Conway looks at food hub to bring farmers, restaurants together

At Crady's Eclectic Cuisine in Conway, owner Barbara Whitley is well-known for making tasty desserts.

She takes pride that her cookies are baked with locally-grown figs, and her pies with local peaches.

"I'm always excited when I can get fresh food, fresh fruit, fresh produce. The fresher, the better," Whitley said.

The Clemson University Extension Service is looking to help people like Whitley, by studying the feasibility of creating a food hub for Horry County in Conway.

It would be something like a large-scale farmers' market, a clearinghouse aimed more at restaurants and grocery stores than consumers.

"Markets are retail, food hubs are largely wholesale," explained Clemson Extension Agent Blake Lanford, who helped produce the study.

Lanford says the general public wouldn't be left out of the food hub. He imagines a retail market with a wholesale element included.

"Something that has entertainment space and a demonstration kitchen or a light-scale commercial kitchen. We envision a little bit more uses out of Conway," he said.

Whitley has good reason to be enthused about the food hub concept.

While the pastries at her restaurant look, smell and taste great, she says coming up with all the ingredients from different farmers in different places can be tricky.

"So I think when we get the clearinghouse, then the restaurateur can call the hub and say, 'What do you have today?'" said Whitley.

Lanford says the food hub idea is catching on around the state.

The challenge will be coming up with seed money, manpower and grants, possibly from the USDA, to get one started in Horry County.

"I think it's going to ultimately come down to who steps up first and invests the resources and the time in creating that business model that's going to work," Lanford said.

Lanford thinks it could take a half-million dollars and maybe three years to get a food hub going in Conway.

He says Columbia, Greenville and other cities are studying the concept, but so far the state's only food hub is in Charleston.