In 2016, Reed and Karen Ingram were empty nesters with time and energy to spare. Reed had an idea that had been percolating for some time.
“It just started off as a thought of doing a fruit stand, selling fresh produce,” he said on a Sunday afternoon in a packed café attached to a bustling covered outdoor market with a live soul and blues band playing on the porch.
The Ingrams own a quality used car dealership and operate a 600-acre cattle farm, but “we don’t like to sit still,” said Karen, adding that at first “I wasn’t sure it was a good idea” to start another venture.
Reed’s idea had begun to grow on Karen, though, when they mentioned it to a banker friend. The friend strongly advised against turning Reed’s dream into reality.
“We left, and I said, ‘Let’s do this,’ said Karen. In his retelling, Reed remembered, “She got in the car and said, ‘I’m in.’ ”
The couple, who have been married for 40 years and have worked together for 38, often finish each other’s thoughts or expound on them in conversation.
Five Years and Growing
In March, SweetCreek Farm Market will mark its fifth year in business, but “nothing out of the ordinary,” said Reed. “Our anniversary is right when everything starts ramping up to like 100 miles per hour,” said Karen, explaining that SweetCreek’s busy season stretches from March through October.
What was an idea slightly more than five years ago has grown into a thriving venture in Pike Road, right off U.S. 231, a major artery for Alabamians and other travelers headed to the beaches of Alabama and Florida. SweetCreek is part barbecue café, part produce market, part ice cream parlor and part agritourism destination. And the couple has future dreams for a nearby event venue and U Pick farm operation.
“We want to target more of the younger generation, where they can learn about farms and where they can be our future farmers,” said Reed, who grew up farming with his father. “We want to plug as many parents with kids into spending time with their children and learning about farming as we can.”
Over the past five years, the couple has added live animals that roam the property, a pavilion, planted trees, doubled the land around them and started a farm to grow pumpkins and other seasonal crops.
SweetCreek Farm Market, named for nearby Catoma Creek and the sugary fresh baked goods and ice cream sold there, started with 11 employees. A core third of those still work there, including the cook, baker and a manager. At peak times, the business has employed as many as 78. In the off-season last year, that number dropped to 62. The business is open seven days a week even when it is not growing season.
Customers “knowing when you are going to be open and when you are not going to be open is the only way you can provide a service,” said Reed. “We close four days a year” – Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.
The Ingrams chose to locate where fresh fruits and vegetables, while grown nearby, weren’t readily available to buy. “It was such a food desert,” said Reed, noting that the nearest grocery store is still seven miles away. More than 100, mostly local and Alabama farmers, grow the produce, including teenagers just learning the trade. “It is neat to see these young kids come in and set a basket up on the counter with a gleam in their eyes that they will be getting money for their eggs,” said Reed.
Besides car dealer, cattleman, farmer, restauranteur and business owner, Reed also is an elected official. He’s represented Alabama House District 75 since 2014 and prior to that served for 10 years as a Montgomery County commissioner. He said SweetCreek customers “talk to me about politics a lot.”
“Rubbing elbows with people all day long makes him a lot more empathetic,” said Karen. “When he sees some laws come down or legislation in the works, he looks at it from the eyes of all the people he sees every day.”
Story and photos by Nancy King Dennis
This article also appears on Pages 4 and 5 of the February 2021 Alabama Retailer
Originally posted Feb. 20, 2021