Musings of a farmer’s market vendor.

It’s that time of year.  I have had enough of this winter and spring is dragging its heels.   I can smell the farmers market season and I cannot wait for all the haulin’ and peddlin’ to start.  We return to Leslieville Farmers Market on Sundays, starting May 29th 2016!

The preparation in our kitchen has begun with vigour and Timpa Wheels are being made as I write this blog.  After 5 years of being entrenched in the farmers market scene across town, I consider myself a veteran;  I proudly bear the war wounds of a shoulder injury to prove it…..Reflecting back on where it all started, I would like to share some words of wisdom with all the “baby vendors” entering the scene.

THE LEGALITIES

If you are considering selling your lemon meringue pies because your family praises them for being the best in the world, please know that it is not legal to sell food made in a home kitchen.  At the minimum, get your Toronto Public Health Food Handler Certificate first.    You will be inspected at least once at each market and this course will set you up with all the right information about food safety.

THE EQUIPMENT

Do not skimp on buying cheap canopy tents like I did. A good quality new tent can cost $200 – $300 and it will last you 5 years.  Those that come with rain guards will be a blessing – trust me.  Look for second hand ones on Kijiji.

Tent weights are also important.  Many markets do not allow you to stake nails into the ground to secure your tent.  I have spent too many unpleasant moments trying to keep my tent from flying off while elegantly trying to complete my sale!

Tables and equipment will depend on your merchandising.  Most prepared food vendors require a display table for the front and a prep table at the back.

Coolers for food storage  need to be temperature controlled with a thermometer.  Food inspectors will check for this.  A vendor once gave me the most useful tip of all, which I am happy to pass on –  avoid losing your thermometer by tying it with a string to the cooler – simple!

If you serve your food warm, try as hard as you can to sign up with markets that offer electricity. Open flame gas burners are awful outdoors as are chafing dishes with those tiny commode burners underneath.

Look out for 100′ extension cords when they go on sale.  You will be surprised how far electrical plugs are in public parks.

And finally – do not forget your hand washing station.  Once again, the Food Handler Certification course will explain why.  Without one, you will be shut down by the inspector.

THE NUMBERS

Please do not become a prepared food vendor to make some extra cash on the side.   You will only take a valuable spot away from someone who is trying to grow a sustainable food business – one which adds to our local economy with real jobs.

A farmers market is an entry point for individuals starting their journey into food entrepreneurship.  Your business plan should be based on revenues that go beyond the farmers market.  At markets, you can deduct at least 25% from your projections for bad weather days;  around long weekends, revenues are generally lower as families  go away to their cottages; weekday markets drive lower revenues than weekend markets; not every day is a good revenue day;  the summer market season in Toronto lasts a little over 20 weeks and at the few indoor markets that run all year round, winter traffic as well as revenues are generally 50% of what you could earn in the summer.  In the long run, you will discover that the numbers do not work to make your business financially viable on market revenues alone.

Furthermore, market vendors live like carnies. You will enjoy it for the first couple of years but it takes lots of effort and may not be worth the money in the long run.

THE SIGNAGE

DO NOT waste your money on those fancy roll up banner signs.  They work well for indoor trade shows but not outdoor markets.  The wind will leave it teetering dangerously over toddlers who run up to your booth and their parents will only give you dirty looks for it.

There is no need for a fancy big sign at the front of your booth if it forces your customers to fight with your logo to view your merchandise; and you will make few market friends if said fancy sign ends up blocking part of the neighbouring tent.

Your merchandise display must be king and take priority over your sign.  There is plenty of real estate in front of your table – dangle a sign there or hang it at the back of your tent.  But keep in mind that large signs bungeed up at the back of your tent will act like a sail in heavy winds.  Go for something small and elegant.  Have it designed so the bottom is slightly weighted and hangs freely. Suspended at the back of your tent, it should not harm anyone when the winds are strong.

Ensure you have good table top signs which are taped down.  Describe your products and have the prices marked clearly.  You will likely not have a crew of staff helping you sell at the market.  Your signs are your sales tools that do the work when you are engaged with one customer while others are browsing around.

And as for those heavy A-Frame chalk board signs – they are great.  I spent $125 on mine – but I have had dogs pee on them, kids rub off my beautifully scripted menu and the rain wash out my multicoloured handiwork.  Take a deep breath, have a spare set of chalks in your kit and take it all in stride.

THE VENUE

How many markets you sell at each week totally depends on you.  If you have never done farmers markets before, be prepared for a lot of hard physical work. Starting out with 1 per week would be a good idea.  If you are also doing your own production in the early days, keep some time open for that.  I would also recommend you allow a day of rest, but when you are starting out, it is quite likely that your so called down time will be spent ordering supplies, paying bills and doing paperwork.

Many of the larger, more established farmers markets may have waiting lists but do not let that discourage you.

Each market has its own groove and niche.  Fairmount Park Farmers Market specifically curates NEW vendors, providing them with all kinds of support with a specific goal to help you roll over to bigger and better things within 3 – 5 years.  Their customers come to the market expecting to find new things. Smaller markets also have more patient customers – those you can develop a relationships with;  they will take the time to speak with you, understand your business and offer you honest feedback.

Do not discount markets outside of the GTA.  Kitchener, Hamilton, Bolton, Orangeville, St. Jacobs, Barrie  all boast very vibrant farmers markets

THE PURPOSE

Use your time as a market vendor wisely.  Actively investigate channels for selling your products beyond the market – as a restaurant owner  or caterer, at retail, wholesale to cafes, restaurants and foodservice companies, through home delivery etc.   Each one of those business models will add extra costs that you need to figure out.

Immerse yourself fully into courses that support food entrepreneurs such as those offered by Food Starter and Georgian College.

The first couple of years as a farmers market vendor must be spent on market research – i.e. testing your recipes, pricing elasticity, packaging ideas and your marketing strategy.

Having worked in the private sector for many years, large corporations PAY to have this type of market research done.  They would envy the opportunity you have at your disposal to get access to customer opinions WHILE earning revenues. Take full advantage of the opportunity you have been offered by the market.

By the third year, you must venture out and start carving a path for earning revenues outside the farmers market.  For example, if yours is a retail product, start out by getting it into 3 – 4 small stores and begin testing your distribution, related costs, as well as scaling up your production for the “real world”.

Over the following couple of years, use the farmers markets to heavily PROMOTE your brand and showcase where else customers can buy your products when the market season ends.  Start getting aggressive with signing up more retail stores.

MY JOURNEY

This is where I am at with my business. The world of co-packers, distributors and retailers is a new alternative universe;  it is an intimidating place compared to the safety of my beloved farmers market customers.

Toronto does have some wonderful retailers who are willing to take a chance on good small businesses like mine.  Local retailers like Hooked, Victoria Whole Foods, Wholesome Market,  Fresh From the Farm, Olliffe and Meat on the Beach all carry my curries and promote them in their stores on my behalf.

And off their shoulders, I developed the confidence to enter the world of big box retail, with Whole Food Markets, GTA stores, a U.S. company that enters Canada and welcomes local entrepreneurs more warmly than our own big box stores do.

I do see a sunset for my time at farmers markets.  I made the decision to give up my spots at Evergreen Brickworks Market and Fairmount Park Farmers Markets for the 2016 season with a very heavy heart.

I now need to groom my products for the real world.   This will be my first summer in five years when I spend more time promoting my products at retail rather than at farmers markets.  It is a gambled risk and I will only find out at the end of the season if it was worth it.

There are other reasons why I felt this change in strategy was important.  Our food system is broken.  Innovation is key for this food economy to find its healing path and this innovation is not coming from the test kitchens of large corporations. 

MY RANT

Over the winter, I networked heavily at food entrepreneur events and I chatted with many emerging business owners feeling very discouraged as they discovered “seven year waiting lists” at popular farmers markets in Toronto.

Could the farmers market scene in town be getting stale with the same vendors showing up each year, every day of the week at different markets all across town?  If so, how can innovation ever take a foothold to better our industry?

Is it time for products like mine, that saw their birth at farmers markets, to grow up, get out and go mainstream?

If pathways for growth existed for “veteran” vendors like me,  these waiting list issues would quickly disappear.  But they do not. The barriers for entering the mainstream grocery market are very high.  A farmers market vendor, committed to sustainability in the food chain,  is not plugged into the manufacturing and distribution pathways that allow large food businesses to operate efficiently.

Our provincial government has laid out some resources to help us along the way and I am on a path of discovery.

The upcoming season is a scary period in my life. l feel like a teenager would,  leaving home for the first time, trying to figure it all out without parental guidance.  We would never expect a teenager to go out there and carry the full financial burden for his life, with a mortgage and car loan, when they have only just started earning money.

That is what the financial risk feels like for a food entrepreneur at the stage I am at.

The acceleration for food businesses in Ontario should be more robust and similar to what happens in Silicone Valley, where IT giants like FaceBook, Apple, Microsoft and Google put their experience and financial might behind small and unknown apps, transforming them into the the Skypes and WhatsApps we come to use daily.

But our food industry titans appear to be content to sit on their laurels, leaving their customers to lead the agenda for change through social media.

I agree that food is different from the business of a pixillated product.   However, their lack of imagination for changing the status quo and our (farmer’s market vendors’)  inability to finance alternative pathways to get good food to the masses, simply perpetuates the problem for the entire industry.

It is stupid and it serves no one in the long run.

I do not see national distributors and grocers as the competition.  I see them as access points to a market.  Their customers are our customers who want products like ours – locally made and sustainable.  National grocer house brands are simply products made in a test kitchen. They lack transparency and have zero personality.

We, on the other hand, are building brands of good, real food;  products that are grown and made in Ontario. We have authentic ties to farms and farmers, people and lives;  our stories are what their customers would fall in love with.  I believe the magic glue sits somewhere in there.

Is it finally time for a dialogue between industry leaders and farmers’ market entrepreneurs?  The solutions are out there and we both hold the answers to different parts of the same problem.

So, veteran  vendors, with war wounds like mine, is this reasonable?

I will still be a vendor on Sundays, where I began my journey at Leslieville Market, and I will still be be present at my beloved Fairmount Market each Wednesday, not as a vendor but as volunteer.

With no Saturday markets, I will now bike to  Withrow Park Farmers Market.  That’s me, in the picture above on the right hand side, my second year as a vendor at Withrow.  I can’t wait to to see old friends like pig farmer, Murray Thunberg .  He was my market neighbour and his pig heads never ceased to freak me out as I peddled my vegan samosas in his shadow.  I loved him dearly but as life would have it, we have been nothing more than Facebook friends since I moved to Evergreen Brickworks Market when a spot opened up for me there, on Saturdays – and that is another market I could bike to with my son to enjoy a heap full of those JK fries!

I have had a lot of fun as a farmers market vendor and the biggest gains are the life long friendships that have developed there.

No matter where Tiffinday ends up in this journey, the story that can never change is that it all began in the farmers market scene in Toronto.

See you all in a few weeks!

 

 

 

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