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April 29. 2013 8:21PM

Champagnes' taste: Couple opens farmers' market in Lincoln


Purple Tomato owners Jim and Susan Champagne will be adding more locally grown produce and vegetables as the season progresses. (SARA YOUNG-KNOX PHOTO)


LINCOLN - The enticing aroma of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies was in the air at the Winwood Plaza at 78 Main Street on Saturday, as the town's newest store, the Purple Tomato, opened its door for business.

Inside the retail space that owners Jim and Susan Champagne describe as a year-round farmers' market, Jim Champagne was busy in the kitchen area, all day long, for the steady stream of customers and well-wishers.

"I'm baking the cookies as we sell them," he said as he took a spatula and put the next batch of gooey chocolate goodness into a basket near the other baked goods. On the shelves, bins and refrigerator cases were fresh produce, local meats, seafood, cheeses and other local foods.

"People want wholesome stuff, and they want to know where it comes from," he said.

The couple, both New Hampshire natives and former Fidelity Investments employees, moved to Lincoln, where they met, to be closer to Jim's family.

Several years ago they decided to create a business that supported local businesses, farmers and artisans, and drew on their love of cooking. Late last year they made the decision to go for it, and worked all winter renovating the space they designed themselves. They networked with suppliers, from local organic beef farms to North Country bakers.

Networking was key to their marketing, too. On Saturday, several customers mentioned they had heard about the market - the Champagnes did not do any advertising through traditional media - through Facebook.

"We were talking about getting some zucchini, and here we are," Loir Van Houten of Lincoln said as she made her purchase. Her teenage daughter, Katie, had connected with the Purple Tomato on Facebook, through a friend of a friend.

"The goal was to put a little information out there ever couple of days," Susan Champagne said of the social media. They also utilized Twitter and Pinerest. They held regular contests - with cookie coupons as the prize - and posted lots of mouth-watering pictures of recipes using the products and produce they carry.

The couple seem to have a special place in their heart for kale and asparagus.

She said they planned the soft opening of their market for the slow season because it will give them an opportunity to talk with their customers. For now, the store is open Thursday through Monday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., but that could change as they get feedback from local residents.

Jim Champagne said they plan to put up a monitor so that people can, with just a click, see the places the food they are buying comes from, places like the Green Bough Farm in North Haverhill, which provides all-natural grass-fed beef, fresh eggs, chicken and pork.

"We want to be able to have those connections," Champagne said. "That closes the link."

Important to the couple, too, are the local economic benefits of supporting the region's farmers and producers.

"If we keep that money here," Jim Champagne pointed out, "we don't have to fight as hard to get it back."

By June, the counter between the kitchen area and the retail space should be finished, and deli sandwiches added to the ready-to-eat meals they sell.

In coming back to Lincoln, Jim Champagne came back to his family's roots. In opening the market, he and his wife are, while supplying good, healthy, local food to the community, carrying on a tradition.

Jim's been told that back in the 1920s, his great-grandmother had a store in Lincoln.

syoungknox@newstote.com


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