Start a Farmers Market Business – Part 1

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So you want to start a food business? Excellent. Now, where to find your prospective customers? The ones, who will taste your creations, provide direct and immediate feedback and spend some money too? Sounds like you need some market research and quickly. Ever thought of starting a food stall? You don’t have to be a farmer. Eee-I-Eee-I-Ohh.

In part 1 of this series, we’re going to look at farmers’ markets. The term ‘farmers’ market’ essentially describes a gathering point for small artisan food makers, who on certain days of the week may set up their stalls in a part of a town or city in order to sell their wares. The variety of food can be spellbinding plus it’s a great place to try out your food ideas, learn some new tricks and meet like-minded food entrepreneurs.

Old MacDonald had a…Stall

In its purest form, a Farmer’s Market hosts people who farm their own land, thus completely bypassing the grocery-chains in order to furnish you directly with the loving spoils of excellent animal and crop husbandry. Delicious farm-to-plate organic, grass-fed meat. Strangely beautifully ugly pumpkins and squash in shapes, which a supermarket buyer might reject. Lovingly hand-labeled jam and preserves in a smile-inducing variety of glass jars. Everything served by cheery people in mis-matched kitchen aprons from the backs of their trucks and cars. It all sounds…well…so rural.

In recent years however, many farmers’ markets have (and rightly so) welcomed coffee-roasters, fish and cheese-mongers, crepe-makers, tea-blenders, organic-hotdog stands and almost every kind of ethnic food seller under the sun. These days, many such markets are as likely to sell ciabattas and cupcakes, as they are to sell cabbage and chives. The atmosphere can be intoxicating; the mix of people eclectic. But make no mistake; cheery smiles or not, everyone with a stall is here to make a profit.

The rise and rise of food markets

According to the National Farmers’ Markets Association (US), there are currently in excess of 7,800 farmers’ markets across the USA alone. The same published statistics indicate that customers spend in excess of $1 billion annually and the numbers are increasing. Many city and town markets are buzzing with informed, curious hungry buyers. For myriad reasons, there has been a huge spike in the numbers of people who wish to shop locally, eat seasonally and support regional producers. This all presents a whopping great opportunity for you!

Where does my food come from?

Furthermore, concerns over the alleged effects of man-made food additives as well as the conditions in which animals live before being processed, have prompted many households to question the constituent ingredients of industrially-prepared food products. India is concerned with the prevalence of antibiotics in ordinary honey (India). Europe has seen recent food scares linked to the illegal inclusion of horsemeat (UK) in beef-burgers and beef-pies. Furthermore, Salmonella, Clostridium and Campylobacter (UK) outbreaks have compounded consumers concerns with respect to the provenance of the food on their kitchen table. Where did this come from? Where was it packaged? What kind of a life did this animal have before it arrived on my plate? Were pesticides or preservatives used?  Can I trust the label? Who made it?

The customer still knows best

Your prospective customer is now internet-savvy, better informed and more demanding of standards than has been the case for several generations. Perhaps many people are simply interested in a return to seasonality and locality. That is to say, buying food according to the time of year, buying local, buying fresh…and buying from you in person! If you can deliver a safe quality product, attractively branded and backed up with a compelling story, you may be onto a winner no matter how small your operation!

From raspberries to riches

In 1998, three enterprising graduates of the University of Cambridge in the UK, Adam Balon, Richard Reed and Jon Wright bought £500 worth of fruit, some ordinary blenders and sold their appealing smoothies from an inauspicious ramshackle stall. In a moment of inspiration, they then erected a sign with the words ‘Do you think we should give up our jobs to make these smoothies?’ Either side of their stall, they placed one bin labeled ‘YES’ in addition to another bin labeled ‘NO’. They then courageously asked their customers to choose the appropriate bin in which to put their empty bottles. The ‘YES’ bin was the fuller by the end of the day.

Fizzling with the results from their market test-kitchen, the trio collectively resigned their jobs and established Innocent Drinks (UK). The company has since been acquired by Coca Cola, has grown to 350 people and turns over in excess of GBP 100 million annually.

Roll up your sleeves, Chef!

So, if you are serious about starting a food business, you might consider applying for a pitch as soon as possible. The number of food business success stories, which started from a humble farmers’ market stall, concert-venue or street-side market may really surprise you. Maybe yours is next. In many cases, the best markets have a seriously long waiting list. That’s a good sign by the way.

Anthony Gird and Michael de Klerk started ‘Honest Chocolate’ (South Africa) from their own kitchen and sold their very first chocolates at their local food market. In fact, many well-established food businesses keep their market stall in order to keep close to their customers and get immediate feedback on new products. There really is no better test-kitchen!

Get to know your Market Manager

But don’t get too frisky just yet! You can’t just waltz in the door of any market these days and set up shop. Market Managers (the people who will vet your application) can be very selective about whom they allow into their market. They have a reputation to maintain. They want a serious commitment from you. Are you in this for the long-haul? Have you got the moxy to turn up every week and deliver quality? How do you convince these ‘gatekeepers’ that you are worth consideration? There might be a long wait as there really is no shortage of applicants.

Ready, Steady….Plan!

No problem! In the interim, you are going to do the math, assess your costs and likely profit margins. You are also going to consider the competition, inform yourself of food-trends, brush-up on local laws and regulations and examine the necessary permits and licenses. Not least, you are going to consider the prospective venue and investigate what is likely to be a serious demand on your time.

In Part 2 of this series, we will look at some of the steps involved in signing-up as a vendor. We invite you to listen to some very informative podcast interviews with Market Managers, the very people who will consider your application and suitability very closely. We’ll get the inside track and guide you on qualifying for the first step on your food-business journey to success!

If you would like to be invited to listen to the interviews, please use the sign-up form at the bottom of this post.

Some Useful Links & Resources

usdalocalfooddirectories Find your local market – USA
usdalocalfooddirectories  Add your market stall to the same directory – USA
farmersmarketcoalition  US Farmers Market Coalition – USA
australiafarmersmarket Australian Farmers’ Market Association – Australia
irishfarmersmarkets Irish Farmers Markets network – Ireland
milkmarketlimerick Vendor information Milk Market – Limerick Ireland
farmersmarketsontario Farmers Markets of Ontario – Ontario Canada
stlawrencemarket St. Lawrence Market – Ontario Canada
bostonpublicmarket  Vendor application Boston Public Market – Boston USA
greenwichmarketlondon Vendor application Greenwich Market – London UK
eveleighmarket Vendor application Eveleigh Farmers Market  – Sydney Australia
sagefarmersmarket Sage Farmers’ Market – NSW, Australia
palms market Palms Food Market – Cape Town South Africa
matakana farmers’ market – Matakana Farmers’ market – Auckland New Zealand

Can we help you?

Would you like us to interview a particular business or someone in a particular area you would love to know more about? No problem! Perhaps there is some thing you would like to learn. We can marshal the expertise of our food business network contacts to address any aspect of the food or drinks business to help you. Simply fill in our contact form by clicking on this link

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About Author

Mark Hayes - Editor

Graduating after 4 years at Shannon College of Hotel Management in Ireland, Mark worked in hospitality and restaurant management roles for ClubMed, Disney (in both Florida and Paris, France), Sheraton Hotels (Frankfurt, Germany) as well as management positions in restaurant chains in the UK. Mark completed an MBA in 2010 with a master's thesis focused on food franchise operations. Through interviewing food business owners, franchise-holders and food-vendors, Mark found that he really enjoyed finding out exactly what compels people to start food businesses and what it is they do to make them profitable and rewarding. In recent years, Mark has also run a successful farmer's market business with his parents, both of whom are passionate 'foodies'. From sourcing ingredients to making food by hand, packaging it, pricing it and selling it in a competitive marketplace, Mark wants to help you to make your food startup a success.