The Farmers Market: An Invitation to Play

With more than 90 vendors, $2 million in annual sales, and a customer count that hovers around 7,000 each week, the Davis Farmer’s Market has moved beyond “quaint local tradition” straight into an institution. In conventional grocery world terms, the Farmer’s Market is a sales threat. In co-op terms? It’s an invitation to play. “If a significant percentage of your town is gathered anywhere, for any purpose, you need to be there,” says Davis Food Co-op’s marketing coordinator Seth Larsen. “The only question for us was how to do it.”

Because the Market invites local restaurants to set up during the expanded hours of “Picnic in the Park” from April through October, the first co-op venture was food sales. Alas, offering sushi from our new in-store sushi vendor was, frankly, a financial bust. The same low profit margins that make in-store sushi a good choice made market sales unprofitable. And, from a marketing perspective, having only one staff person at the booth—a choice made with an eye on profitability—was ineffective. While one person can handle the sales at market, that same person can’t effectively “sell the co-op.” Perhaps most significantly, the project wasn’t any fun at all for staff—a sure sign that whatever you’re doing is not good marketing.

Still, with that many potential shoppers hanging out in downtown Davis, we needed to find an effective way to be at the Farmer’s Market. If sales wouldn’t do it, could education? A meeting with Farmer’s Market manager Randii MacNear resulted in an agreement to exchange free booth space for seasonal produce demos. 5,000 glossy recipe cards in hand, we went to Market—and found ourselves an instant hit.

Any produce staffer will tell you that shoppers are very curious about “exotic” varieties—exotic being pretty much anything besides carrots and green beans. And any demo worker will guarantee that a quick, simple, tasty recipe cooked in front of shoppers will move product, even if your “product” happens to be cooperative values.

Long-time co-op members, many of whom are also long-time Farmer’s Market supporters, were delighted to see us and kindly took the time to tell us so. “I’m so glad to see my co-op dollars being used in this way!” exclaimed co-op member Linda Mondor on a recent visit. Benjamin Hoffner-Brodsky, a “lifetime” shopper at age 5, is a little more direct. “You can eat this,” he urges a playmate while offering a vegetable salad. “It’s good!”

Future members were even more delightful. The Farmer’s Market is an obvious attraction for new folks in town, and a deliciously garlicky sample along with a map showing the co-op within easy walking distance made a great introduction. As person after person appeared at the registers saying “those nice girls at the Farmer’s Market told me to join,” we realized that our presence at the Market made the co-op seem accessible in a whole new way.

Local farmers may have been the happiest of all about our project. Since we sit in the middle of one of the best growing areas in the country, we’re able to buy directly from many local producers, and we were already on a first name basis with many farmers. We made a point of walking the Market during setup each week, handing out the recipe card of the day to any vendor who had one of our ingredients. We also used that opportunity to inquire about possibilities for the following week and to sample new or unusual varieties. As one of the end booths on the Market strip, we served as an informal direction station for many people entering the Market, serving up hot market tips along with our samples.

That may answer, in part, why the Market was eager to have us in the first place. Where a traditional viewpoint might be that adding the co-op to the market was inviting the fox into the henhouse, McNear had a different take on the subject: “The Market and the co-op share a common goal: to keep people cooking. Nowadays, it is a big challenge to find ways to encourage folks to buy and cook fresh vegetables and to eat a variety of fruits. At the Market, we work hard to encourage folks to cook simple meals instead of always eating out. We have to get serious about consciously choosing health, helping our farms thrive, and teaching our children the basics of life. We are thrilled to partner with the co-op on this endeavor.”

Was there a downside? It was a tiring job, both for the two regular staff members and for the folks back at the ranch. Summer temperatures in Davis regularly hit 100°, which furthered the fatigue. We had a blunder or two in anticipating harvests that didn’t materialize, so that we found ourselves sampling a recipe based on produce that was not yet available at the Market. And a slightly less controlled environment than the store led to slightly more exciting demos—returning lost children and dialing 911 were all part of the afternoon routine.

Was it worth the trouble? Without a doubt! Developing a rapport with a whole new set of shoppers is always worthwhile. The opportunity to further our master marketing and membership strategy, modestly dubbed “The Co-op as an Authority on Everything,” was absolutely invaluable. The experience was so exciting to our board of directors that the co-op’s 2006 annual meeting was held at the Wednesday night Market—and produced the biggest turnout in years. For the 2007 Market, the co-op has invested in an all-electric Zap pickup truck, which will serve both as part of the booth and as a visible symbol of our desire to “walk the walk” environmentally.

Farmer’s Market by the Numbers

The mechanics of the Davis Food Co-op‘s Market demo project were fairly easy, given a background in “dog and pony” cooking shows. From 10 years worth of demo and cooking class recipes, we pulled 30 recipes that we thought would translate well into a four-hour demo.

A volunteer came in the morning of the Market to prep as much as possible. Depending on the recipe, prep ranged from producing a completed dish ready to serve to setting up kits of precut and measured ingredients ready to cook.

We then loaded ingredients, a back-saving elevated ice chest, two ten-foot tables and three tubs (of cooking gear, literature, and miscellaneous handy items) into the co-op pickup truck.

With a little practice, setup time was reduced to about 20 minutes and the number of samples increased to around 1,000.

Because we chose to spring for the extra staff person, we were able to pop out samples while keeping up a constant line of patter.

Staff time:

15 hours one-time recipe development

15 hours one-time card design

4 hours weekly food prep (done by a volunteer)

8 hours weekly booth staffing (one clerk, one manager)

Card printing: $1800 for 26 color cards,
200 copies each

Ingredients: $700 (wholesale cost)

One-time equipment: $300.00

Number of samples served: ~15,000


Julie Cross has been coming up with crazy ideas for her co-op since 1994. For a set of shiny recipe cards, email her at [email protected]).

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