collard dip was created as a ploy to prove to Matt that he could enjoy collards – despite liking the dip, he still argues that anything would taste good with the other ingredients, which include some of the most delicious dairy products known to man, accompanied by bacon.
Premade dinners for families of four or more were soon flying out of the kitchen as well, made by an always growing task force. The premise is simple – cook with locally sourced products and provide the market with authentic, home cooking. The take and bake dinners were an instant hit, with people checking social media or calling the market regularly to see what is on the menu. Other items, like Mindy's popular chicken salad and tomato pies, fresh-made green salads, spaghetti and meatballs, stroganoff, quiche, donuts, pound cake and an array of delectable pies are available daily. Inside the market, visitors will also find an array of ingredients, from sauces to honey, that they can take home and cook with themselves.
Of course it couldn't be done without an amazing staff, which Mindy takes every opportunity to brag about. She and Matt have just returned from a two week family trip to New York, where they had complete peace of mind because of their capable, trustworthy employees.
"It’s better to have a team play with you than for you, and encourage people to lead, too. It makes for a happier place,” said Mindy, drawing from her athletic background.
Both she and Matt have tried to alleviate the pressure often found in industrial kitchens by allowing freedom to experiment, to give honest feedback and make mistakes – as long as all of this helps the employee learn. The work environment and close knit community that Mindy and Matt have created help attract a talented, hard working staff, which Mindy said is one of their greatest assets. The Fitzpatricks do not view employment at The Friendly Market as only a summer job, or something to get kids through college; they see it as the start of a long term relationship, something that will help form their employees into the people they are meant to be.
“It’s like one family,” Mindy said. “With our customers, our staff, farmers and growers, we’re one big family now. And we need to take care of that.”
While adept at their jobs, The Friendly Market staff is also affectionate and supportive of one another. It's easy to see that there is a lot of love between them. Not a syrupy-sweet, melt-away-in-the-rain variety but more of a hearty, drop-everything-and-make-soup-for-a-sick-friend kind of love, and it bleeds through their work, into their customers and community.
Jennifer Lee, who runs the produce section, where she greets most female customers with, “Hello, beautiful!” said she loves Mindy to the moon and back. Kimber, who works in the kitchen on weekends, spends her weekdays serving the school system. She said that to her, working at Mindy’s Baked Goods on her two free days is like therapy. Watching the staff interact with Mindy makes it clear that she plays a fierce, protective role, something akin to a mama bear. From its very earliest days, The Friendly Market has been about the business of bringing people together; customers, local sellers, employees and family have all been folded into the journey. In doing so, Mindy and Matt have created a place where customers can expect quality products and a welcoming community.