Burlington Farmers Market Vendors Assess First Summer on Pine Street | Food + Drink Features | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Burlington Farmers Market Vendors Assess First Summer on Pine Street

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George van Vlaanderen serving a grilled sausage sandwich at the Doe's Leap Farm booth - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • George van Vlaanderen serving a grilled sausage sandwich at the Doe's Leap Farm booth

Bundled in layers for the 50-degree weather, vendors carefully stacked bins of leftover delicata squash and beets, packed up unsold pastries, and disassembled their tents. It was a classic farmers market scene — and the final one of the season at Burlington's market on Saturday, October 26. But, as the vendors reassured curious customers throughout the day, this wouldn't be their last appearance on Pine Street.

"Dealer.com has assured us another year as Saturday tenants at 345 Pine Street, and our steering committee has decided we will be in that lot for 2020," Mieko Ozeki, the market's general manager, told Seven Days.

According to Ozeki, the City of Burlington had approached the market with a proposal to return downtown next year, offering to host it on St. Paul Street between College and Maple while City Hall Park remains under construction. That park, currently in the midst of a two-year renovation, had been the market's summer home for nearly 40 years.

"We didn't feel comfortable with that proposal," Ozeki said. "We've invested so much in the lot on Pine Street, and Dealer.com has been very generous to us."

On weekdays, the lot is used for overflow parking for Dealer.com employees; this year, the company charged the farmers market just $60 to use it on Saturdays.

"It's not simple to move," said Ozeki, who became the market's GM in September, taking over for outgoing executive director Chris Wagner. "The farmers market is a whole community; it's an experience that we're shipping to a location."

Market goers and vendors have now "experienced" the Pine Street site for a whole season — 25 consecutive Saturdays from mid-May through October. The reviews are mixed.

The South End location is a trek for customers used to the market's central spot downtown. Limited parking — along Pine Street, in the nearby Maltex Building lot and at Dealer.com — has been a continual complaint. But did those issues actually keep shoppers away?

The market does not require vendors to report their sales but does collect optional, anonymous data; the aggregate of this year's reporting will be shared with the vendor community at the market's annual meeting.

So, to answer our question, we spoke with vendors across the market's categories — agriculture, prepared foods and crafts — who represent a range of prior market experience and occupy various locations around the lot (chosen based on seniority). They shared their perspective on the benefits and disadvantages of being on Pine Street and how the past season has affected their businesses.

"I approached the new location with a lot of trepidation," said George van Vlaanderen, owner of Does' Leap Farm. His diversified organic farm in East Fairfield has long sold goat cheese, pork and grilled-sausage sandwiches at the Burlington market. Like many vendors, van Vlaanderen worried that it would be a struggle to draw tourist traffic and regular downtown customers to the South End.

His fears were somewhat justified: Van Vlaanderen said his sandwich sales were down 30 to 35 percent from previous years. In response, he added, "I upped my social media game, sharing videos and pictures of what we do behind the scenes — the stuff people don't know goes into sausage."

Despite the income hit, van Vlaanderen understands the steering committee's decision to stay on Pine Street for another year. "Now we have an opportunity to build on the potentially new clientele in the South End," he said. "Even at this location, it's the best market in Vermont."

Jane Pomykala, owner of Pomykala Farm in Grand Isle, said she misses the park but thinks vendors and market staff have made the most of being in the parking lot. "We were very fortunate, because it's not easy to move a group that big to one location," she said. "The steering committee searched long and hard, and I've been really proud that everyone's made the best of a hard situation."

Katharine Montstream echoed that optimism. The Burlington painter owns Montstream Studio, which has been a regular at the market for 23 years. "We have a brick-and-mortar [shop] outside City Hall Park," Montstream said. When the market was also there, one person — often her husband, Al Dworshak — could handle sales in both locations.

"At first I said, 'I'm not going to do the market on Pine Street,'" Montstream said. "But I realized very quickly that was a mistake, and we were lucky to get a spot and be part of it."

Spending her Saturdays at the market proved inspiring for the artist, who said she had forgotten how it felt to connect directly with patrons. "It's been a surprisingly good year for us here," she said.

The layout and physical attributes of the parking lot on Pine Street differ radically from grassy, tree-lined City Hall Park. Everyone had to adjust.

Alexx Shuman, owner of the small-batch marshmallow confectionery Nomadic Kitchen, was new to the Burlington market this year. She quickly learned the hazards of rain on a hard-packed gravel lot.

"The first day, I had a moat around my tent, and I had to build a bridge," Shuman said. "It was actually a great talking point with my customers, but I didn't know this was in the job description!"

Despite some puddle-filled days — and the dust stirred up on hot, dry ones — Shuman liked the lot's parking and ease of setup and breakdown. "As a vendor, that makes your life a lot easier," she said.

Ian Bailey, another first-time market vendor with his Winooski-based Vivid Coffee Roasters, appreciated the openness of the space. "It felt like you had breathing room to walk through the market and really look at everything," he said.

Bailey applied for a spot at the market after learning that Northern Bayou Cold Brew — the market's previous cold-coffee vendor — was moving to Maine. "Ben [Lee, of Northern Bayou,] openly shared what the market had been for him," he said. "Sales are not as good as I expected, but it's still a profitable experience."

Both Bailey and Shuman plan to be back next year, if the market will have them. The bylaws of the Burlington Farmers Market designate both businesses as "provisional vendors," meaning they were granted a one-season trial and will need to reapply for membership. According to Ozeki, the market currently has about 75 vendor members, each of whom is guaranteed an annual spot as long as they follow the rules.

"There's something about the Burlington Farmers Market," Bailey said. "It has momentum: mass times velocity. It's such a cool, unique thing that Vermonters will show up wherever it is."

For Shuman, the market has been a business incubator. She tracked data all season: the number of visitors to her booth, each person who sampled her wares, each purchase. "I'm basically figuring out what my conversion rate is," she said. "It's taught me that the way I feel about a market at the end of the day has no correlation with what actually happened."

Bailey Hale, who owns and operates Ardelia Farm & Co. in Irasburg with his husband, Thomas McCurdy, found the highs and lows less predictable in the market's new location. "Thomas has a real gift: to look at last year's sales, the weather and whatever event might be in town, and bake exactly what we need so we're selling out just before two o'clock," Hale said. "It was harder to gauge this year."

In addition to McCurdy's pastries, Hale sells flowers that he grows on their Northeast Kingdom farm. Flowers have always been a smaller part of their market sales, but this year that aspect of the business is just breaking even.

"It's much easier to adapt the bakery side of the business than the agricultural side," Hale noted, "because you're making decisions one or two years prior about what you'll be growing."

He calculated that Ardelia Farm's total Burlington sales were down close to 20 percent in the new location. "The first few weeks were huge for us and well above what we generally made in the park," Hale said. "But I think, once people came to check it out, they got their fill."

Even with this year's lower overall sales, he believes the market is worth the two-hour trip from and to the NEK. "The Burlington market has changed our lives, and it's the majority of our livelihood now," Hale said. "Those of us who farm are used to the unexpected. That adaptability means that we'll just keep on adapting."

Hale plans to ship more flowers to wholesale markets in New York City to make up for the summer's loss in Burlington — the farm's biggest market in Vermont. "No winter vacation this year," he joked. "Or maybe for a week instead of a month."

In contrast, the summer was bountiful for Full Moon Farm, an organic operation in Hinesburg run by Vermont Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman and his wife, Rachel Nevitt. Full Moon had some of its top markets of all time this year, Zuckerman told Seven Days.

"For us, selling weekly consumptive produce and meat products, we've had quite robust sales here," he said of the Burlington market. "This was a really solid growing year, so we've been able to maintain a wide range of products for the full season."

Full Moon Farm occupies four market blocks, a unique double-deep and -wide setup that encourages customers to pass through its tent. "We were trying to figure out how customers would walk around the market and how to get them to walk through our stand and see something they otherwise wouldn't have seen," Zuckerman explained. That structure, along with market pickup for the farm's CSA members, helped to draw in customers.

"I feel so fortunate to live in this area, because people don't solely require convenience as their bottom line," Zuckerman said. "This [Pine Street location] is a little less convenient for a lot of people — parking is a little tricky — but everybody has made the adjustments to make it work."

Ozeki is responsible for the market's long-term logistics (including location issues), running the event each week and managing the nonprofit as an independent entity. She believes this year's transition has shown that customers will follow the Burlington Farmers Market.

"That's a big mind-set I've been working to relay to the vendors: to remind people that they are the destination," she said.

Ozeki and the market's steering committee are already planning how to improve the lot for both vendors and customers next year. She hopes to revamp the layout to make sure no vendors are "hidden" and to distribute the flow of foot traffic more evenly.

Despite its previous long-term location on city property, the market is not a municipally supported endeavor, and operating it isn't cheap. The approved budget for May 2019 to April 2020 is $126,755, though Ozeki expects the actual figure to be higher, due to unanticipated expenses resulting from the move. Last year's budget was $150,090. "We'll be seeking sponsorships to support everything from bike parking to waste management," Ozeki said.

Stepping into a leadership role during a transitional time hasn't fazed Ozeki. "We're taking on a model that has existed for decades," she said. "It has its systems, and vendors have their understandings of how it all works, but there's so much modernization that can happen and so much awareness we can build."

Some vendors link "modernization" to the notion of permanence. Asked what improvements could be made to the Pine Street lot, Ardelia Farms' Hale said, "In an ideal world, it would be wonderful if a lot like this could be owned by the market."

Ozeki stopped short of seconding Hale's suggestion. But she did allow that the market may not return to City Hall Park if the park's redesign can't accommodate its needs: 1,200 linear feet of frontage for a minimum of 85 vendors.

"We're a production and an entity that requires the right space. It's about finding a long-term future," Ozeki said. "If there's a good place to do that, whether it's City Hall Park or some other lot, pit, plot or whatever that may be, that's where we want to be."

The original print version of this article was headlined "To Market, to Market | Burlington Farmers Market vendors assess their first year on Pine Street"

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