By James D. McCallister
Photography by John Wrightenberry
As he strolls a lush and shaded parking lot on a tranquil summer morning, Basil Garzia, proprietor of Rosewood Market and Deli, Columbia’s longstanding headquarters of natural foods, health supplements, and good vibes, has a twinkle in his eyes, which look upon his locally-owned grocery store and cafe with pride, and justifiably so – his is an iconic business, one that’s part of the fabric of the Rosewood Drive neighborhood, and of the city at large.
Garzia has plenty of reasons to be happy – since 1973 he’s been at the epicenter of sensible, sustainable dietary practices here in a city and a region known more for its barbecue than the penchant among its citizens for vegetarianism. That his business has grown and thrived in the manner it has is a testament to Garzia and his loyal staff’s devotion and belief in their products, as well as their customers.
Ironically enough, however, the rationale that got Garzia into this game, originally as owner of the vegetarian cafe Basil Pot, weren’t necessarily driven by his own health consciousness – like any entrepreneur worth his intuition, he saw opportunity, and a hole in the restaurant marketplace: a vegetarian dining alternative.
Garzia grew up in what he describes as a typical 1950s middle class suburban childhood, in a Latham, NY household steeped in the culture of his grandparents, who’d immigrated from Campobasso in southern Italy, bringing with them a love of food, family, and tradition. His Depression-era parents taught him how to live abstemiously, with his expert-cook of a mother instructing him through example in the ways of feeding people in a manner both frugal and conscious of the environment. Such was her gift of cooking that her family often encouraged Mrs. Garzia to open her own restaurant, but this was a notion she declined to pursue.
After attending Lehigh University, Garzia eschewed his family’s expectations for him – a settled life like they’d led, with a comfortable, stable career in business, a family, and so on – to forge his own path, one shaped by, and commensurate with, the late 60’s era of tumult and change in which he’d come of age.
Following a stint in what was called Vista (a precursor to the Americorps model of youthful community service), he worked in PR for the Midlands Community Action Agency, which administered federal funds earmarked for various needs, and wondered if his future lay in the realm of community service.
Whatever his talents and ambitions – and as the early 70’s went on, he continued to wonder what those might entail – his friends were consistent in telling him the same thing: that he made great hamburgers. So, the idea came to him: the restaurant his mother had never wanted to run! But what sort of cuisine? Italian food? Hamburgers? Columbia already had plenty of that.
Then, a friend gave him a book that would change his life: The Vegetarian Epicure. “I thought, that’s it – that’s what this market doesn’t have. I built the Basil Pot menu around that, and we still sell the cookbook today.”
He’d studied economics and business rather than the nutritional side of vegetarianism, but as he learned of the health benefits associated with such a diet, he adopted its tenets. “It’s also an inarguably healthier way to live in terms of [agriculture]’s overall impact on the environment,” about which he’d learned respect from the careful and conscientious gardening habits of his parents, he says.
The Basil Pot remained a fixture on Rosewood Drive into the 80’s, a time in which Garzia added a small retail section to augment the cafe business, which had remained a labor of love rather than a cash cow. Then one day, the roof caved in – literally – and he found himself faced with a business that needed a large capital investment to remain on its feet. With little stomach for such an endeavor, he made the difficult decision to close.
Despite the struggles he’d faced, he still saw potential in the marketplace for the retail side of healthy eating, which he’d begun by offering a small section of fresh and packaged foods, a new aspect of his business that had shown potential. After being approached by a buyer for the Basil Pot concept (Richard Schwartz, who would eventually re-open downtown and operate the restaurant for the next 15 years), Garzia opened the store he called Rosewood Natural Foods, a neighborhood grocer catering to the same health-minded clientele he’d courted with his restaurant.
Meeting with greater success than he’d enjoyed with the Basil Pot, he grew Rosewood Natural Foods to the point that he found he wanted to re-introduce the cafe part of the equation. To do so, however, he’d need more space, so he
bought a nearby property that had happened to come up for sale, a former residential lot now rezoned.
Garzia worked with an architect to design a functional grocery and deli that also preserved the trees and shrubs that adorned the former owner’s house and property. “When I bought this place, I looked around at these beautiful trees,” Garzia says, “and realized that while I’m building this building, I’m responsible for them, too.” The structure and underground infrastructure design incorporated these concerns, though not without considerable cost and effort.
Now that the idea of healthful eating has taken hold among an exponentially broader demographic than when he first began nearly four decades ago, Garzia nonetheless faces the same issues that greeted his entree into the business world: competition. He’s weathered the appearance of both Publix and Earth Fare, the latter a mile away and the former close enough to reach across Rosewood Drive and shake hands with its locally-owned competitor for neighborhood grocery dollars, and later in 2012 Whole Foods will be opening too, at the eastern terminus of Rosewood Drive, as well as Trader Joe’s over in Forest Acres. “The big boys.”
Fortunately, however, Garzia foresees a place amidst the corporate jostling for profit, because there’s another cultural movement afoot besides nutrition and health consciousness: supporting local businesses. His use of social media, Groupon-style deals, and the new ritual of the popular 20% Off Days keeps the aisles of his neighborhood fixture humming with activity; and the deli has recently expanded its menu to include breakfast, so Rosewood Market, nearing its twenty-fifth anniversary, shows no current signs of slowing down. In fact, considering its partnerships with local farmers, food truck operators, and fresh seafood vendors, the business feels as though it is truly at the nexus of a movement that, in theory, should only continue to grow.
“While the big boys duke it out,” he says, “we’re going to stick with what we do best – staying in tune and in touch with our customers’ needs.”
Whatever the future may portend, Garzia is certain of only one outcome: just like he’s always managed to do, he’ll find a way to forge that iconoclastic path of his through the trials and triumphs that wait. He may have made it up as he’s gone along, as he says, but as he surveys his business with an expression of affection and accomplishment – a grocery store, yes, but one that’s also a place of fellowship and nourishment, a fixture that every neighborhood should be so lucky to have – it’s easy to see why Rosewood Market & Deli has enjoyed remarkable longevity and success.
Rosewood Market & Deli is open seven days a week. For more information, and to browse the deli menu that changes daily, visit rosewoodmarket.com, or find them on Facebook.