Why We Love Farmers Markets
May means we are now officially in farmers market season. It's now time to spend Saturday mornings in those bustling parking lots and open fields surrounded by people wheeling their burlap bags overflowing with local produce and prepared foods, along with that little spring in their step that could only come from the rhythms of lively local musicians. (There's a lot more to local than food.) The old-fashioned way to shop is back in a big way in the 21st century. It's about the food, but it's food mixed in with tasty samplings, mingling with neighbors, and generally relaxing at this new ritual weekend destination.
With the inevitable back and forth between customer and small business owner, it all takes a bit longer, but nobody seems to mind. No one is in a hurry because this is the antithesis of one-stop shopping. It's nice getting to know the people who feed your family. That's how Manhattan chef and restaurateur Robert Arbor described the marché ritual in his native France. When you think of it that way, a farmers market is a very personal experience, fueled by invisible ingredients like goodwill, trust, and a healthy dose of culinary curiosity. People want to feel good about what they're eating and where they're shopping.
Why do we, as a micro-confectioner, participate in farmers markets? First and foremost, La Petite Occasion is a farmers market product. The ingredients that go into our caramels and toffees are found in farmers markets in the Hudson Valley. Our butter comes from Kriemhild Dairy in Hamilton. Our heavy cream is from Hudson Valley Fresh, a co-op in Poughkeepsie. Farmers markets are a natural fit for us, but they are rewarding to small businesses like ours for many reasons:
- Farmers markets are incubators for ideas. Ask the people selling at a market how they started doing what they do and they all have the same answer—they used to do something else entirely. Chances are, it was something corporate. We can tell you about the couple in finance who sell our favorite salad dressing (MOMO's) . Then there's the photographer whose charcuterie (Larchmont) is second to none. And we can't forget about the ex-Wall Street broker who now sells the most amazing pickles you'll ever eat. These people all had an idea. And the way to test that idea was to float it out to the farmers market crowd. For most of these people, succeeding at the market is not the goal; rather, it's proof of concept.
- Farmers markets give you immediate customer feedback. The problem with focus groups is they're not real. You're asking people to put their thinking cap on about things they feel in their gut. At the end of the day, it all boils down to this universal truth: the act of parting with your hard-earned money is usually more emotion than logic. Yes, we come up with some kind of reason in our heads, but that's usually just a way to justify acting on our desires. You want an honest answer? Don't put people in a room and study them like something in a petri dish. Instead, give them a tasty morsel of something unique and ask them what they think. Chances are good they'll give you an honest, insightful response.
- Farmers markets give insight into trends in real time. Old meets new at markets. There's the tried-and-true crepe maker, for example. And then there's the young vendor pumping out espresso shots on ice that's dispensed from a gas cannister. Farmers markets are the forefront for many food trends. The format lends itself to new ideas not just from the vendors, but from the customers as well. They will tell you what they're looking for. Just as they will tell you what they're currently avoiding in their diet. Our experience is that these trends, regardless of their nutritional validity, are transient and very herd-driven. (I've long suspected NPR is singlehandedly responsible for most every food trend.)
- Farmers markets are full of people who are there to shop. The bane of the retail store is the window shopper. They are professional vacillators who will monopolize your time until you are the one who is spending money. Not so with the farmers market crowd. These people are there to shop. They're serious. For the most part, they tend to pay in cash as well, demonstrating that they had the foresight to visit an ATM beforehand. This committed mindset makes selling a pleasure.
The best reason of all though, is a purely emotional one—there's something glorious about being at most any market this time of year. It's not summer yet, so it's still cool out. Winter isn't forgotten yet. People are still feeling a little eager to be out in the sun. And there you are, surrounded by the luscious bounty of the earth, while heavenly aromas fill the air along with sweet folk music from the mouths of young, earnest talent eager to share their gifts. No matter what may be weighing on your mind at that moment, you get a feeling that there are good things to come. Yes, the farmers market is here to stay.