Farmers’ Market Vending

Feature

On a wintry Saturday morning at Milwaukee’s indoors farmers’ market, a line of people snakes around lush plantings in the show dome of Mitchell Park Conservatory. Rob Kashevarof and two of his baristas can barely keep up with demand as they brew single cup after single cup of Bering Strait Blend, Sumatra Lintong, and Royal Select Mayan decaf—today, Valentine Coffee’s most popular blends. Burners for boiling water are set up behind Kashevarof and the baristas. Repeatedly, they turn around to pour the hot water over a row of drip filters, return the kettles, and pivot back to talk with customers while each cup brews for several minutes.

“This process invites a conversation immediately,” says Kashevarof. “We get to talk about our coffee.”

“There’s anticipation…” says his business partner, Joe Gilsdorf. “While they’re waiting for their coffee, we get to explain why our coffee is different, and the hook is set.”

Money saved on rent, utilities and shop upkeep make market retail a cost-effective way to promote a coffee or tea brand.

Every Saturday throughout the winter, at one of Milwaukee’s more scenic farmers’ markets, Valentine Coffee sells about 400 cups of coffee. Business wasn’t always this good. Back in 2009, when Kashevarof first started Valentine Coffee, the lines weren’t forming around his table. In fact, he sold his first cup of coffee at a steep discount—simply a trade for a bag of green beans from another vendor. “Trust me, the metaphor was not lost on my wife,” Kashevarof says.

But the company’s weekly presence, its standout roasts, and the sense of anticipation Gilsford describes all factored into the steady growth of the business. It’s one of a growing number of success stories for coffee and tea purveyors taking a different approach to reaching customers.

Farmers’ markets are a burgeoning category in coffee and tea. Last year, the USDA listed 8,144 farmers’ markets in their national directory, up 3.6 percent from 2012, and most of those markets include a beverage kiosk of some kind.

Markets offer opportunities for both companies who already have successful store operations and those who are just starting out. Money saved on rent, utilities and shop upkeep make market retail a cost-effective way to promote a coffee or tea brand, while weekly appearances build expectation for a product.

Valentine Coffee
Valentine Coffee. (Photo courtesy Valentine Coffee.)

Sisters Carolyn Dwyer and Joanne Polacek always dreamed of running a tearoom in their Florida town, “but a tearoom requires a lot of capital, and we didn’t have that kind of money,” Dwyer says. “So we decided to start small. We knew [our city] had this great, little market so that’s where we started.”

At the GreenMarket in West Palm Beach, Dwyer arrives early to set up the tables and tent for Cottage Garden Teas. She arranges the banners, tablecloths, and displays, makes sure she has tea brewed and is ready to sell, and sets out several dozen sample cups for passersby. (Farmers’ markets are a sampler’s game, and trying before buying offers one more opportunity to hook patrons with flavor.)

Back in 2007, when Dwyer and Polacek first formed Cottage Garden Teas, they sold twelve types teas at one local farmers’ market. Today, on any given week, the business can be spotted serving 120 varieties of tea at eight to ten markets. Soon, they will be selling tea at an indoor market with a permanent space.

Dwyer points out that whether planning to try your hand at hawking handpicked teas or brewing your best Colombian roast, it pays to do farmers’ market research ahead of time. “Right now, there’s even a bit of an oversaturation with markets,” she says. “Every town wants to get in on the action, and every town doesn’t realize what it takes or how it has to get behind it and promote it to make sure it has momentum.”

For many, farmers markets’ are a launching point to an even more exciting enterprise.

Start by researching and then obtaining the necessary permits or licenses to sell your products. Not every market is created equal, and each state has its own set of rules, regulations, and fees. Sometimes these vary town-to-town. Some markets only accept organic purveyors, while others are more relaxed. And it’s normal for a market to fully vet prospective vendors.

“Every farmers’ market director has a slightly different mindset of what they are doing and how they accomplish it,” Gilsdorf at Valentine Coffee says. “We’ve been turned down at some farmers’ markets because they already have one coffee vendor at that market.” He recommends doing your homework, understanding each market’s set of rules, and above all, being flexible.

For many, farmers markets’ are a launching point to an even more exciting enterprise.

For Valentine Coffee, the reception was mild at first, but slowly their presence at farmers’ markets built up a strong customer base—so strong, that there was anticipation and a built-in market for their brick and mortar location, which opened last July.

In 2003, Peter Beering, an expert in public safety and emergency preparedness, started Mission Coffee after a visit to the Boquete Medical Mission in Panama. He was so taken by the mission’s work—and the fact that it grew and sold coffee to support itself—that he decided to get involved, and sell the coffee in the Indianapolis area where he lives.

MissionTruckSide
Mission Coffee’s Java Van. (Photo courtesy Mission Coffee.)

Mission Coffee began by selling coffee by the bag—whole beans or ground—at a year-round farmers’ market in Carmel, Indiana. After a year boosting the brand this way, Beering contacted a local service club to brew and sell the coffee at the market. Eventually, he took the reins of the brewing operation himself and began selling at markets. His initial setup, between electricity and health department licensing, was a challenge. Rather than going with pour-over or pre-brewing, he bought a giant Bunn coffee brewer, took it apart, then installed it in his SUV, from which he would brew and sell the coffee at the market. Last year, he decided to create the “Java Van,” a decked out, mobile coffee bar with its own generator. The new café on wheels increases sales for the company by being atypical, and “because the thing’s a moving billboard,” says Beering.

With the Java Van,  Mission Coffee still sells coffee year-round at the market, and every Saturday, Beering serves between 500 and 1,000 cups of coffee to a loyal customer base.

Not every vendor needs to go to Beering’s lengths in their setup, but there will be a capital investment of buying the right tables, banners, displays, and equipment for brewing coffee or tea. “You have to have a good presentation,” Dwyer says. “If you don’t have an eye for that, get coached by someone who does.” Season lengths can vary from a couple of months to thirty-five weeks to year-round. Times and days of the week also vary. Morning markets tend to be better places to sell caffeinated beverages than afternoon markets, though afternoon could be great for tea.

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Mission Coffee’s retrofitted van.

“We’ve gone to some evening markets and events, and we don’t do as well at those,” says Dwyer. “Those people are coming to the markets before they go out to the pubs, and they don’t want to carry a bag of tea around all night. Sometimes, it’s an experiment to see how well you fit into the market.”

Both Cottage Garden and Valentine Coffee have dropped out of markets that didn’t work for them, but they recommend testing the waters at a market to see if it works for your product. “You want to be at a market that’s a happening place,” says Dwyer.

When you do settle on a market, you need to be committed. Show every week, be well-stocked, and offer consistent products and service. And, be prepared for the unexpected. Most farmers’ markets are held outdoors. If it rains, many markets still go on, so you’ll need to have a plan if your stall is uncovered, and if it’s windy the displays need to be weighted so that they don’t blow away.

“We sell coffee in the rain,” says Gilsdorf. “There are people who come to these markets, and they count on you to be there.”

Customer service is just as important at the market as it is in shop. It pays to be engaging and to hire employees who are good at interacting with customers, and happy to hang out in varying weather.

“We sell coffee in the rain,” says Gilsdorf. “There are people who come to these markets, and they count on you to be there.”

Despite the challenges, markets can be an amazing venue to promote your business. They offer advertising in a realm where food and drink are valued; they increase opportunities to network and collaborate with other local vendors; and they’re generally a relaxed and fun atmosphere to work in. Even more amazing, most towns have a variety of markets to try. If you’re lucky, you’ll find just the right fit, and soon have a line of people waiting to buy your product.

—Jeanette Hurt is a food and travel writer, and author of five books.