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A Breath of Fresh Air

Jennifer and Steve Snead-SmithJennifer and Steve Snead-Smith have owned Highlands' Mountain Fresh Grocery for just one year, but if the lunchtime crowd on a recent Wednesday is any indication, they've already caught on to the vibe of downtown Highlands.
The blackboard at the entrance announces the specials of the day: Philly cheesesteak melt, red bean, and andouille sausage soup, and blackened mahi-mahi tacos.  And that's just the beginning. A long line at the pizza counter is a testament to the delicious homemade slices produced on-site, and the grill chef could use an extra pair of hands as he cooks order after order. 
To say this is “just” a grocery store is a little like saying Barbara Streisand can carry a tune. The little emporium, near the corner of Fifth and Main, is alive with the sensual scents, sights, and tastes of food well done.
The Snead-Smiths are new to Highlands, as well as the food business. In their “previous” lives in the Richmond, Virginia area, they were immersed in engineering and human resources for two large corporations. They both felt an urge to explore something new in a new location, but the parameters were hazy at best.  “We're people-oriented,” Steve explains, “and we like the mountains.”
A graduate of North Carolina State and Duke, Steve grew up in small-town North Carolina and is naturally drawn to the mountains.  Jennifer shares this love, although she grew up in a more metropolitan environment in Virginia where she graduated from the University of Richmond. They explored any number of business opportunities, some as far away as Denver, before visiting Mountain Fresh Grocery, then owned by J.T. Fields and Don Reynolds.  Steve says they sensed right away a great opportunity in the making. The four developed a good relationship during the period between their first meeting and the eventual closing, and Steve says they still talk regularly.
Interestingly, the Snead-Smith family wholeheartedly bought into the change.  Their eldest son still works in Richmond, but their daughter works in the pizza department and manages the books.  Another son also works in pizza, his girlfriend works in the bakery department, and her brother is on the grill!  The couple's youngest son is just 13 and attends Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School, but was a diligent worker in the ice cream department during summer vacation. (For the record, the family's two rat terriers, Bogie and Gracie, are very happy with the move as well.)
To anyone who would question the transition from corporate America to small-town market, Steve is quick to say that many principles remain the same no matter the business.  A business school graduate, he notes that the kitchen is really a lot like a manufacturing assembly line.  His experience in the chemical business taught him to work with government agencies, a background that serves him well in his present-day interaction with the health department which is an integral part of the restaurant business.  
Jennifer's background in human resources is a huge plus in the day-to-day operations as well. And, does she, perhaps, have some experience in the food business?
“I like to eat,” she answers, plain and simple, and will avoid at all costs “business lunches” which detract from the sheer pleasure of the meal.
“I don't have to be an expert in every area of the food business, I just need to hire the experts,” Steve says.  Two examples that prove his point are Vince Malcer and Kevin Hayes, director of operations, and pastry chef respectively.
Vince comes from Florida with a resume that includes Whole Foods, the Cheesecake Factory, and Bradenton Country Club, where he served as executive chef.  Kevin, too, was drawn from Florida to the mountains after forty years experience and a client roster that includes Burt Reynolds, Celine Dion (he baked the cake for her twins' christening party!), and Keith Hernandez. He was also named one of Southwest Florida's top ten chefs by Golf & Leisure Magazine.
Steve says they knew they had bought into a beloved part of the community as soon as they began to move in.  He laughs recounting the difficulty he had getting ready for the opening because so many “locals” would stop by to welcome him and stay to talk.  But he recognized immediately that he was the new owner of a Highlands institution, and he honors that.
So open they did, and the response from the community has been heartening.  The store is open 363 1/2 days a year (Christmas is non-negotiable!), and this year even opened the doors for a half-day on Thanksgiving.  The store's complete Thanksgiving dinner carry-out was sold to more than 140 patrons, and Steve admitted they took home one for their family as well.
The rest of the days are busy, beginning with a daily breakfast made to order and an extensive breakfast buffet on Sundays.  There are nightly specials, from Asian to pizza to Mexican and the biggest night of the week is Friday, which features steaks, salmon, and lobster.  In good weather on Fridays, the picnic tables outside are full and some customers even bring tablecloths and candles to decorate them. (Wine is readily available from the store's wine department and corkage fees are mostly waived.) And the desserts are always tantalizing, from chocolate flourless torte to Linzer cookies and eclairs.
Steve and Jennifer are already becoming involved in the community, having sponsored a fundraiser for the Highlands schools whereby students could sell meatloaves in the community, for which Mountain Fresh Grocery donated 50% of revenue to the schools. Interestingly, last December's storm which caused widespread power outages gave them a great chance to “payback,” as their generator was operative and many of their staff live within walking distance of the store.  “We hardly missed a beat,” he remembers.  Mountain Fresh Grocery has long had the reputation of being open when every other store is closed and he isn't about to tarnish that local goodwill.
There are lots of plans afoot for the coming months, including wine tastings with appetizers on Friday afternoons and more opportunities for online ordering.  The Snead-Smiths remain committed to doing as much on-premises as possible, like freshly ground meats and from-scratch baking. Even their fresh ground coffees are roasted at a nearby in-town facility. Shoppers can also choose from a wide variety of artisan oils and kinds of vinegar which bear the Mountain Fresh logo.
It's been a full but fulfilling first year for this couple, who dared to step out and test new waters when others would have stayed put. The happy outcome was embodied in the comments of one recent guest who was enjoying a late afternoon cinnamon roll.  Asked if it was as good as it looked, he nodded with a full mouth.
He swallowed, then earnestly asked, “But have you tried the pizza?”
Jennifer and Steve, it would seem, are doing something very well. •

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