I had written about this baker giving up the weekday market almost exactly 2 years ago and now via his wonderfully written email newsletter excerpted and linked at the bottom of this post, I see that he is about to give up the remaining farmers market that he attends.
I have certainly heard a wide range of reasons given by producers about why markets no longer work for them, and thanks to my long ago human resources training, I learned to ask myself and my market peers what I used to ask of my staff about departing or failing employees:
Did we do all that we could do to help this person succeed? Did we offer the same resources and attention that we could offer or do offer to others? What else should we offer (if anything) to help situations like this not happen as often in the future? Or are there just circumstances out of anyone’s control that made this inevitable?
When I post this news on my personal FB page, I guarantee you I’ll hear responses from market shopping friends as well as non-market shopping friends telling me their opinion of his products and his stall, both good and bad, a few who will blame the market and still others who will shrug and say it goes with the territory.
I also guarantee you that when I go and talk to him directly about this email, he will be fair (he always is) to the market management but also specifically critical about markets. He will suggest marketing ideas to me, some of which might very well work for this market and some that have been tried and not worked in the past, all of which may or may not have helped his business. I expect that we will find ourselves in somewhat of a standoff, although I will agree with him that markets should be reactive to the needs of their anchor and to their specialty vendors. I’m not saying that this market was not – I cannot know what the recent relationship is- but wearing my hat of a market strategist for a minute, any and all markets should constantly fine tune their management and marketing based on their measurement of positive and negative impacts, and that does include measuring a spectrum of individual stall activity across the market.
The trick is to measure within the context of each business’ set of goals and true interest in being at markets long-term.
As a specialty item vendor (he’d disagree with that description I am guessing, but his breads are unique enough for purchase that they have to be seen as specialty rather than staple goods still), finding his customers can be slightly more tricky than it is for the market to find the anchor vendors customers. And to further confuse matters, in some markets, once in a while the specialty vendors ARE the anchor vendors.
Since 2005’s levee breaks, New Orleans had enormous philanthropical support (mostly ended now) that has gone into building indirect/intermediate food system infrastructure.Food hubs, market box programs (often incorrectly calling themselves CSAs), home delivery of local goods by intermediaries, restaurant sales, school food programs. All of that is welcome, although the outcomes are all over the place in terms of success. But almost none has gone for direct marketing of goods or establishment of direct marketing outlets or assisting direct marketing producers in the region.
The only exception to the above is support for increasing benefit program shopping through incentives which is fantastic, but is having the effects I wrote about it the Kairos post. And as you can imagine, those efforts do little for this vendor.
However, is the level of market support the problem? I remember well the story of how more than 15 years ago (just before before my time as staff began) how the best cheese vendor at the market dropped out and sold out, to the great disappointment of the market leaders. They simply went on to a new place and new type of artisanal business. Another owner came on, but it was a struggle for them to figure out the business and they finally threw in the towel, even though the market spent a great deal of time working with the new guy, connecting him to other cheese makers and to support systems to no avail. I also remember how a regular shopper (and a very influential person around town) told me matter-of-factly around 2004 that the market products were less innovative than they had been in the first years of the market. I listened to her closely and enlisted her and others help to think through the issues but few of the products that she listed as us needing or once having have returned, even with support we could find to try to expand the offerings.
So external pressures/policies pushing support away from markets? Market focused on other goals? Capacity or strategy issues for producers, or for market? Market-vendor relationship not trusting enough? Shopper demographics changing? Business or market brand not clear or persuasive enough? Lack of regional food advocates around to help the market? Or just not a good fit?
It could be any or all of these or none of them. Let’s just hope that whatever corrections that can be made are made to keep this special business available to market shoppers.
It has become clear to me, after years of contemplation, that the farmers market is, innocuously put, not a great place to be. To wake up at 2am, along with friend and baker Sean O’Hara, in order to prepare for the market is no longer viable. The banks may have been too big to fail, but the market is too small to succeed. There was no return on the investment, no harvest—despite the incredible relationships and pleasure we derive from serving our customers, I cannot—as a baker or as a man—continue to vindicate falling sales, lack of sleep, and relentless frustration. So, I’ve decided to give the market some time, but at a distance—I will no longer bring the gaggle of items I once had at the market, but are available six days a week everywhere else. I will now only bring the breads that I am most proud of and humbled by each time I bake them: our whole grain breads, naturally fermented with flour we mill ourselves. We will see how this goes for the next two months; but I will not continue to measure time against that empty parking lot.