It was late spring a couple of years ago when I first spotted the kid.
I was strolling through the Charlotte Regional Farmers Market, checking out the still-skimpy offerings.
I passed a simple folding table piled with fresh rosemary, $1 a bunch, and a hand-lettered sign in Gothic script: “Rosemary Pete.”
Rosemary? Who buys rosemary? In this climate, if you grow rosemary, you have too much rosemary. Even in winter, my rosemary bush is the size and shape of a coral reef.
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But the kid behind the table looked so sweet. Brown eyes, open face, friendly smile.
And hair. Long, brown hair. Hanging past his shoulders, the way boys in my junior high wore it in 1972. He looked like Marcia Brady's prom date.
Who could resist? I pitched a buck on the table.
“I'll make a deal with you, kid,” I said. “I'll pay you a dollar and you keep the rosemary.”
I walked on, smiling. A few seconds later, I heard feet.
“Here,” the kid said, shoving a plastic baggy of dried rosemary in my hand. “I can't take your money without giving you rosemary.”
That's how I met Pete Vinci.
A fixture at farmers markets
These days, a lot of people know Pete Vinci (“like Da Vinci, without the Da”). Since he first started loading that table with trimmings from his parents' rosemary bush, Rosemary Pete has become a regular on Charlotte's food scene.
He's at four farmers markets every week, including the regional market on Saturday mornings and the South End Tailgate on Tuesday evenings.
He's at farm dinners, where chefs put his herbs to work, and at Slow Food events. He goes out to Dean and Jenifer Mullis' Laughing Owl Farm to help dig up garlic.
He branched out from rosemary a while ago. Now he grows and sells everything from cilantro, sage and three kinds of basil to rarer finds like stevia.
His fresh herbs are in other people's products, like Madd Mazz tomato gravy and Felicitea mixes.
Not bad for a kid who started out at 18, fresh out of Providence High School, with a table full of yard trimmings.
He's kidding … right?
How old is Rosemary Pete? “How old do I look?” he shoots back.
Actually, he's 20 (although he still doesn't look old enough to shave). But that quick mouth is all Pete. Let's say he has a dry sense of humor. Put it together with those earnest brown eyes and you never know when he's pulling your leg.
Like, he doesn't really cook, but he says his dream is to open a restaurant someday called Hammocks, “a tiny little place and they're going to have hammocks for chairs.”
He's needed that sense of humor at the markets. People tease him about his hair, calling him “her” even after he answers with what is obviously a young man's voice.
His dad, Peter Vinci, constantly tries to get him to cut the hair. The latest ploy: Do it for the charity Locks of Love.
He's started wearing it in a ponytail – a neat, clean ponytail – but he's not budging on the length.
“My strands of knowledge,” Pete calls his hair. “I want to grow it down to my knees and wrap it around my head like a Rastafarian.”
He may be kidding.
It seems like everybody has a misunderstanding about Pete. One farmer even thought he was an orphan.
“People come to the table and they think Rosemary is my mother or my daughter.”
Actually, he just figured all the other farms had names – New Beginning, New Moon, Laughing Owl – so his “farm” should, too.
A love of dirt and marketing
The farm is really the backyard of the Vincis' house in a subdivision in South Charlotte. Pete took a few horticulture and landscaping classes in high school, but they frustrated him – too much memorizing, not enough hands in dirt. “People took it for an easy A,” he says.
He'd been going to the farmers market with his mother since he was a kid. So that first summer after high school, he decided to take the trimmings from an overgrown rosemary bush and try to sell them, just as a hobby.
It makes sense that Pete started a backyard business right out of high school when you know that his father is a CPA and his mother (Marcia, not Rosemary) teaches accounting at Johnson & Wales University.
Today, Pete is a rising junior at Johnson & Wales, majoring in marketing.
“I hate accounting,” he admits. “I want to be a marketing guy.”
He likes marketing because it's creative. He puts his lessons to work in his small business.
“One teacher said, you should give things away.” So Pete wanted to get kazoos printed with the Rosemary Pete logo. Instead, he's tried specials like Sage Day and Thyme Day. He's offered special items, like grinders filled with dried herbs, in winter, and special deals, like a free bag of his dried seafood blend with every purchase.
He has a My Space page (myspace.com/rosemarypete herbs) and an e-mail newsletter.
But really, it all just gives Pete an excuse to grow things. He's filled the Vinci backyard with raised beds of vegetables he grows for the family and more than a thousand pots with herb plants grown from seed. He's putting in a small greenhouse so he can keep growing through the winter.
He hates to read, but he loves to learn about herbs.
“What's weird is, tell me anything about herbs, I'll remember it forever. I'm not like that in school.”
Ask Pete about his favorite moment in life and he describes being in the backyard with his parents, all working together to mix compost and potting soil.
His father's family is “100 percent Italian,” his mother's “100 percent Polish.” Back in Connecticut, where Pete grew up, all of his grandparents, aunts and uncles were gardeners. “They even lived on Garden Street.”
Really, that's Pete's ideal.
“I work outside, the cat hangs out, the hummingbirds come around.”
That's Rosemary Pete's life story at 20. Getting to know him has been worth more than a buck.