Dining + Wining / Like A Local

Fort Myers’ Farmers Market Restaurant Serves 50 Years of Southern Soul

Each generation harbors a favorite here, from country-fried steak to cornbread and grits.

BY September 1, 2023
Farmers Market Restaurant Fort Myers
The menu remains much the same as when the restaurant opened in 1957–and that’s by design. Staples like the cornbread, which one chef dedicates most of his time to perfecting daily, keep locals coming back. (Photo by Anna Nguyen)

Thursdays are busy at the storied Farmers Market Restaurant in Fort Myers’ Dunbar neighborhood. Chicken and dumplings, a customer favorite, are on special. The dough, made from scratch, is laid out like a blanket. Flour fills the air, before settling into a fine dusting across the kitchen’s steel worktop.

Just outside the kitchen doors, napkins drop like horn notes, soft and full, on the cherry-stained hardwood lunch counter. The ledge is lined with plates of fried chicken and sawmill gravy, cornmeal-crusted catfish, barbecue spare ribs with a brown sugar glaze—dishes so essential and satisfying that when finished, you toss your silverware on the plate, a bit more music to cap the revelry. A tuft of the original 1952 floral wallpaper, a small square of history, peaks out of the corner. It waves as servers whip round the counter’s edge, stacks of cornbread and biscuits teetering, a basket for each table. Beside the restaurant’s entrance is the dessert case, packed with slices of homemade pecan pie, chocolate cake and apple crumb, recipes passed down from one generation to another.

Joann Mow and Mary McCoy, sisters and Fort Myers natives, helm the front of the house, where they’ve greeted customers for more than 50 years, first as servers, now as hosts. The sisters may not remember each customer’s name, but they remember the faces. As I climb the diner steps on a hotter-than-usual afternoon, Mary reaches the door first, holding it open with one arm, ushering me in with the other. Joann waits on the other side, each a beacon of Southern hospitality. The smell of patiently tended-to gravy envelopes it all. 

Farmers Market is the place you seek out on Florida’s dog day afternoons, a place to eat until you’ve caught your breath, to sip on ice-cold glasses of sweet tea, to bite into a slice of pie so familiar that for a moment, you wonder—is this Grandma’s graham cracker crumble? In the background, Joann and Mary lend their voices like the keys of a piano. “Come on in,” Joann says to the next customer. ‘You’re home now,’ is what I hear.

In Southwest Florida, food, like life, is shared in heaping spoonfuls—one story at a time. Culture and tradition are revealed in Southern staples, like stewed okra and braised collards. Such dishes render time meaningless, each ending far from where they began, each taking as long as it takes. The stories undulate along with the years, as do the customers, rising like grits in the pan, babies turned grown-ups turned grandparents. But those warm bowls of soul remain. Simple, earthy fare rooted in the harvest able to withstand Florida’s sweltering heat, a region often considered a part of, and yet, apart from, the South. Native Americans, Spanish, Cubans, Africans, and English fought over and settled Florida’s stretch of sand and soil, melding flavors and culinary skills. So it is at Farmers Market Restaurant, the oldest restaurant in mainland Lee County, opened in 1952.

The South Fort Myers of the 1950s—when the area was known as the gladiolus capital of the world, with nearly 45 million dozens of the flower shipped annually—would be unrecognizable today. Large swaths of farmland stretched across town, with roads awash in citrus, almond and honeysuckle notes. Christine and R.V. Green started the restaurant to serve the surrounding packing houses that supplied the Fort Myers State Farmers Market. “It’s the people and the food. It’s been that way from the start. The packing houses would take turns calling to say what time they could be here for dinner, and we made it a point to know what table [the workers] wanted and often knew their order, too,” Joann says.

Today, just one packing house remains in operation, run by a local watermelon farmer. The market itself shuttered after Hurricane Irma in 2017. Two years ago, the current owner, Betsy Barnwell, recaptured the space as a hyper-local country store, dubbed At the Market. The shop is chock-full of Florida fresh goods, from local eggs to Immokalee-grown crops, to the restaurant’s cured meats and dry rubs. The collards sold At the Market are the same ones used in the restaurant. Betsy calls them ‘collards with a cause,’ each bundle grown at the Dunbar community farm on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

Locals stop by the restaurant for lunch, then pop into the market for their dinner staples—whole neighborhoods raised on Farmers Market’s fare, each generation harboring a favorite, from country-fried steak to cornbread and grits. Joann and Mary refer to it as “plain, simple food.” The restaurant’s regulars refer to it as “good cooking.” Those regulars range from doctors and lawyers to families, Little League teams and neighboring business owners. A nurse getting off a 14-hour shift on his 34th birthday celebrates with a piece of strawberry pie at the counter, “Because it feels like home,” he says. The table behind him wishes him a good one.

Farmers Market has changed ownership over the years, from the Greens to Claire Williams (better known as “Doll”) to the Barnwell family in 1980, but not much else has changed. On the back wall hangs a portrait of the original 1952 menu, which lists the same dishes served today. Betsy says that’s by design. In 2014, when she was 30 years old, and taking over for her 70-year-old father-in-law, she was determined to preserve Farmers Market’s character and Southern comforts, chief among them, the people who work there, each believing that soul food done right will carry you as it’s carried them.

While everyone on the team epitomizes hospitality, most having been with Betsy for at least 10 years, the quality of the food harkens to the kitchen’s central and beloved chef, Olivia Williams, better known as Ms. Libby, who passed in 2019 at 87. The recipes are hers. Her sweet potato pie, that slice of pumpkin-colored heaven; her sausage gravy, its base of warm milk and pork drippings, simmered down, then down some more; soft grits, with a finished texture that can only be felt, never defined, with a certain give as the spoon slides across that heavy-bottomed pot.

After taking ownership, Betsy followed Ms. Libby around the kitchen for weeks, taking notes, writing down every ingredient, technique and scrap of knowledge she could glean—details that had never seen a piece of paper. Alongside Betsy was Christine Yelling, a 12-year veteran of the restaurant, who mentored with Ms. Libby. Today, Christine makes the pies, and the remainder of the menu is split, each cook with their own Ms. Libby recipe to master.

Arriving at 4 a.m. daily, the breakfast crew files into the kitchen, the hungry oven soon humming. Stainless steel 8-gallon pots line the counters. Stewed vegetables start with a bit of fat and homemade chicken stock, then build in flavor and intensity until freshly shredded collards are tamped down; green beans are snapped and rolled into a simmer.

By 4:30 a.m., Rick Levine, a chef at the restaurant for nearly 20 years, begins the sausage gravy, frying the meat until the juices run across the pan. The milk is warmed and seasoned under his watchful eye. Rick points out how quickly and easily it can burn if left unattended. Same goes for the gravies and soups (white, yellow, and brown gravy, cream of mushroom soup, lima bean and ham) he meticulously constructs. Soon, chefs Odnor “Odie” Hilarie and Tyrenn “Ty” Johnson begin their work. Odie makes his way through a mound of green tomatoes, slicing then dipping each in tangy buttermilk followed by a cornmeal coating that’s fried until golden. The homemade macaroni and cheese follows. Betsy’s particularly proud of this dish. “It’s the one thing that wasn’t homemade when I bought the place. Odie and I worked on it until it was perfect,” Betsy says, beaming. Ty begins the cornbread, a food so imperative here, customers say it’s the only poem they’ve ever known. Those drops of honey-colored gold are Ty’s chief focus, day in, day out, and that attention gives way to the best in Southwest Florida. “Some things just can’t be taught,” Betsy says. “When you’re cooking from scratch, you have to have a love for it.”

Everyone who works at Farmers Market loves the kitchen.  Betsy fosters that love, knowing that each handwritten Ms. Libby recipe needs nothing more than time and a small room in your heart. It’s not unusual for, say, a server to become a chef, as was the case with Renae Miners, a server at the restaurant for 15 years, now a baker, as well. During the pandemic, Betsy had to downsize. A bit uncertain, Renae said the only other things she knows how to do are paint and bake cakes. Her mom owned a restaurant for 22 years. “It’s in my blood,” Renae says. Betsy hired her to make the cakes (and paint the restaurant’s interior). “They were delicious—made from scratch, the frosting, everything. And they fly out of here,” Betsy says.

The pit master, Mark Anderson, has been behind the grill for 40 years, first at North Fort Myers’ Woody’s Bar-B-Q, where he learned and mastered his craft, now at Farmers Market, where he’s been for nearly a decade. Mark’s barbecue spare ribs and pulled pork were so popular that they gave way to a food truck, named Big D’S BBQ, which the restaurant uses for catering and events. His pulled pork is a menu mainstay, smoked fresh daily, on-site, low and slow, starting around 1 a.m., on a grill that’s been with him for 35 years. “I know my grill like it knows me,” Mark says.

On Wednesday and Saturday afternoons, Mark’s there smoking his barbecue ribs and chicken, the days’ specials. It’s a Southern-style barbecue with a Memphis tilt—when sauced, it will be red, sweet and tangy, with a touch of molasses. Those afternoons, the restaurant smolders with the scent of toasted paprika and pepper, the aroma curls upward, sweet and bitter, like a memory. A server pauses after laying down a plate of ribs, “More sauce, honey, or you love it as is?” The response, almost always—“as is.”

Mark’s right hand is Brittany Jackson, the restaurant’s event and catering coordinator.  A Fort Myers native and descendant of Nelson Tillis, Fort Myers’ first Black settler, Brittany has spent her entire life in and around Farmers Market. Her son, when 6 months old, sat in one of the restaurant’s high chairs, gumming a bowl of cheesy grits, a favorite of his still, decades later. “I grew up in the Dunbar neighborhood,” she says. “Coming here, everyone knows what you want, knows you by name. It’s that feeling of home, and when it comes to Southern home cooking, it’s also just Southern love.” 

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