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Farmers market alumni are making it big in Baltimore

The Verandah Kitchen in Hampden is a restaurant that – like others in the area – grew from a successful farmers market or food truck venture. (Submitted Photo)

Radhika Sule applied for a spot at the farmers market on a whim.

Like so many Baltimoreans, Sule, who was on leave from her architecture job following the birth of her second child, frequently brought her family to the city’s farmers markets on the weekends to peruse the produce, check out new vendors, and, of course, sample the food (Sule is a self-described foodie). But when she noticed no vendors were selling Indian food, she wondered if she, a skilled home cook, could step up to fill that vacuum.

“Have you cooked commercially, ever?” Sule remembers being asked by the market’s manager.

Her honest answer: “No.”

But that didn’t stop the Baltimore Farmers’ Market & Bazaar from offering her a spot. Just a couple of years later, Sule opened a restaurant on The Avenue in Hampden, called The Verandah Kitchen, the evolution of that unlikely experiment.

She’s not alone. Plenty of eateries and other businesses in Baltimore got their starts running stalls at local farmers markets, from Bramble Baking Co., a small-batch bakery that opened its first storefront in Hamilton last year, to Neopol Savory Smokery, which started out at the markets decades ago and still visits three Baltimore markets each week.

For some vendors like Sule — who, for years, incorrectly expected she would eventually return to her architecture job — success comes unexpectedly. But most come to the farmers markets with a goal in mind, looking to find an audience for a specific business or product.

Cajou Creamery, a nondairy ice cream shop owned by Nicole Foster and her husband, originated in the suburbs of Washington, where the Fosters created a cashew-based ice cream for their children, who can’t have dairy. But the pair didn’t like the atmosphere of Washington’s farmers markets where, Foster said, the interactions with the customers felt cold, hurried and transactional.

When they traveled to markets in Baltimore, though, they found the people warm and enthusiastic about trying a new product. Plus, there was room in the market for a new plant-based ice cream company, something that wasn’t true about the incredibly dense culinary market in Washington.

“People here seem to be really into farmers market culture … which is, we want to buy and support locally made,” she said. “There’s a value, there’s a premium for things that are handmade, locally sourced, sustainably sourced.”

The couple decided it was here, not Washington, that they wanted to start their business, and they moved their family up Interstate 95.

Different vendors have different guesses for why Baltimore’s farmers markets have proven a successful jumping off point for small businesses throughout the city. Foster said she used her time at the Canton, Fell’s Point and 32nd Street farmers markets for “market research,” seeing how customers responded to the company’s different international flavors, such as horchata, a spiced Mexican drink, and kulfi, a traditional flavor for Indian ice cream.

For others, the farmers market serves as a testing ground for running a real restaurant. Ekiben, an Asian fusion spot with two locations in Baltimore, made almost no returns its first season at the markets, said Steve Chu, one of the restaurant’s founders.

Chu said he and his co-founder, Ephrem Abebe, had hoped to start Ekiben as a food truck, then as a hotdog cart that would travel around Baltimore, but the former was cost prohibitive and the latter wasn’t allowed in the city. They settled on a farmers market stall, inspired by Blacksauce Kitchen, a biscuit sandwich shop and a staple of the Highlandtown and 32nd Street farmers markets.

During their first season, Chu was working 14-hour shifts at his restaurant job before spending hours prepping for the Fells Point Farmers Market the next day.

“There were definitely a lot of sleepless nights,” he said. “Once you open up your own store, it’s like, we’re doing the same thing (as we were doing) at the farmers market but we’re doing it seven days a week … it’s hard to adapt but working hard is probably 80% of it.”

Online similarities

The farmers market model, in which a large number of customers are able to peruse a variety of vendors they may not be familiar with, is one that can attract a lot of business. The model guarantees a steady stream of potential customers for each vendor and has a low barrier to entry — just the fee for setting up a booth, plus the cost of any materials.

It’s not unlike selling a product on Amazon or Etsy, according to Oliver Schlake, a clinical professor at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland.

The farmers market model is one that can attract a lot of business. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

Selling a product at a farmers market can help an entrepreneur see if their product has any merit — if it can’t sell at a market where customers are actively on the prowl for hip new products, it may not be able to sell anywhere. Still, Schlake cautioned against assuming success at the farmers market will always lead to a successful storefront.

“A storefront is not a marketplace. It’s something (that) people have to have an intent to visit,” he said. “Storefronts typically have a smaller reach.”

He said that these entrepreneurs might be wise to rely on multiple revenue streams once opening a storefront, something that many market alumni have done. Sule continued to serve Indian street food at the farmers market for years, finally retiring the stand during the pandemic. Cajou Creamery ships its ice cream nationwide and plans to return to the farmers markets in the future, selling its wares out of an ice cream cart.

Using social media

It also depends on the market. Beau Z. Brendt, the executive director of the 32nd Street Farmers Market, puts a lot of weight behind the stalls that operate at the market, which boasts a four-decade history in Baltimore’s Waverly neighborhood. The market regularly posts on its social media about new offerings at the market, attracting new customers to those stands.

“Two weekends ago, we started selling portobello mushroom wraps, and I did a reel on Instagram. It has been shared by record numbers of people and it brought so many people in. It was the first week that (the vendor) did it, and he couldn’t keep up. He was selling out,” he recalled. Brendt himself also runs a business that started at the farmer’s market, a spice company called Max’s Degrees, that he co-founded with his partner.

The market has aimed to be an increasingly strong partner to the larger Waverly neighborhood, especially over the past 10 years. Right now, it’s offering special guest spots at the market to craftspeople and other makers who are based in the neighborhood, allowing those business owners a sort of trial run to see if they would want to become full-time vendors at the market.

Odette Ramos, Baltimore city councilwoman for District 14, in which the market is based, sees the market as both a boon for the community and a good jumping-off point for business owners.

“I think it’s because, for a lot of people that come to the Waverly market, they know who the vendors are going to be. So they can plan their trip … you’ve got a captive audience there every week,” Ramos said.

But are the city’s vibrant farmers’ markets unique to Baltimore, or can such an entrepreneurial spirit and welcoming customer base be found in markets across America?

It depends on who you ask, but to Brendt, something makes Baltimore’s markets special.

“It’s such a food town but it also has such a hardworking, working-by-hand kind of feel to it. None of these people are mass producing things. Everyone grew it themselves and brought it to the market and made it with love and came to Baltimore for an opportunity,” he said. “And they’re getting it at the market.”