For many gastronomes, the farmers market is a ritual. After selecting perfectly ripe figs and peaches, they head over to the fishmonger's stand to check out the weekly catch and then stop to chat with the pastry chef from the local bakery.
It's the shoppers' dedication to the food community that makes farmers markets the perfect place for food purveyors to build relationships, market their products and test new ones.
"The people who go to farmers markets are some of the most important prime consumers, especially for spreading word of mouth about a restaurant," says Joyce Weinberg, president of City Food Tours and Events and author of The Everything Guide to Starting and Running a Catering Business. "They are the most interested in good food, and if you can get those people speaking positively about your product or your restaurant, it can be very effective."
Building a Following
That proved true for Vince Pianalto, owner of La Maison des Tartes, a restaurant and bakery in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Pianalto had been helping his family run an Italian restaurant when he decided to start taking baked goods to the Fayetteville Farmers' Market. He would stay up late on Friday nights packaging and labeling hundreds of tarts, cookies, artisan breads and other items to take to the market at 6:00 the next morning.
The late hours were worth it. "After the first season, the reception was amazing," Pianalto says. Knowing he had a customer base for his products, he spent the next year preparing his restaurant and bakery while continuing to sell at the market. Four years later, he doesn't take as many products as he used to, but he still goes to promote his business and maintain a place in the local food community.
Part of Pianalto's success was taking products that fit in with the market's culture. For instance, he would shop at the Thursday market for seasonal produce that would show up in his desserts and pastries on Saturday. This sometimes meant explaining to customers why he couldn't bake them a strawberry cake in the winter.
Weinberg says that offering appropriate food items is key. "[Shoppers] are looking for local breads, they're looking to see the local farmers they saw the week before and who they've been buying their berries from year after year," she explains. "If you're there to set up a stand with some kind of food that's not using locally grown and natural ingredients, it wouldn't do you any good even though there's a lot of people going through the market."
For Jenny Ross, owner of the restaurant 118 Degrees, her packaged organic and raw meals were a perfect fit for the weekly farmers market in Laguna Beach, California. "We like the clientele at that market," she says. "They are looking for organics and really buy into it and understand the health benefits."
Ross had been offering her meals through a home delivery program for four years before she opened her raw foods restaurant in Costa Mesa, California, this past summer. She says the market not only allowed her to get products to customers who had been calling about them, but also serve as a point of reference for the restaurant and classes that she teaches. "It created a community space for what we were doing," she says. "It made a huge, huge difference in the opening of the restaurant. The pre-opening party was packed with people from the market."
The Sense of Community
Market managers also are recognizing the relationships being forged between the producers, chefs and consumers--and nurturing them. "The markets aren't just about farmers, but about the local food system as a whole," says Darlene Wolnik, deputy director of MarketUmbrella.org, which runs the Crescent City Farmers Market in New Orleans.
She says that chefs always had been involved in New Orleans' 12-year-old market, but that there wasn't a place to showcase them. So shortly before Hurricane Katrina hit, they created the Green Plate Special, which allowed chefs to offer their dishes every Tuesday for one month to shoppers. The program proved popular, but it was after the storm that it really had an impact.
Many restaurants were destroyed and had to rebuild, including the 125-year-old landmark Commander's Palace. With its building closed, the restaurant came to participate in the Green Plate Special in early 2006. On the first day Commander's Palace participated, Wolnik recalls hearing cheers coming from their booth, celebrating their first sale of 2006. "It was much more than to come and talk to shoppers," she says. "They had a chance to rebuild their relationships."
Expanding on the popularity of this program, the market also recently launched its Visiting Chef Station on Saturdays, which gives restaurants the chance to test new dishes with customers, who are given comment cards to fill out.
Worth the Effort?
Despite all these benefits, the effort required to be at a farmers market every day or even one day a week isn't worth it for everyone. Melissa Ewing, who founded Maple City, Michigan-based Undercover Vegetable Company with her husband, had been selling their veggie-packed Yotta Bars at farmers markets when the product first launched. But with a retail price of $1.49 a bar, the markets weren't exactly lucrative. "You have to weigh off your time," Ewing says. "I feel like for six hours, I could use my time in other ways to generate that income."
But instead of abandoning the company's presence at markets altogether, she scaled back and began selling the bars wholesale to a woman who takes Michigan products to area fairs and markets, including the Select Michigan Country Store and Blue Ribbon Farmers' Market. It was here that a reporter from Fox News sampled her bars and included them in a TV piece. Ewing added the clip to her website two weeks before a committee from Whole Foods met to decide whether to begin carrying her product. She secured the deal and believes the favorable news coverage helped give her bars more credibility with the committee.
If you decide that dedicating your time to a farmers market is right for your business, Weinberg recommends the following:
- Make sure your materials look like your logo so shoppers make the immediate connection.
- If possible, offer shipping for your products, since many people look for gifts at farmers markets.
- Bring plenty of paper copies of your menu. If your menu stresses local and seasonal ingredients, have people available who can talk about the purveyors and where you get your ingredients.
- Consider handing out coupons, but make sure they are upscale and include a code so that you can track them.
- If coupons aren't right for your business, invite shoppers to a special seasonal meal or a harvest meal.
"It's a lot of work--back-breaking work," Ross says. "But if your business has anything to do with the community, it's a great thing to do."