Local nonprofit struggles for space at Old Town Farmers’ Market

Local nonprofit struggles for space at Old Town Farmers’ Market
Flower stalls at a recent Old Town Farmers' Market (Photo Credit: Jonmark Nailor)

By Alexa Epitropoulos | aepitropoulos@alextimes.com

A few years after Together We Bake got off the ground in 2012, Co-Founder Stephanie Wright and Co-Director Elizabeth Bennett sought to take what seemed like a logical step: securing an ongoing spot at the Old Town Farmers’ Market.

Together We Bake was granted two dates to set up a booth at the Old Town Farmers’ Market this summer (Photo Credit: Aleksandra Kochurova)

Season after season, however, the nonprofit — which sells cookies and granola to partially finance its educational program — has tried in vain to get a permanent booth at the longrunning market, held every Saturday at Market Square.

After Bennett spoke at a city council public hearing in June about their ongoing fight, her organization was given a temporary market spot for two weeks, July 15 and Aug. 19. Bennett’s comments also led to a new memo from the Old Town Farmers’ Market Rules Committee that tweaks the selection process. The changes take effect Sept. 5.

Still, Bennett said, the memo is unlikely to make the challenge go away for Together We Bake and other similar nonprofits and small businesses.

According to the city, their struggle boils down to one issue: There are already too many baked goods vendors at the Old Town Farmers’ Market. The new memo, which was issued and approved by City Manager Mark Jinks on Aug. 21, won’t fix that sticking point.

And though the Old Town Farmers’ Market is one of five across the city — along with Old Town North, Del Ray, Four Mile Run and West End – it’s the only one controlled by the Alexandria Market Manager with the city government choosing the vendors. The city touts it as the nation’s longest-running farmers’ market still held at the same site.

Bennett is frustrated by a number of the regulations, including the definition of “local” as being within 100 miles. Numerous vendors travel from even further away. Though most sellers hail from Alexandria, Arlington and the D.C. metro region, others travel from as far as West Virginia, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

“It’s not just hurting us, it’s hurting the creation and growth of other Alexandria small businesses,” Bennett said. “We really think the city should prioritize businesses that operate in Alexandria instead of businesses that are from Maryland or a town in Virginia that’s an hour or two away.”

There are four baked goods vendors from the city and five from the region currently operating at the market, according to the city’s ManageMyMarket account. Alexandria baked goods vendors include Bread and Water, Hollin Hall Pastry Shop, Kiwi Kuisine and Maribeth’s Bakery. Baked goods vendors from outside Alexandria include D.C.’s Baked by Yael; Grace’s Pastries from Herndon, Virginia; Golden Goose Farm from Reva, Virginia; Rumalutions LLC from Fairfax, Virginia; and Ester’s Granola from Silver Spring, Maryland.

Bennett said another challenging aspect is that once vendors gain a stall, it’s something they hold onto.

Although returning sellers must sign a lease prior to the beginning of market season on Jan. 1, according to the city’s farmers’ market regulations, they aren’t required to reapply for their spot on a periodic basis.

“That doesn’t allow for new qualified vendors to the market,” Bennett said.

Further, Bennett said, it presents a financial hurdle for small Alexandria vendors who live and die by selling wares and goods at local markets.

“I know the difficulties in trying to start a small business. There are a lot of challenges. It would be really nice for these small Alexandria-based businesses to have access,” Bennett said. “It doesn’t seem like the city should be prioritizing the well-being of companies that aren’t within Alexandria’s boundaries.”

The application process for new vendors is described as “highly competitive” by the rules and regulations on the city’s website. The city says that new market vendors are selected based on a combination of factors, including “availability of space, vendor category and value, uniqueness and quality of the product.” The city’s website also states “placement and calendar of vendors is at the discretion of the Market Manager and the Old Town Farmers’ Market Rules Committee.”

Further, it states that new vendors are given preferential consideration if they generate the product they’re selling themselves, through a family member or direct employee; offer a quality product unique to the market; are located within 100 miles; offer a consumable good that keeps in line with USDA’s definition of a farmers’ market and demonstrate the ability to market and sell in a location that can see more than 7,000 customers in peak season.

The new memo won’t change that basic outline, but it will change how two potential vendors stack up against one another. An Alexandria-based business will be given preferential consideration in the process when two vendors apply in the same period for the same vacant permanent or temporary vendor status, sell the same products and equally meet all the criteria for becoming a vendor at the market.

City spokesman Craig Fifer said the new memo wouldn’t guarantee Together We Bake a spot at the market.

“Regardless of any rules, including the rule that is changing, they will still have trouble,” Fifer said. “They want to be able to sell a product that’s already overrepresented.”

Fifer said Old Town Farmers’ Market Manager Mae Carroll could not be made available for comment. Alfred Coleman, the head of The Department of General Services, which oversees the farmers’ market, did not respond to requests for comment.

Mayor Allison Silberberg said, after Wright reached out to her about securing a permanent spot in the market, that she asked Jinks in January to look into policies and procedures regarding the market and how vendors are chosen.

Silberberg called herself a personal fan of Together We Bake’s products and mission.

“The bottom line is that Together We Bake can apply and potentially be assigned a vendor space if the criteria are met, and I think that’s a great step in the right direction,” Silberberg said.

“They’ve got a great mission, they’ve shown that they can help all these women and they’re making a tremendous difference in the community. They have a great product, they’re a local vendor, and they sell their products in a number of locations and stores. I just want to say that I’m really glad that the rules committee could show flexibility and be welcoming,” Silberberg said.

The Old Town Farmers’ Market regularly draws in big crowds (Photo Credit: Jonmark Nailor)

She said she’s also in favor of making additional changes that could make a big difference for the market.

“As we move forward, I’d like us to look at if vendors haven’t started setting up by 8 or 8:30 a.m., that there’s a short list of vendors who can fill that spot that Saturday,” Silberberg said. “It’s a separate issue, but I’d love for us to look at this in a common sense way.”

“Clearly, I value each and every one of our vendors and some of them come from quite a distance. I’m grateful that they’ve been so devoted to our farmers’ market for decades,” Silberberg said. “Adding a local nonprofit [spot] the size of a card table is not meant to change whether some of these wonderful, longtime vendors are there. It’s to enhance the farmers’ market and to help a local nonprofit.”

Bennett and the rest of the team at Together We Bake are still hoping to see bigger changes. They’re the same changes she spoke about at the June meeting that led to the memo – prioritization of Alexandria-based businesses, eliminating grandfathering and creating a new category for nonprofits.

Those changes, she said, would boost local business by making it easier for them to sell at the Old Town Farmers’ Market.