From the looks of the title of this post, you may think I’m about to give you all the secrets to selling your food or wares at the farmers’ market. Want to take on the Ferry Building on Saturday mornings? Great. How about Marin on Sunday mornings? You, go.
If only I could offer you such advice. Instead, I thought I’d take a moment to share my experience on breaking into a few local farmers’ markets. I find that many friends and family members don’t quite understand what it takes to begin selling at the farmers’ markets. They think you can just buy a fold-out table from Costco along with some cute cake stands and call it a day. When I tell them about the long process, the paperwork, the samples, and the constant follow-up and strategizing, they’re always pretty surprised. Most of us have our favorite vendors and people we return to week after week at our neighborhood market. But perhaps you haven’t spent much time thinking about how it is they snagged their table in the big, bad, competitive world of farmers’ market real estate.
Here’s how it all goes down:
1. The first thing to understand is that most individual farmers’ markets are part of a governing organization. New business owners often start dreaming about the markets they’d like to participate in: maybe one by your home or one you know is extremely popular. The kicker is that most of those markets have lengthy wait lists. I’ve been told on more than one occasion, “You’re basically going to have to wait until one of the other vendors keels over dead.” But you still think it’s worth giving it a go, so you send in your paperwork to the larger organization and cross your fingers.
2. You wait. You wait weeks and weeks. You call and leave messages. You notice they’ve cashed your “processing fee” of $100 and think this must be a good sign– surely you must be in somewhere. You’re finally told, “Congratulations! You’ve been put on the waiting list for 8 local markets. We’ll call you if something ever opens up.” You start to wish you could have your “processing fee” back.
3. One afternoon when you least expect it, you’re called and asked to bring by some samples. They’d like to try your product and hear about how it’s unique and how you differentiate yourself from other similar vendors. You hem and haw about what might best represent your product line. You package everything in sweet little boxes with bakers twine and lots of business cards.
4. You bring by samples thinking you’re just dropping them off. Instead, you’re seated at a long table and asked to walk each person in the room through what you’ve brought. Open-ended and unexpected questions such as “talk a bit about your process” or “tell us about where you source each ingredient” are posed. You feel like you’re back in high school debate class, looking out into the audience for a hint or a way out.
5. They like your product! The only problem? The timing’s not quite right. They’re waiting for another similar vendor to confirm that they are, in fact, leaving and until that time, they can’t move you into a slot. You wait.
6. Finally you get a call back. They’d like you to start next weekend. You panic, feeling like it’s way too soon. You’ve got nothing together yet. You need another one of those darn Costco tables, a pop-up tent, some manpower on the morning of. You need a little cash. There’s some very real start-up money even though it doesn’t seem as though there should be. From equipment to marketing to signage, to stall fees (anywhere from $20-$50 a week). You say yes and know that it’ll all somehow come together. And it does. And it will.
7. You channel your inner yogi and try and find a little peace in the whole thing. There are no time contracts or binding agreements (usually markets like to feel you out to see if you’re a good fit and, likewise, it’s important to make sure that you’re happy there as well). So you try not to think too far ahead and ponder the fact that you’ll never have another weekend off in your entire life. You try not to kiss 4th of July barbecues goodbye just yet. Or friends’ summer weddings. Or big birthday parties. You just put one foot in front of the other.
Essentially, getting into the highly desirable and crowded farmers’ markets in the Bay Area takes a combination of good luck, perfect timing, depends a bit on who you know, persistence, and a solid product. And sometimes the convergence of all of these factors just takes some time. If you’re looking to be a vendor, my advice is to get out there and talk to other folks who are selling at markets you like; get to know who the market manager is and introduce yourself; familiarize yourself with the market and who is already there and how you’re different; be persistent. Continue calling. The worse they’re going to say is, “Yes, you’re still on the waiting list.” And always remember why it is you’re doing what you’re doing. The farmers’ markets are such a source of community–for me, they’ve actually become a ritual. My weekend mornings just wouldn’t feel right if I weren’t schlepping bakery boxes and pie slices all around the greater Bay Area. And for that, I’ll take a little waiting and a little patience any day.