NORTHFIELD - Luigi Clemente is the first to admit he knows more about cooking and eating fresh food than growing it.
Clemente, 61, of Linwood, has been in the restaurant business for most of his life, first in Paulsboro where he ran a popular Italian deli and then in Haddonfield where he opened a gourmet restaurant.
But last year the Italian immigrant from Napoli and his wife, Kathleen, bought Mazza's Country Farm Market, a longtime family greenhouse operation on Mill Road in Northfield. The couple decided to invest in an Atlantic County business for their retirement.
"The owner wanted us to take over right away but we weren't ready to take that on," he said.
Under their lease arrangement, former owner Janet Morey will continue to raise the store's bedding plants, hanging baskets and garden vegetables for the next year and sell them at wholesale to Clemente for the market's customers while Clemente and his daughters, Corina and Claudia, learn the greenhouse business.
There is a lot to take in, he said.
Clemente walked the 3 acres of greenhouses on a recent weekday trying to identify all of the many varieties of harder-to-find flowers and vegetables that Morey cultivates next to traditional geraniums, tomatoes and peppers. One greenhouse, called a cold house because it relies exclusively on the sun for warmth, is dedicated to raising varieties of lettuce.
The business gives him a chance to see his daughters practically every day. The couple's son, Gino, lives and works in California.
Corina Clemente, of Linwood, will be in charge of the growing operation.
"I've been gardening my whole life. Being Italian, we always grow our own fruits and vegetables," she said. "But I've never done it on this scale."
The challenge, she said, is to grow the vegetables and plants that Mazza's has offered for more than 40 years with the expertise customers expect.
"The quality of the vegetables is phenomenal," she said.
The family's ultimate goal is to purchase the operation outright once their lease expires. Luigi Clemente said he is still concerned about the lingering effects of the recession.
"Anyone with any business sense might say they wouldn't go into a new business now," he said. But the downturn in the real-estate market makes now a good time for this kind of investment.
The market for years has been largely seasonal. Luigi Clemente wants to make it year-round.
"The plants and tomatoes will be seasonal. But there's no reason this place can't stay open year-round," he said. "We'll have mums and pumpkins in the fall and poinsettias in the winter. Maybe we'll sell Christmas trees."
He renovated the market to add an in-store cafe with fresh-baked Italian bread, cookies, pastries, desserts, freshly brewed coffee and espresso. He also has grocery items such as pasta, spaghetti sauce, olive oil and canned goods and dairy cases full of milk, eggs and energy drinks.
Clemente plans to add more fresh-baked items in coming months, particularly apple and other fruit pies that will help drive home the cafe's relationship to the market.
More small farm operations are offering these value-added products as an incentive for customers and an additional source of revenue, said Pegi Adam, spokeswoman for the New Jersey Farm Bureau.
"A lot of these farm markets are out in the country, and there's no place close to eat," she said. "It's very handy if you're picking your own product, for instance, to just grab a bite to eat at the farm."
Clemente does not have that problem a stone's throw from Northfield's bustling business corridor. But he still wants to give his customers as many reasons as possible to return.
"I think it's a good marriage. I can't sit still. I'm a people-person," he said. "I've been in the people-business all my life. You want to make sure people feel comfortable and enjoy the atmosphere and what you offer."
Contact Michael Miller:
Country Farm Market
Location: 815 Mill Road, Northfield
Owners: Luigi and Kathleen Clemente, of Linwood
Founded: 1960s, since 2012 under Clemente
Employees: 7 seasonal and full time
Revenues: Not disclosed