Cracking the Farmer's Market: How Artisan Food Vendors Get Approved and Get Selling

Come summer, you can buy edibles and imbibables most days of the week at
Seattle-area farmers markets. In addition to produce, specialty sellers offer up the
likes of fleur de sel caramels, hibiscus spice soda, and foraged mushrooms. There’s
a lot of competition out there, and for new craft food and drink purveyors, getting
approved and getting ready for opening day can be a daunting task.

In the past decade, the weekly outdoor events have grown in number (there are now
more than a dozen in the city) and variety. With the exception of the independently
run Queen Anne Farmers Market and Pike Place Market, Seattle-area farmers
markets are operated by either the Neighborhood Farmers Market Alliance (NFMA) or
the Seattle Farmers Market Association (SFMA).

According to Judy Kirkhuff, Market Master, Seattle Farmers Market Association, the
new vendor application process takes two to three months to complete. Between 65
and 70 first-time applications were received for the 2013 season. There were also
at least 40 applicants rolled over this year from the 2012 waitlist. In addition, some
applications aren’t considered if they’re redundant. “An example is that we received
28 bakery applications this year, for three markets, Kirkhuff says. “Only one is being
given the opportunity to sell at one of those markets this year."

Kirkhuff explains that organizing markets is about more than filling vacant slots.
“A farmers market is not a numbers game. It is an existential experience,” she
says. “One of our missions is to nurture our small producers to such an extent that
someday they can actually move out of the hard work of direct marketing in many
outdoor venues each week. We try to be careful that we balance what is being sold
to what the demand is for that type of product."

Neighborhood Farmers Market Alliance Director Chris Curtis intentionally increased
the number of farmers and purveyors at her markets by around 15 percent last year,
but that doesn’t mean prospective vendors get a free pass. Applications are sent in
November for the following year’s season (vendors reapply each year), with lineups
and permits sent by March. “We now have a record number of vendors who have
been permitted to sell in 2013,” she says, including 11 new food processors. Eight
applicants who applied were rejected, while several others were added to a waitlist.

Two-year-old artisan ice-pop vendor Six Strawberries says the process of becoming
a vendor with NFMA-operated markets involved sending a few emails, filling out a
form, and dropping off samples. Co-owner Vanessa Resler explains that it, “definitely
felt a little intimidated applying, because I knew how many people want to be selling
products in the farmers market. But I knew we had a unique product that really fell
in line with farmers market values. As far as competition goes, our worry was that
although ice-pops are a completely different product than ice creams, we would have
markets that felt uncomfortable placing us near other frozen desserts.”

In addition to finding out how to best use dry ice to keep those tri-layered peanut
butter and jelly pops frozen, another challenging part of getting ready to sell was
acquiring the appropriate permits. “When we first launched in 2012 we weren't
allowed to get a permit from the Department of Agriculture, so we had to go
through King County Health, which is extremely costly and more prohibitive,” Resler
says. “When the regulations recently changed, allowing for us to go through the
Department of Agriculture (also allowing us to now wholesale) that was a big relief.”

The business is also successfully completed the process of becoming the first-ever
SDOT licensed bicycle food cart.

When Six Strawberries started selling last year, the owners say their goal wasn’t
to turn a profit, but to test the waters. “The business should be viable within one
or two years. It is showing signs of quick growth, and gaining popularity--however
our largest concern is scaling reasonably without getting ahead of ourselves and
drowning in the process,” co-owner Will Lemke says. The owners report increased
profitability as the company’s fan base continues to grow. Counting Macklemore as
one of those fans doesn’t hurt business, either. Now, Six Strawberries is focusing on
building a robust wholesale business, catering events, and bringing on another staff
member or two to help.

Gluten-free bakery d:floured started selling at SFMA markets in 2011 and NFMA
markets in 2012. Owners Phebe Rossi and Amanda Bedell said the process of
gathering business and licensing info, providing ingredient lists and sourcing each
recipe for farmers market applications a little time to pull together. Bedell explains
that there’s a “sense of competitiveness” when applying to sell at local markets,
“but, in the end it's the product that speaks for us. We focus on providing really good
food; the rest will come,” she says.

On market days, Rossi and Bedell spend about an hour setting up and unloading,
with market start times during the week aligning with baking hours. Saturdays
involve getting up early to bake enough olive bread and carrot cinnamon tea cake
for the weekend rush. While d:floured measures profitability differently depending
on each specific market, “We always want to have a sell-out day because it's really
satisfying. We've become better and better at predicting sales--it's more of a gut
instinct than the necessity to obtain a specific sales number, though,” Bedell says.
“For us, the markets have value beyond the day-of sales. It's our opportunity to
meet people face to face; share our food, get immediate feedback, and connect with
people like us.” In addition to growing their wholesale clients, d:floured is hoping to
settle into a permanent retail location in the coming year.

If d:floured does go brick-and-mortar, they’ll be following a trend alongside Kedai
Makan, Hot Cakes, and others. “I’ve noticed there are lots of new processed and
prepared food entrepreneurs who use the farmers markets as a research opportunity
and small business incubator,” Curtis says. “Both Six Strawberries and d:floured had
new, alternative processed food options which we thought would be a great addition
to the markets. We are very excited to see them succeed.”

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