By KEVIN CHIRI
Slidell news bureau
SLIDELL — Braithwaite, Denham Springs, Ruston, Plaquemines Parish, Slidell…..
The list goes on and on, but one thing in common with all those locations is that they can all be found in the great state of Louisiana.
It is part of the goal Jack and Tara Collier had when they decided to open a “truly Louisiana fruit and produce market” in Slidell. Camellia Produce, at 2810 William Tell St. in Slidell (with the store front facing Pontchartrain Drive), opened here in Feb., 2010.
“Almost everything we carry is Louisiana grown,” Tara said. “That was what we wanted to do from the beginning—have a fruit and produce market that was all local, and we’ve done that.”
Neither Jack nor Tara probably saw a produce market in their future, but Hurricane Katrina has had a funny way of changing the plans for many people.
That is what happened to this young couple after the storm hit and forced Jack to face a new profession, following years of working with his father’s fishery business that was badly damaged from the storm.
“Jack had purchased this old building and renovated some of it, but then after the storm, we were sitting around and trying to decide what was ahead for us,” Tara said. “We both seemed to agree on the idea of having a local market with produce and fruit that is all grown in the state, and this building seemed like the perfect place for it.”
The building facing Pontchartrain Drive is one that Slidellians have seen for years as they drive down that main thoroughfare. It is reportedly over 100 years old and had some of the old Abney family members living there many years previously. Stepping into the Camellia Produce store gives one a true feeling of the way it was many years ago.
“When people come in here, the atmosphere of this building makes things slow down,” Tara said. “It’s very personable in here, like a little family. I talk a lot to our regulars and we certainly have gotten to know many of them.”
Jack, a lifelong Slidellian, met Tara in north Louisiana during a time of working there, then after the couple moved south, Katrina changed their plans and opened the door for the produce market.
But Tara admits it was a learning process from the beginning, finding out where to get connected with good local farmers. Little by little, they have added more farmers in the region and in the state, and now offer a wide variety of most common fruits and vegetables, as well as many specialty items—with almost everything grown in the state.
“We carry Cucuzza, an Italian squash, Patty Pan Squash, a Cajun pumpkin called Cushaw—we’ve got a lot of items that are not so well known, but items customers asked for, so we got them,” she said.
One of the best sellers in the market is their fresh red beans that are shelled right in the store, then sold as fast as they get put on the shelves.
“We now have local farmers growing real red beans for us, and we shell them right here,” she said. “They are so good that we can’t get enough of them.”
For that matter, they have made connections with different farmers in the region on certain items, then asked them to grow other things.
Tara said the support for the local market has been good from the beginning, and slowly growing as the word gets out that they are there.
“We have people coming in that still tell us they had never noticed we were here,” she said. “But now over two years into this business we have loyal, regular clients and we are continuing to steadily grow.”
To answer one question that is commonly asked, Tara said their prices are as good, if not better, than anywhere else.
“We are a lot cheaper than many grocery stores on most items, but then we have specialty items where we purposely pay a little more for them—like Mr. Joe from Plaquemines Parish, who has been growing true Creole tomatoes for 60 years. His tomatoes are so good, we want to have them,” she added. “But for the majority of things in the store, our prices are as good if not better than any other larger stores.”
She said another good point about what they sell is that they deal with so many very small farmers that most do not use pesticides on their products, so their fruits and vegetables are pesticide free, without paying the higher price for “organically grown” products.
The couple has a 3-year-old son who is very well known for always “helping” in the shop, with another baby on the way. Tara said she never thought life would turn out this way, but now wouldn’t change a thing.
“I love this place and I love the people we deal with every day,” she said. “Life is so good to be able to do this, and one day we hope to maybe have our own land to grow some of the products we will sell here.”