March 29, 2011

How to Become a Farmers Market Food Vendor

photo courtesy of Sue Muldoon

Yesterday I introduced you to Winter Caplanson and the Coventry Regional Farmers’ Market.  As one of the top farmers markets in New England, Caplanson gets emails every day from people asking to be in her market and she shared some of her thoughts and tips on how new food producers should approach farmers’ market managers.  Be sure to check back tomorrow too for Caplanson’s tips on how to increase your sales once you’ve been accepted to a farmers’ market.

Steps To Approaching Farmers’ Market Managers:

1. Know your market: Caplanson says that every farmers’ market is different and has a different mission so food producers need to know what that market is focused on before approaching them.  First of all, not every farmers’ market allows food producers so there’s no use wasting your time approaching those markets.  Other markets, like Coventry Regional Farmers’ Market, only accepts specialty foods that are produced in their state so no matter how good an out-of-stater’s product is, it simply won’t be added to the mix.  “Go to the market,” Caplanson says, “so that you know what is already being sold and how it is being marketed.”  Being knowledgeable about the market will help you when you get to Tip #5 – crafting a ‘pitch’ to the market manager.

2. Understand what makes you different: After you’ve identified the markets you want to approach, you now need to put your homework to good use and understand what makes your product different from the others already there.   Caplanson points out that markets don’t want to saturate their customers with too many vendors of one type but markets are typically willing to bring in similar product vendors if they offer something different to customers.  So if you use organic wheat ground by a local mill in your bread and no one else does that it’s something important for you to highlight to market managers.

2.1 Understand what makes you similar: Visiting markets in advance is also important because you can get a sense of what level of packaging and presentation that market looks for.  Is the food there packaged in bags with ribbons?  Showcased in baskets with checkerboard napkins?  Tucked inside eco-friendly boxes with fancy labels?  Every market is different and you should know what that market is looking for so that you can match that level of presentation before approaching them.

3. How can you work together: Caplanson says that she and her team, and most other farmers’ market managers she knows, are more willing to bring in new vendors who use ingredients from other farmers’ market vendors.  For example, the pizza maker at the Coventry Regional Farmers’ Market shops that day at the farmers’ markets for pizza toppings.  By ‘shopping’ with other farmers’ market vendors and incorporating those ingredients into your products not only show market managers that using local ingredients is important to you but that you are also willing to be part of the fabric of the farmers’ market community. 

4. Get Yourself Online: “Having a prescence on the web, even if it’s just a FaceBook page, shows that you are a real business,” Caplanson says.  She adds that the first thing she does when receiving a new vendor inquiry is check to see if they vendor is online.  If they’re not then they aren’t typically given much additional thought.

5. Craft the perfect pitch (and know your rebuttal): As the popularity of farmers’ markets has grown, market managers are now inundated with requests from small food companies to vend at their market.  You have to realize, Caplanson says, that many of these managers and staff are volunteers who have other jobs keeping them busy.  “You have to think like a market organizer and realize that approaching us minutes before a market opens may not be the best time.” Caplanson adds that food vendors should at the very least know what is required of them from a health department permitting standpoint.   “No matter how successful the venue is, you have to know what hoops to jump through and don’t automatically assume that the market manager will be able to guide you through that process.”

Caplanson does tell one story of a hot sauce vendor who did disobey the ‘don’t approach minutes before the market opens’ rule.  He approached Caplanson just as the market was opening one hot summer day and asked if they’d be interested in having a hot sauce vendor.   Since there was no such vendor in the market at that time Caplanson was intrigued but started to explain that she wouldn’t be able to accept any food vendors without the proper food licensing.  At that point the hot sauce maker pulled out a folder with copies of all the necessary licensing and permitting.   Caplanson was a bit surprised but told him that the market didn’t have any extra tables or tents but the hot sauce vendor said that he had all of that in his car.   “He had all the paperwork he needed, he knew we didn’t have a hot sauce vendor at the market, and he was 100% prepared so we let him in.”  

Although Caplanson is hesitant to mention this as she doesn’t want people thinking that market managers are just in it for free samples, she does say that getting samples in the hands of the market organizers can help get your foot in the door.  She recalls a story of a vendor who emailed her wanting to know how to sell cookies at the Coventry Regional Farmers’ Market.  The original pitch wasn’t too interesting to Caplanson until the cookie vendor sent in some samples.  Turns out that these cookies were made with unique ingredients like roasted leek shortbread cookies.   Being able to see the cookies in person, taste what turned out to be delicious flavor combinations, and see the simple, classy packaging convinced Caplanson and her team that this was a cookie vendor the market needed to have!

Lastly, if you don’t get into the first choice markets right of the gate don’t lose hope.  She also says that in her mind nothing carries more weight then a recommendation from one of her existing vendors.  “Theoretically there is a waiting list a mile long to get into our market but if one of my vendors comes to me and says that they know of another vendor at another market who should be part of ours then I always seriously consider them,” she says. 

To learn more about Coventry Regional Farmers’ Market you can visit their site here or check them out on FaceBook.

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