“Do you know the muffin man?” Visitors at Haile Plantation Farmers Market answer yes.

Jemma Powell, 7, eyes the options at The Gourmet Muffin stand. “They’re sweet, they’re definitely delicious, and sometimes they get a little messy,” Jemma said, describing the muffins. (Luena Rodriguez-Feo Vileira/WUFT News)

On Saturday mornings, nearly 300 visitors at Haile Farmers Market line up for one vendor. Each customer shares a slice of information: They know the muffin man.

He arrives in Gainesville once a week and can be found running the vendor stand for The Gourmet Muffin, a Stuart-based bakery.

After two years in the position, Justin Edwards, 32, sees familiar faces among the trail of market-goers, from wandering university students to children beaming their gap-toothed grins. He inherited the role after his father retired from vending The Gourmet Muffin, their family-owned brand, in markets throughout the state.

Yet neither man chose the nursery-rhyme nickname, which also passed down from father to son — instead, the Haile Plantation community did. The name stuck since The Gourmet Muffin began vending at Haile Farmers Market, a relationship that traces back a decade.

“‘How’s your mom? How’s your dad?’” Edwards said patrons asked him on his first day working the market. “Everyone came up to me and talked to me like they’ve known me for years.”

By now, some market regulars have.

Justin Edwards, known as the muffin man, serves the morning line of customers at his stand at Haile Farmers Market. (Luena Rodriguez-Feo Vileira/WUFT News)

The connection builds on their familiarity with Justin Edwards’ parents, Catherine Edwards and Eric Vynckier, who formerly ran the stand.

“We’ve gotten to know family members. I’ve seen children grow up there,” Catherine Edwards said. “It’s amazing.”

At first, the muffin man moniker referred to Vynckier, inspired by the stand’s namesake product and the chef uniform, complete with a pleated white hat, he donned for six years at the Haile market.

“He had the whole get up, and we started calling him the muffin man,” explained Justin Guiterman, 42, who has attended the market since he moved to Gainesville in 2016.

“I saw a muffin girl once,” Guiterman’s 7-year-old daughter, Nora Jane, added, referring to Catherine Edwards.

“It’s just the old joke,” Guiterman said of the nickname.

Guiterman has visited the market with his wife and two kids every Saturday possible, even if only for a few minutes, he said. The Gourmet Muffin remains a well-traveled stop.

“We run into people all the time by the muffin man,” Guiterman said. “It’s like the meeting place.”

As a self-described transplant in Gainesville, hailing from Manhattan, New York, Guiterman adjusted to the move with the help of Haile Farmers Market, comforted by the many market-goers who were transplants like him.

“I find there’s lot of people who are in similar shoes, from all over the country,” he said.

Among them is the current muffin man himself.

Crates of The Gourmet Muffin product offerings at the stand at Haile Farmers Market on Saturday, October 21, 2023. Flavor options include s’mores, cranberry orange and caramelized banana chocolate chip. (Luena Rodriguez-Feo Vileira/WUFT News)

Justin Edwards grew up in the small town of Poplarville, Mississippi, with one red light, two gas stations and no McDonald’s.

After spending ages 18 to 30 as a Whole Foods butcher in states across the nation, he returned to the family business he’d run from for years, he said, working for The Gourmet Muffin at his mother’s request.

He completed his first market in Haile Plantation in 2021, a three-and-half-hour commute from the bakery’s homebase, and has refused to miss one since. On days when he’s stood in the rain, some regular customers have arrived in ponchos, ready to pick up their muffins.

“I found Gainesville, and it’s like what I was trying to find my whole life,” Edwards said.

As the stand’s modern runner, Edwards substituted his father’s signature look for a backwards baseball cap and a casual T-shirt that leaves his tattoo sleeves on display. Still, he bears the intergenerational nickname with pride.

“My genuine reaction was – I have to own this character, this persona,” he said.

He measures his success by a simple standard: “Just do what you think The Muffin Man in the song would do: He’s not a jerk, he has a smile on his face and he talks to everyone.”

Edwards’ consistency, and the brand’s, keeps customers returning to the stand.

“It’s just a sweet face in the community,” said Ann Monson Slagle, 36.

Originally from Minnesota, Slagle moved to Gainesville seven years ago; she visited Haile Farmers Market the first weekend she arrived. With her daughter fresh out of her ballet practice in Haile Plantation each Saturday, Slagle has purchased muffins every week since.

“You see the same people,” she said. “It makes the community a little smaller.”

The same element of local connection fueled Vynckier to sell The Gourmet Muffin in markets from Lakeland to Miami for over eight years. Even now, though he can no longer make the hours-long drives, he stays involved in the muffins’ journey from the bakery kitchen to its customers by making the dough.

“You’re part of the community at a level that a grocery store really isn’t,” he said, before adding that big corporate retailers are impersonal.

“A market is really — this is quintessentially human.”

Vynckier still remembers the Gainesville market fondly.

He really liked the presence of students, he said, with the young crowd bringing enthusiasm.

Browsing customers begin the line at The Gourmet Muffin stand as the market begins to populate with visitors. (Luena Rodriguez-Feo Vileira/WUFT News)

Nineteen-year-old university student Kole Kemple took his first visit to Haile Farmers Market two weeks ago, attentive to the change of being surrounded by couples and families. The line of visitors drew his eyes to The Gourmet Muffin stand.

The experience reminded him of trips with his great-grandmother to the fruit festivals in his former hometown of Salt Lake City, Utah, he said.

“Going there, especially to [The Gourmet Muffin] stand, seemed quaint and at home, which sometimes is hard to accomplish as a feeling in a college town.”

“I’m already excited to go back,” Kemple added.

For Edwards, the feeling is mutual.

“It’s nice knowing that people look forward to having the product and seeing you and talking to you,” he said. “I like seeing the smile on people’s faces.”

He has no plans to stop his Saturday visits to Haile Plantation — in fact, he dreams of opening his own muffin storefront within the next two years, on Gainesville’s University Ave.

His role serving customers feels less like a job and more like second-nature.

“So maybe muffin men are born and not made.”

About Luena Rodriguez-Feo Vileira

Luena is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

Check Also

Gator alum aims to make an impact through a single word

The Matheson History Museum closed out the month of November with a presentation from Sabina …