When Dianne Shenk converted an old hay wagon into a fresh produce stand on an empty lot in Hazelwood, she didn’t realize she was making a move that would affect an entire community.
That was three years ago. After operating her farm stand in an empty lot for two successful summers, she moved into a permanent indoor space on Second Avenue, establishing Dylamato’s Market. The market provides fresh produce and healthy food options in an area that was, for many years, a food desert—a geographical classification attributed to impoverished and isolated areas where there is a lack of grocery stores and limited access to fresh food.
Dylamato’s Market has been embraced by local residents, recently celebrating its first anniversary. It’s the first real grocer to open in the area since Dimperio’s Market—which served Hazelwood for 80 years—closed in 2009. When it closed its doors, residents had few grocery options other than making a trek to neighboring towns, which for some involved a two-bus commute.
Once bustling Hazelwood earned its name from its proliferation of Hazelnut trees lining the Monongahela river. It experienced years of decline after the city’s last steel mill closed in 1998. While many businesses and people moved away, other residents were left behind with not much around them, especially when it came to shopping options.
Dianne Shenk grew up in Tanzania and Kenya before moving to the U.S. for high school and college. After moving to Pittsburgh, she enrolled in the Masters in Food Studies program at Chatham University studying global food systems and markets with a particular interest in underserved urban communities. She interned at Penn’s Corner Farm Alliance and worked at Matthew’s Family Farm. But it was her involvement with the Fishes and Loaves Buying Club in Hazelwood, a community-driven effort to provide fresh food to locals, that inspired her to open a market that could truly serve the community.
Councilman Corey O’Connor credits Shenk with spearheading change in the area. “When Dianne first had the idea for the farm stand, it really got the ball rolling, to show that there was fresh produce available right here in the community.” he says. “Now, instead of just simply driving through the area, people are actually stopping and spending money in Hazelwood.
“The market makes great sandwiches and has become a lunch destination where customers not only support a small business but are helping to revitalize a community,” notes O’Connor.
Part of Shenk’s mission is to partner with other locally-owned micro-businesses to create viable livelihoods in the Hazelwood community. She engages with other local food makers and farmers to find ways they can support each other directly. It’s not just about fitting in, but about holding up the community as a support beam.
Shenk stocks Dylamato’s Market with fresh vegetables including lots of greens, fruits, local meats from Pittsburgher Highland Beef and Thoma’s Meat Market, bread from Mancini’s Bakery, organic grain products from Frankferd Farm, fresh eggs from Baker’s Golden Dairy, fresh baked goods, juices, cheese, and dry goods. There are even gardening supplies like fresh compost from Steel City Soils Co-Operative.
Kyle Pattison of Hazelwood Farms is one of the farmers providing Dylamato’s with fresh produce. He supports Shenk’s small market, community focused approach because it more closely matches how the agricultural food system worked years ago. “You grow your own food and take any extra to the market to sell to your neighbors, then you can buy the things you are unable to grow,” says Pattison.
NEXTPittsburgh sat down with Dianne Shenk to talk about her journey, the market and the mission:
How has the reaction to Dylamato’s Market been among people living in Hazelwood?
People walk in and say things like, “I’ve been waiting for years for something like this to happen!” and then regularly check in with me to make sure I will stay open. Seriously, at least one person a day asks how I’m doing and expresses relief when I say it’s going well.
When you first came up with the idea of opening the market, did it feel like you were swimming upstream?
I was very frustrated by the lack of affordable, usable, commercial-built space. That’s why I built the farm stand and started out in a seasonal space by the side of the road. I feel like the city has a stranglehold on old buildings. Either they’re city-owned and take long to purchase, or they are privately owned but difficult to get back in circulation due to code and building regulations. The regulations give an advantage to large developers, but then the community doesn’t own them and is more or less at the mercy of the developer for what happens to them. At the same time, I received enormous encouragement from the Hazelwood Initiative and residents who got to know me and supported me either personally or as a customer to my business.
Do the same people who knew you as “the fruit lady” at your farm stand now visit you in the market?
Yes, most of them have found me again. Some found me immediately when I opened in February of 2016, while others rediscovered me over the summer. They still come in for produce, but also purchase other things.
What do you think people are most surprised by when they shop at your market?
They’re really surprised at first by how big it is on the inside when it seems so small from the outside. They’re also surprised by the variety—I often say I have a little bit of a lot of different things!
Do locals make special requests of things they would like you to stock in the shop?
Yes, all the time. Most of our shelf-stable items are there because someone asked for them. Customers asked for deli sandwiches for six months before I grew the capacity to buy the sandwich station. Now they’re asking for ice cream and I’m making plans for a freezer and hope to soon carry Leona’s Creamery and Phil and Bill’s Ice Cream.
What are your hopes and plans for the future of Dylamato’s Market?
I hope to continue building a supply line of local food sources for everything I can find at a reasonable price. I have to stay price sensitive for my customer base. I also hope to spur micro-food businesses in Hazelwood by providing people with a buyer for their products. I purchase all my baked goods from a Hazelwood startup called Mee Mee’s ’Tis So Sweet Bakery. The owner uses a commercial kitchen at St. Stephen’s. She’s incredibly talented and should have her own storefront once she grows her business.
What do you think the impact has been on the local community from having a market like Dylamato’s open?
I’ve opened up people’s minds to many things, including the fact that a neighborhood grocery can not only make it with reasonable prices, but also thrive. That there’s a place in town where people can think about selling things they make themselves. That Hazelwood residents can, in a very real, concrete way, begin to solve their own problems on a scale they can access right now. They don’t have to wait for a big developer or government money or some kind of grant. I think Dylamato’s Market is a really interesting idea space with a lot of energy around it.