From booth to business: Farmers markets are often incubators for emerging businesses

Raina Drake-Raue works at the Thousand Flower Farm stand at the Friday Harbor Farmers Market. The Farmers Market has been an incubator for several ag-related businesses. - Jane K. Fox
Raina Drake-Raue works at the Thousand Flower Farm stand at the Friday Harbor Farmers Market. The Farmers Market has been an incubator for several ag-related businesses.
— image credit: Jane K. Fox

Part one of a series

For tourists and locals alike, the farmers market is a feast for the senses. The brightness of flowers and produce, the sweet and savory scents of food, the fun of local musicians, all contribute to this image of bucolic loveliness.

Its loveliness, however, is not the whole story. Indeed, as Friday Harbor Farmers Market manager Rosa Blair said, people don’t realize that the market has been an incubator for some successful local businesses.

The crowds that throng the market on Saturdays are equally likely to be seen standing in the line for lunch at Market Chef or dinner at Pablito’s Taqueria. These are but a few among many business, food and otherwise, that began life as a booth in the market.

For people like Paul Stevens, the market was a vital opportunity for him to garner the experience needed to make the leap into independent business.

Originally from Vermont, Stevens worked as a chef in various Friday Harbor restaurants including Coho and Backdoor Kitchen, before he hit upon the idea of selling his own Mexican food. “I made Mexican food for my friends and I saw the potential for doing it on a mass scale,” he said.

From that point of inspiration, Stevens talked to Blair about booking a market spot to sell his food. He was told simply to turn up the following Saturday, ready to sell. The rest, as they say, is history.

Using the commercial kitchen at Coho, Stevens set up the booth that would lay the foundation for Pablito’s. About a year and half later, on April 1, 2010, the taqueria opened at Friday Harbor Center.

The transition from chef and market vendor to business owner was far from effortless, but Stevens said it was the farmers market experience that was the vital element. "It meant I could get money and form a business model," he said.

A more subtle benefit of selling at the market is something all of the market vendors talk about: Community loyalty and exposure. Tim Barrette and Laurie Paul at Market Chef championed this fact about the market. To them, the organization is an incubator, a place for people to test, refine and perfect their goods.

"Without the market, we wouldn't have a chance to test our concept, to bring local food to more local people, of all various incomes," Paul said.

The couple's career at the market began in a more educational capacity. They were "the Market Chef" — there to advise and inform about the various fine fruits and vegetables available from local farms. They then started serving salads, granola and key lime shortbread cookies. The food was a hit.

"Our customers had been saying to us, 'We wish we could have this stuff every day of the week'" Paul said. Four years later, with community support firmly established, the Market Chef restaurant was born.

Paul and Barrette are energetic in their support of the permanent farmers market and events center at 150 Nichols St. "We're looking forward to having an agriculturally centered community gathering place in our back yard, where we can do special events and interesting dinners," Paul said. She feels that the project, called Brickworks, will take the market's business "incubator" effect to a new level of success.

The local agricultural community is not only responsible for food-based business success. Amanda Zee of Sweet Earth Farm on San Juan Island has been making her "Sweet Earth Herbal" line of cosmetics for a few years now. This range of body care products continues to be available at the market but now sells at Compost It, Lavendera Day Spa, and off-island at the Everett Co-op. "I get a lot of people asking if they can get it online," Zee said.

From booth to business, then, the success of the farmers market as business educator and incubator is clear. Who knows what new business model may be developing behind those flowers and fine foods on Saturday mornings?

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