This is the sixth in our series “Connecting With Local Food.”
How Good It Is, Lemons’ Market
By David Ballantine
Lemons’ Market, nestled in the small burg of Philo just five miles north of Boonville, has been a mainstay in Anderson Valley for 40 years now. Elmer and June Lemons, along with their son Tom and his wife Connie, started the Philo market together. They have owned and successfully directed the business through a myriad of economic landscapes as the valley has shifted from apples, sawmills, and sheep to its present day grapes, wineries, and its subsequent tourism.
To the market’s credit, and possibly its great success, it works hard at being responsive to the shifting demographic of the valley. And Erica Lemons, who now manages the day to day operations of the store, knows better than anyone that, with their limited space, what goes on the shelves must meet the demands of the immediate community as well as the weekend campers and tourists. She remembers fondly a spot on the shelves where Bub Clow’s B & M bread-in-a-can went. They ordered it special for him. “He was good for about one a week.” she says, “Well, when he passed, there’s this little spot on the shelf where that goes but I can’t order bread-in-a-can. Part of me wants to just because that’s Bub Clow’s space.”
These days, in Bub Clow’s spot on the shelf, you might find truffle oil or gluten free snack crackers, and back near the beer cooler many of the valley’s best wine offerings sit on their own shelf. It’s hard to imagine, with all the wineries selling their own product at the tasting rooms, that the market would sell much of the $25 plus bottles of wine. But Erica knows her customers and she knows Lemons Market sells a lot of local wine. “A lot of people buy their wine closer to supper time, after the tasting rooms are closed.”
Elmer and June came to California from Oklahoma in 1952, where he worked in farming down south. They came north in the early ’70s and settled in Anderson Valley, where Elmer fell in love with the fishing. The family tells stories of how they would row out from Albion in a rowboat, fishing for Rock Cod and the like. That grew into a commercial venture that Elmer’s son, Tom, continues to this day. In fact, all of Tom’s sons have commercial fishing licenses. Tom Jr. owns and operates the Tarantino Jr., and Tom Sr., along with his youngest son Wade, are partners in a new boat The Quillback. A quillback is a type of rock fish that is found in the waters near Noyo Harbor where both boats dock. Matt, Erica’s husband, owns Elmer’s old boat, The Newman 1, which might not be fancy but it has great sentimental value. Suffice it to say, this family takes their fishing very seriously. “It’s a family business and we’re all invested in it down to,” Erica says with pride and a chuckle, “not netting the fish because they don’t want to knock the scales off.”
“We’re really lucky to know when it was caught, how it was handled. They are pretty when they come in.” The reality of modern day labeling actually allows fisherman to call their salmon fresh when it has been caught weeks before it gets delivered to the vendor. Erica says she can’t say how many times she and husband Matt have traveled down 19th street through San Francisco to meet up with a boat in Half Moon Bay or up to Fort Bragg in the middle of the night to load their pickup with ice and salmon so that customers can have fresh fish or crab the next day. The family connection also allows Lemons Market quick access to other fishermen. When Tom and Wade or Tom Jr. don’t have what the market wants—the family fishermen will put them in touch with someone who does. Lemons market maintains a fish receiver’s license so that they can buy from any commercial fisherman.
Lemons’ Market opened its doors in 1973, when more than a few sawmills still dotted the valley. By that time June had learned the art of butchering, working at Jack’s Valley Store back before Jack’s became primarily a building supply store. Now they had a place to sell their fish as well as beef and lamb, and the quality of those offerings have remained core to the market. Once, the lunch hour would see long lines of sawmill workers winding done the aisles of the store waiting for one of Lemons Market’s huge sandwiches made to order with fresh meats and produce. It’s a service they still provide, but now the customers are winery workers, campers passing through and tourists taking a break before moving on to the next tasting room.
After Elmer passed and June retired, Connie continued to run the store with Tom. But as medical issues took an increasing toll her health, there came a time when the physical demands of running the store just became too much for Connie. And with Tom focusing more on running their commercial fishing business, it wasn’t long before Erica began filling in. She started working in the market when she was fifteen, still in high school.
Erica credits Tom, whom she says is meticulous in pretty much everything he does, with training her to butcher. After a while you start to notice that attention to detail may just be a family trait.
The same thoughtfulness that goes into their fish goes into their treatment of beef. Lemons’ sources their meat from The Golden Gate Meat Co. that, like Lemons Market, is a family owned and operated enterprise. The sell their organic beef through two wholesale outlets and run a thriving retail store at the Ferry Building in San Francisco. But even more impressive is the fact that, in a family of expert butchers, the Lemons deal primarily in whole carcass meat. When the whole BSE (mad cow disease) was brought on by poor handling techniques at the larger meat-packing plants back in 2008, Lemons and their customers didn’t have to worry because their meat wasn’t packaged by unknown entities. From their flank steaks to hamburger everything was produced and prepared in-house with that same meticulous attention to detail that Tom has become known for.
Lemons’ Market now has eight employees that are non-family members, but it’s not a distinguishable trait when listening to Erica speak about them. When talking about her own skills Erica is brief and succinct, but when asked about the different departments of the store, she effuses over the many talents of the people around her. Most employees are capable of most tasks, but each has their specialty. A peek over the meat counter for just a moment or two is all anyone needs to realize the speed and precision with which they prepare the meat and fish. “Julie Mejia, Julie Winchester, Jenny Moore, and I all cut fish and they are really skilled—people don’t realize what a skill it is.” She is particularly impressed with the cutting skills of the young Mejia who has been with the store for about ten years now.
Erica calls Tina Perez her produce guru. As the title implies, Tina has her pulse on what is available locally and what the customers want. She has been with the market since before Erica arrived, and Erica jokes, “You never realize how fast she is moving but at the end of the day she has done all this stuff and you don’t know how it all got accomplished.” She is the dream employee that Erica wants her younger, newer employees to aspire to. “I don’t want to have to talk to you, I don’t want to see you, I just want things to magically get done.” Tina also keeps Erica up to date with needs of the Hispanic population by reminding her to get more fish near Easter or making sure to stock the sweet tamales, which is a food Erica is quick to point out she loves.
Two other employees that are highly prized are Marylin Pronsolino and Laurie Cooper. Marylin loves to test the newer products on her own time. “She is a great cook,” says Erica who has come to trust Marylin’s opinion on what to keep and what not to order again. Customers also have her to thank for how she decorates the front of the store with seasonal displays. Laurie, is the one that really makes walking into the market a pleasure. Erica really appreciates her kindness, and if you have ever walked up to the counter at the end of a long, hard day at work, you know what Erica is talking about. Lauries smile makes the last few miles home a little easier.
Lemons’ also places great value on the fruits and vegetables. They get their much of their produce from Coastline Distributors in Santa Rosa. Erica laments the days when they were able to use local distributor, Signal Ridge Trucking, run by George and Kate Castagnola who no longer maintain what was a grueling workweek for just one couple. But Lemons has developed a strong relationship with their new distributor that allows them to call and tell them when something isn’t up to their standards. Coastline is quick to credit their account no questions asked because of their long relationship. “We have a rule” Erica states matter-of-factly, “if you wouldn’t eat it, no one else should either. So if it’s something that doesn’t look good to us and we wouldn’t feed it to our kids, get rid of it.”
That’s only half the story, however, because Lemons’ Market sources continually from a variety of local farmers and vendors. Organic vegetables from Pam Laird’s Blue Meadow Farm, and berries from Bill McEwen often grace their produce cases. In addition they carry Cloverdale Honey, fruit from Gowan’s Apple Farm, and goat cheese from Sara Cahn Bennett’s new Penny Royal Farms. In the meat department they offer Round Man’s smoked sausage from Fort Bragg, and Angelo’s in Petaluma provides their smoked fish offerings. The also carry note cards from local nurse and photographer Anjes de Ryck. A favorite offering is the Salsa cookbook created by local women in the valley adult school. Vendors get the market rate, and just like the family fishermen, Erica wants them to succeed and get a fair wage for their efforts.
When she graduated from Anderson Valley High she had intended on going to college, but Matt Lemons asked her to marry him and she chose to stay and raise a family with him. Their own children, Will who is fifteen and Riley a year and a half younger is thirteen and a half, also help at the market as time allows between volleyball and football. Husband Matt, who is a general contractor in the valley and who has always worked behind the scenes at the market, is taking on a more prominent role, allowing Erica to finally pursue those college goals. This semester she has enrolled with a plan to earn a Certificate in Medical Assisting at Mendocino College. “This is for me,” she says with no real plan to change careers.
It is no small irony that, after spending just a little time with Erica Lemons talking about the market, you know she could be teaching advanced classes in business at the college she is attending as a student.
In two weeks Brock’s Farm will be featured in this “Connecting With Local Food” series brought to you by AV Foodshed.