by Tara Kelly
What image comes to mind when you think about a farmers market? An informal poll generated: “great food,” “a place to see friends,” “local farms,” and “music.” By and large, what people are describing is their experience as a visitor to the market. But, for people standing on the other side of the tables…there is something different going on.
Each vendor at a local farmers market is an individual entrepreneur. Whether selling fresh picked produce, prepared foods, handcrafted wares or baked goods… they are pouring their time and energy into preparing, presenting and selling their items with the intention of adding to their bottom line. Farmers markets are, at their economic root, a low-cost, low-risk micro business incubation space.
U-T San Diego ran a story by Tanya Mannes on this topic in December of 2012. She interviewed the county farmers’ market manager Catt White and asked her “ What makes a farmers’ market a business incubator?” Ms. White’s response summarizes it well.
You can start with limited overhead (costs) in a small (tent) space within a larger common area providing shared equipment and facilities like restrooms; marketing; and synergistic neighbors to attract shoppers; and advice from the market manager and other vendors. Shoppers provide a built-in focus group … providing feedback on product quality, packaging and price.
Here in the Rutland region, there are several great examples of food businesses starting at a local farmers market, gaining a foothold, and expanding into full-blown businesses. Whitney’s Castleton Crackers is a great example. Castleton resident Whitney Lamy began baking a unique style cracker in her home kitchen and set up a table at Rutland’s winter farmers market in 2008. Within the course of a few hours, she had sold out. Within the course of a few weeks her crackers were being sold locally. Whitney linked up with some Vermont artisan cheese makers and within a few months she was getting calls from distributors and out-of-state retail outlets. Now manufactured in Manchester, Vermont Castleton Crackers are sold throughout the Northeast.
Ana’s Empanadas is another example. It started as an experiment of preparing a freshly made, Argentinean version of a mini calzone chock-full of local ingredients. It has blossomed into a full-time business with a dedicated bakery site, several retail locations and wholesale accounts, and multiple employees. Rob and Ana Di Tursi credit the farmers market for giving them the place to get started as well as great connections to local farmers for the ingredients that make their product wholesome and delicious.
So, who will be the next breakout success? My bet is on Green Mountain Truffles made by Stephen and Anna Montanez of Mendon. These young graduates of Johnson and Wales College of Culinary Arts have what it takes to make a delicious product. They have a commitment to supporting local farms incorporating ingredients such as maple syrup and Thomas Dairy cream. And… they have the other secret ingredient to success…business savvy.
The story of Anna and Stephen is one that many of us working on community development issues love to hear. Anna is from the area. Her family owns Ted’s Pizza in Rutland and the lure of the green mountains and a chance to work in the family business drew her and Stephen back to the area. Stephen, a federal IRS agent, found it was easy to transfer to Rutland. “There had been an opening in the office for five years they hadn’t been able to fill, so when asked for a transfer it was an immediate yes,” explains Stephen.
But, a 9 to 5 job leaves a lot of time for a high-energy entrepreneur to get things done. Stephen put in at least 100 hours of research before deciding that he could carve out a niche with chocolates. They started with very small batches, tested them out at the market, even sold them to a few different restaurants in town. Now, 6 months in, they’ve just invested in a major piece of equipment and they are building a fully licensed commercial space. And, soon their chocolates will be appearing on the shelves of Vermont Country Store.
Small businesses are the backbone of Vermont’s economy. A vendor selling their products under a tent today might grow into a retail shop space in one of our downtowns or villages tomorrow. Or even become a job creator that produces product that appears on the shelf of every grocery store on the east coast. Farmers markets are fun and they provide us with great community gathering places. And, when we support farm, food and artistic business at farmers markets, we are also investing in the future of our local and state economies.
Tara is Executive Director of Rutland Area Farm and Food Link
Originally published in the Rutland Herald.