As of this week, markets in my city are once again open four days per week with local farmers and fishers selling directly to family-table shoppers and to restaurant buyers. That is important to note as it was the weekend before the federal levee breaks of August 2005 that it was last true.
On that long-ago weekend, CCFM closed its Saturday market early and told its community that most of the next week of markets would also be cancelled, meaning the Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday markets. Our lead market staff was away so I was directly supervising the market that Saturday. I remember well sadly hugging my vendors as they packed up and knowing some would not immediately return, depending on where the storm would hit. Little did we know that it would be the market locations and the market shoppers that would be its victims and we would not reopen a market at all until November 22, 2005* which at the time seemed like forever but now seems unbelievably speedy.
Hard to believe that it has been nine years since the entire slate of markets were open. Much has happened within the market organization and to the region in those nine years, an almost dizzying amount of changes really. What is gratifying as a market shopper, as a French Quarter resident and as a market advocate is that the new leadership of the organization has decreed that we must return to that weekly market schedule.
Huzzah and pass the satsumas.
The Wednesday market opened originally at the French Market on Wednesday March 19, 2003 which coincided with St. Joseph’s Day and therefore with a beautiful display and event coordinated (as usual) by Poppy Tooker, then our regional Slow Food Leader and now a noted cookbook author and tv/radio personality. Like all of the markets we opened (and that includes a short-lived one at Loyola University in 2001 as well as 5-years of Festivus, our fair trade market and our many White Boot Brigades (thanks again Poppy), we had to create a new set of circumstances for the Wednesday market to exist and to thrive in. In fact, in the two years that market was open, until the aftermath of Katrina shut it down we rebuilt it almost entirely just as we had with in the early days of the Tuesday and Thursday markets.
Here's what I learned from this market's opening that may be replicable to other markets, especially those with a similar chronology:
1. Be sure that you can handle all of the markets with the staff size that you have and can handle. That seems obvious, but running four markets suddenly required new or greatly expanded systems and not just another market bag and tent! Three markets from two was not that different as there was still a day in between and some vendors could do three markets per week but four was a very different matter. And since the systems we had set up for three markets expected our very hardworking staff for a least a half day of market planning and a half day of post-production per market (that is, without the large events which we were known for back then) it meant that two managers or two on-site coordinators were now absolutely necessary to do it right and that meant a very different organization, especially one within a slow-moving university system as we were then.
2. Every market needs anchor vendors. Those anchor vendors have to view that market as key to their weekly business (not a secondary market in other words) and commit to making it work for a period of time. This was definitely a problem on and off in our region as businesses with the skills and products to really anchor a market are not that easy to come by and so end up anchoring way too many at once, and then dropping markets rather quickly. Learn who your anchor vendors are (hint-it’s not always the biggest or even only farm goods!) and build the market initially on their strengths and for their shoppers.
3. Know the similarities and difference of your market neighborhoods and demographics. The third and fourth markets opened in downtown neighborhoods of the city, which has a very different demographic than the neighborhoods in which the first two operate. They also were physically smaller in potential size (could fit about half of the vendors of the first two markets) and had little or no parking available, which was also not true of the first two markets. Shoppers downtown were less likely to shop our other markets (as we learned from surveys) and more likely to want value-added goods which meant a different market vibe and outreach plan.
4. Acknowledge the barriers that truly exist. The French Market was and is hallowed ground for any New Orleanian, but also ground spoiled by long time bureaucracy (which by the way, turned out to be more intractable that even we thought). That long memory among residents made our work difficult, especially without any other changes in the existing market behind us. People insisted on telling us everything that had been wrong with the French Market, and their resentment was felt by our farmers and fishers, who since they also felt the same were easily deflated and dejected at market. If we had recognized that barrier was insurmountable to many of our long time farmers market shoppers (which is why they were so loyal to us in the earliest days!) and to some of our vendors, we could have spent more time working to build new shoppers and vendors. The shoppers we began to attract the last 6 months included new residents without the attachment to the FM history, seniors who loved the hours and the downtown location and the ease of shuttle delivery and pickup, the waiters and bartenders and second-shift workers, the French Quarter denizens who love to see and be seen, the chefs who believed in the market no matter where it was and so on. The vendors who began to do well loved their new enthusiasm and were able to refine their product lists to suit those new shoppers. Those who did not or could not adapt packed up or in some cases, stayed to try to make it and fumed at us and sometimes at the shoppers, knowing there were not enough yet and often too new to markets to purchase enough to sustain their extensive business needs. If we had started with that strategy, we would have wasted less of our and less of our vendors valuable time that first years and a half.
5. Something I knew before opening that market but we needed to make more clear to everyone: it takes 2-3 years for a market to stabilize. Don’t sweat the ups and downs of the first few years, just learn quickly and build for the day that it does thrive. And don’t punish the first group of shoppers by changing everything within six months to attract “better”shoppers-ask questions, survey those that come and keep on adding appropriate amenities and products to attract more of that community, to have them spend more and to add other like-minded shoppers.
With all of that in mind, I believe the market organization as it exists today has the embedded institutional skills and the partners (like the new leadership at the French Market) to regain the food system primacy that dissipated in those dark months and years of rebuilding, dissipated partly because of circumstances such as the need to reorganize the organization (2008), the BP spill (2010), Hurricane Isaac (2012), the end of the “Katrina economy” (2013-2014) and maybe most of all, the development of the “new New Orleanians” (2010-). From my view, the organization’s interest in finding the right answers for local farmers and fishers for the next iteration of New Orleans has rightly began with the organization’s original farmers market blueprint. However, I hope that they will also push past that history to make an even bigger and better future for themselves and their market community and when it comes, they know I’ll be there with tokens in hand.
*here is a glimpse of that first day back, November 22, 2005: