Saturday Morning Market Thrives In St. Petersburg

Two tacos rest on a small paper plate, leafy lettuce, greens, diced tomatoes and onions spilling from the sides. Gail Eggeman rolls the soft flour shell tighter around grilled seafood and vegetables and takes a large bite.

"Oh, that's spicy and good," she says, smiling and wiping at her sudden salsa moustache. "It's a Flat Top Taco. A brand new vendor at the market. Very fresh."

Eggeman, the manager of the bustling, open-air Saturday Morning Market that has become a signature in downtown St. Petersburg, is in a festive mood today. She is happy despite the vendors who were scared away by a stiff, booth-shaking breeze or the vendors who chose a once-a-year Mount Dora festival over her market.

"We're down a little this week, but that's okay. I've got some great new organic farmers here for the first time and that makes it all good."

Life has been good these days at the Market. Cooler weather is here, fresh vegetables are coming out of the ground and the crowds are again packing the converted parking lot next to Al Lang Field.

It's a long way from 1996 when Eggeman's first try at a downtown market died after civil disturbances near downtown St. Peterburg. It's a long way from a cold day Saturday earlier this decade when only eight vendors showed up.

On a recent bright but blustery Saturday, more than 6,000 people strolled past 120 vendors. There were demonstrations of a re-mastered hula hoop. A local jazz singer put her own spin on Marvin Gaye's "I Heard It Through The Grapevine."  Mothers with scrambling children gathered for breakfast or lunch at tables in the sun. Young couples in shorts and floppy T-shirts strolled hand in hand, showing off new tattoos. Aging hippies grabbed bunches of bright orange organic carrots for a Sunday morning smoothie.

For longtime St. Petersburg residents like Pat Baldwin, visiting the market is a chance to see friends and try out some unique food. "It's like a big cocktail party without the cocktails," she says.

Seeking A Better Life

Like many other urban markets around the country, the Saturday Morning Market is about more than better food. It's about a better life. Healthy living, recycling, renewal are the underpinnings of most of the products and services.
While old-time flea markets peddle shrink-wrapped "Made In China" sport socks and plastic toys, urban markets like this one are selling low-tech, wholesome eco-consciousness.

Consider just a few of the vendors: Natural Mystic Soaps; Sunshine Shakes – All Natural Fruits; Bag it – Reduce-Reuse-recycle; Pappardelle's – The Fine Art of Pasta; Mother's Organics; Plantopia – Green Gifts that Give.

Trays of two-inch tall sprouting greens cover the tables at the Adale Farms booth. Steve Helms, a third-generation farmer out of Auburndale, watches as the fourth generation – daughter Vanessa and son Trace – tout the benefits of their new product, Organic Microgreens, to people crowded into their booth.

"These are greens grown only to the two to three leaf stage," Helms says. "They are tiny but packed with flavor and color – great as garnishes on salads and other foods."

Helms and his family grow more traditional farm products – watermelons and blueberries – but they want to tap into the higher-end market. Microgreens are being pitched to upscale restaurants and the adventuresome home chefs who come to the Saturday Morning Market looking for something new for their tables.

At the next booth are the farmers from Sweetwater Organic Farm in Tampa. Beyond that is Eggeman's newest vendor – Worden Farms. She boasts that Eva and Chris Worden run Florida's top organic farm.

"Today is their first day. I hope they do well. I hope people get it."

She points to the folding tables laden with stacks of Worden produce -- a Technicolor burst of freshness.

"All of this came out of the ground yesterday," says Gail, beaming.

Meeting An Unmet Need

People seem to be getting it. The Worden Farms booth is packed with shoppers and Eva, a farmer with a PhD in Ecosystems Management from the University of Connecticut (her husband's doctorate is from Yale) is happy with the demand for fresh, locally grown organic produce.

"It's an indication of an unmet need and we're happy to meet that need," she says.

Not everyone will be allowed to pay $45 for the privilege of meeting some unmet need at the Saturday Morning Market.

When Eggeman rests for a moment at a plastic table, a woman approaches with small rectangles of enameled wood in swirls of vivid color. Eggeman is interested.
 "So how do you make them?" she asks.

"I don't make them, I rep the artists." the woman says.

Eggeman's smile fades a bit. "Ohhhh," she says, telling the woman to fill out the vendor form on the Internet.

When the woman is gone, Eggeman is up again and strolling the market.

Sure there are a few empty spaces, but the season is just getting started and the crowds are building again. She rewards herself with an ear of raw, organic corn.

Between bites, she waves the ear around like a pointer. She points out the craft booths, the food vendors, the crowds coming in from the all directions.

"There are some empty spaces today. But everybody will be back next week," she says. "We've come a long way in a few years. We're booked solid for the rest of the season."

Paul Wilborn, a popular St. Petersburg-based pianist and singer, is executive director of the Palladium Theater at St. Petersburg College. He and his wife, actor and acting teacher Eugenie Bondurant, are renovating a 1913 home in the historic Old Southeast, a waterfront neighborhood just a short bike ride from the Saturday Morning Market. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

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