Last Saturday was my last hurrah as a vendor at the Pearl Farmer's Market. The coupe de grace to my well-intentioned, but star-crossed experience as a chef and restaurant owner plying my wares at the street level came after the market closed for the day. Ever wonder what the farmers and other vendors do with unsold produce and products?
I loaded the wagon with my wares at closing time: the pasta machine, folding tables, brochures, three-compartment sanitation setup, hand washing station, various soaps and menus, and framed photographs of me with Andrew Zimmern, me holding my chicken, the tent and ice chest and flour and eggs. I lifted the wagon into the truck, and tied it down. On the way back to the restaurant, something happened – as rope slipped its knot. The yellow wagon rolled backwards out of the truck bed, and splashed its contents across four lanes of Broadway.
Cars going both directions were hit with local, organic products crafted by my own hands. My hand-built pasta machine skittered one way, the wagon bounced off a minivan and flew in another direction. My water catchment buckets got stuck under a lady's Forerunner and were dragged three blocks before she pulled over and kicked them out from under her car. Sentimental frames and glass crushed beneath black rubber tires.
I trudged up and down Broadway, picking up the broken pieces of my life as a vendor, everything returned to the truck bed, this time in a junk pile. I got back into the truck, but didn't go anywhere. I just sat there, realizing I had been defeated. I searched for a moral. Where had I taken my first false step?
Working a booth at a farmers market is a lot like your father making you do a lemonade stand to gain a first taste of business. It is beautiful in its brevity: all the risks, investments, food costs, employment problems, marketing challenges, they all exist in microcosm … a perfect one-fortieth replica.
Applying Lemonade Stand Theory, all the moving pieces are small and obvious. If you sit on your product and don't sell any, then you've overbought – or you've undermarketed. Or both. If lots of people wave and smile, but nobody gets out of the car, it may take a gentle nudge from your aunt to realize that you have planted your lemonade stand on the shoulder of a busy highway where no one is going to pull over. Location, location, location.
Figure this one out, kid, and you've polished off a sound business model. Simple enough, right?
In retrospect I have flunked the little study in a big way. Like that classic Disney cartoon where the gates fly open and the horses and their riders come tearing out in a cloud of smoke…and one last straggler backs out of his stall in reverse, already alone and confused, I think I already had terminal malfunction even at the concept of my lemonade.
See, when you're a farmer, the "lemonade" is the easy part: you plant tomatoes, and – by golly – you sell tomatoes. Beautiful. Brilliant. Slam dunk.
But I didn't have any tomatoes, and I wasn't a farmer. Instead, I (a restaurant) fall into this other category called "retail," which is a far squishier subject. While "farmer" is a seemingly straightforward enterprise, retail weaves into the mix of strictly regulated local farmers with (pretty much unregulated) kolaches and chocolate covered California almonds and dog biscuits and dish soap and beauty products. It is in this category that things start to get sticky.
Long ago, my very first sous chef Kyle and I determined that the best way to stand out from the crowd was to prepare totally handmade sausages and bacon from all-local everything, and sell these sausages cold to take with you, or cooked to order as you see fit. To be even remotely profitable after cost and labor, after butchering and grinding and packing and poaching and truck loading and driving and tent rentals, we figured we'd have to charge a buck an ounce. That's $4 for a four-ounce sausage.
It was at this very first junction that we broke with lemonade logic and chose a clouded path. For, we did not then realize, selling a costly sausage with an ethical bent required educating the consumer. Woe to thee who steps on to this bridge unarmed and unfunded. That is one big dragon.
"Is that…sausage?" visitors would ask, with wrinkled nose and accusatory finger. All day we stammered our way through reasoning with the customer that this was a very special product, and why exactly they didn't cost $3.50 a pack like they do at the grocery store. "Our vegetables all come from that farmer right there – the one in the blue shirt. It's organic. They are chemical free. Not raised in cages. Uh…." (they have left).
It was a flop. We were top-heavy: going home with a cooler full of sausage and our tails between our legs. So we decided to add soup – lower price, quick and cheap to make, easy to serve – maybe that would upright our financials and pull us out of the mud. The soup sold only sporadically. Sometimes we would sell out at six bucks a whack, and other days for the last half hour of breakdown we would just give it away to whoever wanted it. (Because, seriously, what are you going to do with six gallons of soup?)
Our product line swung all over the map, as we groped for something that would capture the hearts and minds of mankind. We made whole-seed mustard (good, steady seller), loaves of bread (we were limited to the 12 loaves we could cook in our little oven after a busy Friday night), jams and preserves and pickles of any local product we could get our hands on. Always spotty in performance – and whenever labor and cost went up, sales failed to follow at the same rate.
At our highest point of production, run by my dear friend Drew Moros, we had three employees slinging breakfast sandwiches, making Italian sodas from local fruit, selling soups and sausages and other charcuterie, and taking in cash as fast as we could – but burning it just as fast. One day, Drew sat me down and penciled out every nickel and dime of our income and expense, and showed me beyond any doubt that we were losing. Each and every time, no matter how you sliced it – we were losing.
She dissolved her own position that day, and went elsewhere.
I persisted. What about the marketing? The exposure? How would I ever teach anybody about Gwendolyn? I could not afford (and still can't) any form of real, paper-and-ink advertisement. We've never been well enough to be any better off. As exposure went, this was pretty much it.
So I chased the possible opportunity into a pipe that gradually shrank in diameter. I could run the tent myself, and then I wouldn't have to pay myself (unpaid labor makes a huge difference). Cutting down to only bread, mustard and a few jams, I sold an average of $125 a week, which now covered my lesser expenses, the market fees, and even sometimes left me with $40 to spend on produce, or to blow on a Sunday lunch for my girlfriend and kids. Physically and mentally, I couldn't keep up. I was at the restaurant scrubbing the floor and planning a menu until midnight – then jarring up jams and pickles until 1 a.m., or later.
After burning through all my favors with the managers, I had to hire someone to run the tent at the market. This changed two major facts: it ate up $110-160 I didn't have to begin with, and (still more dangerous) it took the message out of the hands of the person who produced the thing, and put it into the hands of someone who must be artificially indoctrinated with our larger purpose.
This was the picture of a small business disaster. We had become an insolvent jam and mustard store, and an ineffective marketing scheme. The restaurant reservations I had always hoped for as a result of educating the consumer, of being out there and sweating shoulder-to-shoulder with the farmers from whom I bought everything I believed in – never came.
At a loss of how to correct this problem, but not willing to let go of my involvement with the market, I held on to this losing arrangement for more than two years. Then I fired the staff I had hired to run it, and ran it myself. For as long as I could, which turned out to be a few months.
I had this revolutionary idea of selling hand-cranked pasta before your very eyes, and so I built the machine to do it. It gathered crowds. It brought fascinated children from miles around. It made it onto a dozen cell phone videos a day – but it brought no reservations. I was losing heart.
That was when I packed up, turn on to Broadway, and came apart at the seams.
When someone goes to a steakhouse, they have already mentally eaten what they are about to consume even before they valet their sedan. Expectation is a powerful thing – far more powerful than anything that comes out of your mouth after the fact.
At a farmers market, this holds to be true. People decide what you are from 60 feet, and no amount of talking to the contrary will convince them otherwise. In fact, you often offend them if you try. Everyone decides that they are right, and nobody likes to be told that they are wrong -- and they would rather walk past you than to endure your correction. Those who sell clear and recognizable lemonade will triumph.
It is finally clear to me that I was never understandable from 60 feet, nor have I been able to understand my consumer. And this lack of clarity, like a Christopher Robin's little black rain cloud, has followed me all of my days.
Top image: Restaurant Gwendolyn's table at the Pearl Farmers Market offered all manner of products, but none seemed to take off. Photo by Michael Sohocki.