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What Makes a Good Tailgate Market?

ASAP’s communications intern Greg Parlier will post a series of stories from the field demonstrating our impact in the community. Here’s the second post in the series from Greg:

ASHEVILLE | With another farmers tailgate market season winding down in the Southern Appalachians, it’s a good time to reflect on what makes our markets successful.

From local apples and kale to coffee and scones, activities for kids to hot food on wheels, and sometimes even a dancing bear, there are many elements to a successful market.

Tailgate market managers have their hands full crafting Western North Carolina’s flourishing weekly events, a job that is closer to art than science. Of course, for the more than 100 tailgate markets that have earned an Appalachian Grown™ certification from ASAP, they must ensure that the majority of their members are Appalachian Grown farms and producers. Ultimately, a market’s success hinges primarily on the presence of vendor variety.

“We need to have a combination of selection and abundance,” said Mike McCreary, market manager of Asheville City Market, Asheville City Market South, and coordinator for ASAP’s market manager training program. That selection, and abundance, starts with the cornerstone of every market — produce.

Tomatoes are some of the most sought after market items during the late summer season.

Tomatoes are some of the most sought after market items during the late summer season.

Regi Blackburn, manager at French Broad Food Co-op Weekly Tailgate Market, compared produce to the “magnet stores” in a shopping mall, like Sears or Dillard’s.

“Produce is what brings people to market every week,” he said.

McCreary and Kate Hanford, manager at West Asheville Tailgate Market, both said they aim to have 60 percent of the market selling produce, to keep legitimacy behind the “farmers market” name, and keep customers coming back. That can mean multiple farms with the same produce, and if not managed well, could cause agitation amongst vendors.

Having that many produce vendors can lead to overlap in what different farmers are selling week to week, and it’s up to market managers to maintain a balance. Too many similar vendors hurts everybody’s sales numbers, but a shortage in certain items in season disappoints customers.

“Customers want selection and abundance, and vendors want exclusivity,” McCreary said.

“You get a good selection of vendors in part because you have lots of customers and vice versa. If your market is struggling, you need more vendors.”

You can find Asheville City Market manager Mike McCreary roaming the market, helping excite customers about local food. Earlier this year, he even dressed the part.

You can find Asheville City Market manager Mike McCreary roaming the market, helping excite customers about local food. Earlier this year, he even dressed the part.

That is true both for produce vendors and other products, like eggs, meat, baked goods, honey, or dairy products. McCreary said it can be tough to have the perfect amount of a certain item, because there are so many variables. This year, Asheville City Market doesn’t have enough eggs because both egg vendors ended their seasons early for reasons outside their control, he said.

But other years, the market was flooded with eggs after one farmer increased his production. The right amount of competition within the market is good for everyone, McCreary said.

“A rising tide lifts all boats, as they say. We added an apple vendor this year, and we are better off with two apple vendors. Their competition improves the selection of apples for customers,” he said.

Jim Brittain, manager of the Mills River Tailgate Market, said eggs were one of the Henderson County's markets most popular items. Mike McCreary said if Asheville City Market doesn't have enough eggs, customers always let him know.

Jim Brittain, manager of the Mills River Tailgate Market, said eggs were one of the Henderson County’s markets most popular items. Mike McCreary said if Asheville City Market doesn’t have enough eggs, customers always let him know.

For farmers, markets have to be about the bottom line. “Farmers are there to support their family. The market has to meet my financial needs as a vendor. Otherwise, we can’t be there,” said Anna Littman of Ivy Creek Family Farm, who also works off the farm as a coordinator of ASAP’s Growing Minds program.

For managers, the goal is to make every vendor as successful as possible. A happy vendor usually translates to happy customers. “A good manager has to take care of each tree, but see the whole forest,” McCreary said.

That can mean adding vendors that aren’t traditional farmers, or using farm products. At Asheville City Market, West Asheville Tailgate Market and others, 20 percent of space is given to value-added products, and the remaining 20 percent goes to arts and crafts vendors.

Some vendors and customers prefer not to have arts and crafts vendors at farmers markets because it takes booth space away from farmers, but McCreary, Hanford, and Joe Brittain, manager of Mills River Farmers Market, said it is important to include that variety.

If customers pick up a quality piece of art or furniture at a market, they might tell their friends where they bought it, increasing exposure for the market. And in the colder months when farms aren’t producing as much, arts and crafts can help a market stay open longer.

“We allow crafts because they add that diversity. When you go shopping at Earth Fare or Whole Foods you know you can pick up a gift or a card as well as your food,” Hanford said.

Brittain said he strives to make Mills River a “one-stop shop,” which requires non-food items to round out the shopping experience for customers.

That’s okay with Littman, who said “anything markets can do that brings more shoppers is super important.”

The crafts have to stick to the locally-produced mantra of the markets, however, and many markets have a high expectation of quality for their arts and crafts vendors.

Like produce and value-added vendors, craft vendors must be the producers of what they sell, and be located within 60 miles of Asheville, in the case of Asheville City Market. Other markets have similar rules.

There’s much more to farmers markets than fresh food and quality crafts, however. Market managers want their market to be a community meeting place, and use all kinds of tactics to encourage customers to engage with the market and farmers.

A musical duo graces the ears of shoppers at Montford Farmers Market. That market became the River Arts District Tailgate Market this summer. Many markets have live music to entertain local food enthusiasts while they shop.

A musical duo graces the ears of shoppers at Montford Farmers Market. That market became the River Arts District Tailgate Market this summer. Many markets have live music to entertain local food enthusiasts while they shop.

At West Asheville Tailgate Market, Westley the dancing bear entertains the kids, and Hanford sets up a booth where families and kids can get to know each other.

“We want to have activities for kids so it’s not parents dragging their kids to market, but the kids actually want to go,” she said.

There’s also a table with recipe taste tests and discussions, two food trucks, and a space for people to eat their purchases and just hang out.

“We want to be not just a shopping experience but a community event. A place where you can talk to neighbors and meet friends,” Hanford said.

Westley the dancing bear joins the groovin' fun at West Asheville Tailgate Market recently. Photo courtesy of Kate Hanford.

Westley the dancing bear joins the groovin’ fun at West Asheville Tailgate Market recently. Photo courtesy of Kate Hanford.

Many markets, like Transylvania Farmers Market in Brevard, have live music events every week to bring people in. McCreary said those types of amenities are important to bring in repeat customers to the market, and foster that community feeling people are looking for.

“The best market reflects the community and brings people together. A market should find out who is shopping and tailor the experience to who is actually there,” Littman said.

A 2012 UNC Asheville study found that customers’ interactions with farmers and vendors beyond the availability of fresh, local food, kept them coming back. Markets use various strategies to not only engage customers initially with music or events, but are constantly working on building relationships so that occasional customers become regulars. Monthly newsletters, cooking demonstrations, kids activities, and highlighting new products are strategies for encouraging customers to come back to the market each week through the season.

This year, McCreary developed a City Market Shopper program, an engagement tool where shoppers sign up for a newsletter to be eligible for giveaways and promotions. Through the new program, the market recently gave away gallons of cider, a predictably big hit with customers.

“I’m a big believer in the personal connection not just between the vendor and customer but also between the customer and the market representative. This year I sat at the table at the market and saw the relationships build,” McCreary said.

“For me, it’s a recent revelation. It’s my job to invite them in and develop a relationship between customer and market.”

MARKET ORIENTATION

Every market has a slightly different set-up in order to maximize parking and encourage shoppers to visit all vendor booths. North Asheville Tailgate Market, shown here, is set up long and narrow.

Every market has a slightly different set-up in order to maximize parking and encourage shoppers to visit all vendor booths. North Asheville Tailgate Market, shown here, is set up long and narrow.

The way a market is set up can have a big impact on the community feel of the market, and this year the West Asheville Tailgate Market has seen the impact of how changing the orientation of vendors can create a more inclusive space. Previously, the market was shaped like a lower-case “h”, with one clear main aisle of vendors. Those on the side row felt left out.

“No matter what I did – I would try putting really exciting vendors on the side rows – people just liked walking up and down the main row and going home,” Hanford said.

This year, Hanford, with the help of the market’s managing board, switched things around so the market took on more of a circular shape. That, Hanford says, has made a world of difference.

“The customers like it better, the vendors are satisfied, and I think it’s helped the community feeling we’re going for at the market. Vendors can see other vendors. It’s important to make every spot visible so they all feel like they are included.”

At City Market, McCreary, along with the market’s oversight committee, works to make sure the order of vendors at his market makes sense. Produce vendors do better spaced out, but craft vendors are better bunched together so they don’t get lost amongst all the food, he said.

Another pumpkin (or pecan, if you prefer) in the market pie is the appearance of day vendors, especially later in the season. Day vendors appear at a market for a short time period when a member vendor can’t show up on any given week, or has a short season. They are vital to the existence of markets, because of the higher fee they pay to appear, and that further motivates market managers to have a healthy, inclusive market, in order to entice more day vendors. In a way, day vendors shop for prosperous markets like customers shop for a vendor with their favorite variety of radish or arugula.

DO SO MANY MARKETS MAKE FOR HIGH COMPETITION?

Farmers markets across the region have the same goal: To encourage and convince people to support area farmers and buy local, no matter where their favorite market is. It's thousands of miles fresher!

Farmers markets across the region have the same goal: To encourage and convince people to support area farmers and buy local, no matter where their favorite market is. It’s thousands of miles fresher!

There are a lot of markets in the region, especially in Buncombe County, which is tied for most in the state with Charlotte’s Mecklenburg County, and many of them operate at overlapping times, some within a few miles of each other.

But the markets all operate with the same goal in mind, and generally don’t directly compete with each other, McCreary said.

“The goal is to gain shoppers that weren’t at markets before. We’re trying to add to the slice of pie,” McCreary said. “I would argue that Asheville City Market has done that.”

Currently, 55 percent of residents in Western North Carolina shop at farmers markets, and 59 percent in Buncombe County. That number is trending upward as the number of markets in the region has more than doubled in the last ten years.

Part of that growth has been fostered by ASAP, both through the establishment of Asheville City Market and Asheville City Market South, and through the support and training of market managers and upstart markets.

The success of farmers markets aligns directly with ASAP’s mission to help local farms thrive, link farmers to markets and supporters, and build healthy communities through connections to local food.

“Farmers markets offer us the opportunity to connect directly with farmers producing food in our community,” said Molly Nicholie, director of ASAP’s local food campaign. “While this type of transparency is not possible for every food purchase in our lives, these connections drive questions about our values and where our food comes from and can be the first step in creating the food system we want.”

For farmers, markets are vital, because their livelihood depends on it. “Markets are what keep us going. It’s part of what connects us back to the community,” Littman said.

Looking for local fresh food in a community atmosphere? Find the times and locations of all the tailgate markets in our region here.

For market managers looking to increase sales and customers at their market, ASAP is conducting a training later this month in West Jefferson.

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