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Willow Mercantile

Al Parker - August 30th, 2010
Willow Mercantile brings farm-fresh foods to Cadillac
By Al Parker
A pair of energetic entrepreneurs have taken a shabby location on Cadillac’s South Mitchell Street and turned it into a bustling produce and specialty market that lures shoppers from across the region with its fresh produce, extensive roster of Michigan products and on-site greenhouse.
Cadillac natives Brian Jones and Brian Johnson opened Willow Mercantile in April and are already building a reputation for offering farm-fresh produce and a variety of specialty items that just can’t be found in big-chain grocery stores.
“Our business is built around the produce,” says Jones. “We talk to local farmers and make good deals. Twice this week farmers stopped by with items and we made deals right in our parking lot.”

MANY INCARNATIONS
Willow Mercantile sits on a site that at different times housed a car dealership, a furniture shop and a Salvation Army outlet. Jones and Johnson leveled a 6,000-square-foot building to build the 4,000-square foot market. The accompanying 3,000-square foot greenhouse is where vegetables, annual and perennial flowers, shrubs and trees are housed.
“In our minds this was going to be a seasonal market,” recalls Jones with a wry smile. “Then as we went along, it got more complex and turned into a year-round operation. Then we added the greenhouse.”
Several Cadillac area restaurants have discovered Willow Mercantile, including the Park Place Café, Chico’s Taco House, the House of Hunan and the Blue Heron Cafe. While business has been steady and growing, there has been one problem that Jones has worked hard to solve.
“We need to get the word out that we’re not an expensive specialty store,” he explains. “We have regular items and fresh produce that are priced lower than a larger grocery store. But we also offer items that are not found in many other places, plus a large selection of Michigan products.”
For example, the Willow Mercantile has an impressive display of beers from more than a dozen Michigan breweries, including Arbor Brewing, Arcadia Ales, Atwater Block Brewery, Bell’s, Tri City Brewing, Dark Horse Brewing, Founders, Keweenaw Brewing, Mt. Pleasant Brewing, Michigan Brewing Company, North Peak Beer Company, New Holland Brewing and Short’s Brewing. There are also organic and gluten-free brews.
“We sell a lot of the (Michigan) beers,” says Jones. “And we let people mix and match a six-pack so they can try different beers.”
And the selection of Michigan wines is equally impressive with dozens of varieties from Black Star Farms, Chateau Chantel, Chateau Grand Traverse, Forty-Five North, Good Harbor, Leelanau Cellars, Left Foot Charlie, Mackinaw Trail Winery, Orchard Valley and Peninsula Cellars.

MICHIGAN MADE
There’s also an assortment of four different Michigan coffees, spices, pastas, sauces, meats, jams, jellies, salsas, peanut butters and preserves. Jones and Johnson are constantly looking for Michigan-made products to add to the selection, trying to add four or five new choices each week.
Working with several vendors, Willow Mercantile features its own house brands of mushrooms, olives, pickles, hot sauces, pickled beans, asparagus, salsas, pears and peaches. “We have people who buy our pickles by the case,” says Jones with a laugh.
Gluten-free foods are growing in popularity and Willow Mercantile offers a growing array of items ranging from kitchen basics like vegetable, beef and chicken stocks to tasty treats like chocolate brownies, chocolate chip cookies and snickerdoodles. Bakers will want to check out the gluten-free mixes for cornbread, pancakes, breads and biscuits. There’s even a gluten-free beer available from Lakefront Brewery.
The mercantile runs special prices on a half dozen items weekly and includes items that they can get at low prices and pass on the savings to their customers. They try to offer deals in different areas – produce, market items, beer and wine too.
“We spend a lot of time working with our suppliers to get good products at good prices,” says Jones. “If you want unique, we’ll get it, but if you’re also looking for basic shopping, this is the place to come. For example, we offer cage-free organic eggs, but we have regular eggs too.”

The Willow Mercantile, at 916 South Mitchell St. in Cadillac, is open Monday through Saturday 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Sunday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. For more information, call (231) 468-2682 or visit willowmercantile.com.

 
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