CAHILL’S MARKET & CHICKEN KITCHEN SERVES UP A CENTURY’S WORTH OF BLUFFTON FARMING HISTORY
John Cahill and his son Robbie, the produce and palette architects behind Cahill’s Market and Chicken Kitchen, know that when it comes to the successes of their now 17-year-old business, they owe all blessings to the land.
John’s grandmother bought the 200-acre parcel off May River Road in Bluffton in 1918 for $10,000; money obtained as the life insurance beneficiary after her brother died in World War I.
The family has worked the land through depressions, floods, droughts, malaria outbreaks and now, a worldwide pandemic.
“It’s what we know. I ran an appliance business for 35 years, but we never stopped working the land,” John said.
And when he looked to “retire” from the business in 2004, selling the produce born from the core three acres that he, his mother and his children continued to cultivate was the natural next chapter.
“We filled a need with the appliances, but this was always my dad’s dream,” Robbie said. “We are so blessed to have this property in the family, and we knew what it had been and what it could be.”
The Cahill farm was the center of area commerce back when hourly passing traffic could be counted on one hand in the 1940s and 1950s. The family had the lone grist mill in the area, so tradesmen would make the two-to-three-day trek from Savannah and Charleston to crack corn for grits, cornmeal and moonshine.
“After they got the work done, they’d all sit on the porch of the farmhouse, playing banjos, telling stories and eating home-cooked meals,” John said. “It’s just how life was.”
“We farmed to survive. There were no grocery stores; the land sustained us,” Robbie said. “That was at the heart of what we started in 2004, just giving folks what the land gave us.”
John built the core red metal roof structure for the farm stand, which was far from an immediate success.
Robbie said it took time for the burgeoning Lowcountry foodie community and the focus of farm-to-table offerings to catch on.
“We should have known better, because nothing ever comes easy with farming,” he said.
The family stuck to the plan, with John’s sister, Debra, behind the counter selling their farm produce along with accents like plants and herbs, homemade jams and ice cream, fresh eggs and honey and country guitar picking serenading customers through the speakers.
The result: the inviting front-porch vibe that John always envisioned became a Lowcountry sensation.
The more John and Robbie worked the land, the more they realized a restaurant was the natural next step.
“We deal in perishable goods; you have a week to preserve them or sell them at the stand,” Robbie said. “And there’s a lot of yield that isn’t pretty enough to be sold but tastes just as amazing in a recipe we could cook up.”
The added eatery gave John the chance to share a fried chicken family recipe that has made him the poultry kingpin in these parts. Folks came into the shack-sized kitchen adjacent to the market, picked up their Styrofoam box full of fried chicken, pork chops or catfish, mashed potatoes with gravy, collard greens, mac and cheese, sweet potato soufflé and dessert and ate it in the open air setting or took it to go.
Robbie closed the appliance business in 2010 and helped launch the full-service, climate-controlled restaurant.
With it came breakfast and a Sunday brunch service as well as an expanded lunch and dinner menu, where chicken and dumplings, fried gizzards, chicken and waffles, rutabagas, shrimp po’ boys and fried bologna sandwiches have become beloved signature offerings.
“The longer you live, you realize people just want to eat healthy. We buy from other farmers when needed, but growing it here saves us money in the restaurant and gives the people what they want,” Robbie said.
The family and the Cahill’s staff harvest close to 14 acres these days, and Robbie said there are about 35 acres of workable land to still tackle.
“It’s amazing to know we’re succeeding in keeping this land in the family and thriving; something I want to pass on to my kids for sure,” Robbie said.
COVID-19 has presented challenges, but John and Robbie say they
“My family has survived The Great Depression, my grandmother beat malaria twice, so there is just no stopping us. We’re a relentless, dedicated bunch,” John said.
As for what’s next, the family launched a bottled hot sauce product in December and hopes to follow with a barbecue sauce recipe later this year. On the farm, tomatoes are the spring star, with seeds being planted the second week of March.
“People want variety and new twists, and the farming life has made us masters of different,” Robbie said. “We strive for consistently good food and service, but we can also do different with the best of them.”