The Abbott Tract Historic District is pulsing with new blood these days. From upstart boutiques like to new galleries, restaurants, and cafes, interspersed among the established antique stores dotting San Marco Avenue, a palpable, youthful entrepreneurial spirit is breathing new life into the area.
Jennifer Myers certainly played a role in kicking off Abbott’s new wave of development when she opened Juniper Market in 2013, after spending the better part of her twenties working in retail merchandising. A St. Augustine resident since 2009, Jennifer says her decision to open a prepared foods café and marketplace was born as much from her passion for cooking as it was from a desire to fill a void in her adopted neighborhood.
“I moved to Abbott Tracts and was looking for a place close by to grab a coffee or a quick sandwich, maybe do some work,” Jennifer says. “There wasn’t really a place close by where you could do that. If I wanted to have coffee and hang out I was driving to Café Eleven [on Anastasia Island]. I thought, well, I’m in my late-twenties, worst case scenario, I can always go back to corporate America if this doesn’t work out,” she says of the decision to open Juniper. “I took my savings and just went for it, giving myself about a year or two to make it work.”
As it turns out, it came together fairly well for Jennifer, as her made-from-scratch prepared foods, take-out dinners, and cold-brew coffees immediately attracted a devoted local clientele, the positive reception prompting her to move into a new storefront earlier this year.
Jennifer’s entrepreneurial savvy and self-taught cooking skills have certainly played a critical role in Juniper’s success. But, in talking to Jennifer it’s also clear that Juniper is the manifestation of her rich life experiences, steeped in a love for food, family, and Florida. Jennifer was born and raised on the Gulf side of the Sunshine State on St. Petersburg’s idyllic Treasure Island. Like most Florida families, aquatic activities represented an outsized share of Jennifer’s recreational activities – fishing, canoeing, and surfing – if the waves permitted.
Jennifer started cooking at an early age, as a hobby first, before taking over the production of a large share of the family’s meals. “The cuisine in our house was super random,” she says of her early menu offerings. “I would make different marinades for chicken, rice dishes. Nothing too wild, but definitely advanced for a middle-schooler.”
She had some mishaps along the way, once setting her family kitchen on fire, but treated most opportunities and experiences – even the fire – as teachable moments, assimilating some introductory baking skills from her mother and grandfather and a modicum of southern dishes from her step-family.
When she left the West Coast of Florida to study marketing at the University of Central Florida, Myers took a job at a surf shop and made habitual trips to the Atlantic coast to surf. After college she took a job in retail merchandising and climbed the corporate ladder for a few years, taking on the entire state of Florida as her territory. The job allowed her the flexibility to live anywhere in the state she wanted, a perk that kept alive her frequent jaunts to the coast to greet incoming swells. It was these quick strike-missions that introduced her to St. Augustine, and in 2009, she decided to make the area home.
All the while, cooking progressed from hobby to passion to obsession for Jennifer. “It was really DIY,” she says of her culinary experimentations at the time. “I was making everything from scratch – soda syrups, cakes, DIY cocktails, just having a lot of fun. I started thinking that I might rather make these kinds of things for a living.”
Before she knew it, Jennifer plotting what would be Juniper Market, compiling a business plan and scouting possible locations before eventually entering a lease agreement to rent a small space within Coastal Traders Indonesian Imports. “Rather than taking over a whole place, the opportunity to rent from [local photographer and Coastal Traders owner] Walter [Coker] made it less risky for me to leave my job,” Jennifer says of the shared space. “It was less to bite-off at that point.”
The name Jennifer chose for her business reflects both her Florida heritage and her aspirations for the market. “I really wanted it to be Florida focused,” she says of the name, Juniper. “I started looking at local flora – the Juniper trees everywhere. Then my Mom said, ‘you know you’re named Jennifer after that Donovan song ‘Jennifer Juniper.’ So, the name is partially derived from my namesake and partially just supposed to represent Florida goodness.”
Jennifer took advantage of the anonymity of Juniper’s original location to experiment with the market’s offerings. She found a receptive clientele with iced coffees and sandwiches, and some highly-addictive cookies. When she introduced once-a-week take-home dinners, Juniper’s regulars took full advantage. Jennifer was busy – maybe too busy. “We outgrew [the original] space pretty fast,” she says. It was kind of too busy for one person, but not busy enough for two people.”
It was a challenge, but Jennifer eventually found a new place at 73 San Marco Avenue. The larger facility has allowed Jennifer to continue servicing her loyal Abbott Tract-based customers, while expanding the menu, adding beer and wine, espresso, and additional retail. “We’ve got a great community of entrepreneurs here,” she says of all the new businesses lining San Marco Avenue. “There are just so many cool food-focused and small-business-focused people. There’s a collaborative spirit and everyone is very supportive of each other.”
“As for Juniper,” she says, “We strive to be a local spot. We want it to be a place where we know your name and you can expect to run into people you know. I think as long as we do that, we’re doing OK.”