Guest post by Chris Penton, President of Beechwood Market Inc. Chris previously wrote for Apt613 about the market’s decision to move entirely online this year.
Much has been made of farmers’ markets not faring too well in the age of social distancing. With vendor interactions at a minimum, mingling with neighbours nerve-racking, and handling produce not permitted, the average market-goer is finding fewer and fewer reasons to venture out to their local market.
I am here to tell a happier market story.
Before I tell you of the Beechwood Market’s success online, I must clarify why we have chosen not to open up on-site. The province has set regulations around farmer’s market operations. All fairly sensible – here are a few examples:
- The entire market portion must be defined. This tends to be a rope around the whole area.
- Customer numbers must be limited by staff.
- There is one-way circulation. No doubling back, no crossing the site.
- Vendor numbers must also be limited and they must be appropriately spaced out.
- Physical distance would be enforced at each stall, limiting time with each vendor.
- Handling of produce is forbidden.
- Tasters are not allowed. This includes coffee by the cup and all eat-on-site food.
- No communal areas. No seats, mingling, or eating area.
The Beechwood Market is a community market. We have (had) live music, our Community Table for interest groups to engage the public, local sponsors, and the staple Beechwood Breakfast, done by a different chef each week. All of these have been erased.
We operate in a city park. The kids’ play structure in the park is currently allowed. This could quickly change with increased numbers resulting from the opening of the market.
The park bathrooms are open at the moment, thanks to the city pool on site. The city would most likely close them in September along with the pool, giving our customers nowhere to relieve themselves, wash their hands, or fill up their water bottles.
We spent the last seven years creating a chill, fun community event. With the above regulations and restrictions in place, we saw it, and still see it, as virtually impossible to duplicate the atmosphere to which our residents have become accustomed. Should we bring back a robotic, sparse, dull version with cattle prods to move customers along? Or keep a safe, healthy, successful model until we see a sensible light at the end of our shared tunnel?
Our move to go completely click and collect was swift and definitive. We spent April and May informing vendors, gearing up the store, and marketing the concept to customers. June 6, opening day, was still a hot date for infections and trepidation. Sales took off, dipped a bit throughout June, but have grown steadily since the beginning of July. We now have two pick-up points, deliver to 13 postal codes, and produce impressive weekly metrics – newsletter opens, Facebook engagement, Instagram hearts!
We support 20 small businesses. Their sales vary. The farmers are doing just as well as any regular year. The prepared food and baking hovers just below par. The “peripheral” or sporadic items – candles, salsa, maple syrup – are simply not moving in the same way. Many of these rely on tasting or touching, which is not permitted.
Due to our delivery service, second pick-up point, and (geographically) expanded promo campaign, vendors are now creating new customer bases in further reaches of the city. At the end of the day, they understand this is the sensible choice, their Saturdays are less taxing (they drop and go), and the model is sustainable, both in the COVID-19 era and beyond.
Winter also looks promising. We are currently seeking a greenhouse grower to supply the Beechwood Market with produce. As Ottawa is a bit stunted in this area, we may find ourselves looking past our municipal borders to fill the snowy gap in production.
The question remains: Why take the risk if it is not absolutely necessary? Although not as sexy, the Beechwood Market is working well in its virtual format. The numbers do not add up the same way for vendor or market management, but the quality remains top-notch, the ordering process is streamlined, and our customers are happy and, most importantly, safe.
Chris Penton is the manager of the Beechwood Market. He has been creating and running markets in Ottawa for over 10 years.