Fun, Fresh & Local: Farmers Markets Nurture Tampa Bay Entrepreneurs

From orchids and salad greens to goat cheese, farmers markets are booming with locally grown produce and hand-crafted items.  They're also ushering in a new class of entrepreneurs and infusing energy into downtowns.

Rick Parsons loved cooking up New Orleans-Cajun style recipes for friends and at parties.  But he never thought of it as a livelihood until he was downsized from his corporate job.

When a friend suggested that Parsons forgo an extensive job search and test his cooking skills at the St. Petersburg Saturday Morning Market, he thought why not.

That was two years ago.  Today, Parsons and his wife Lisa not only manage a thriving market business, but the success of that venture allowed them to expand further.  Last year they opened Ricky P's Po Boy Sandwich Shop.  And negotiations are underway to open a second shop this summer.

Pam Lunn had much the same experience.  In 2002 when she and her husband lost their jobs at area companies, Lunn decided to turn a couple of dairy goats and chickens into something more substantial than her children's backyard 4-H project.  Now her business, The Dancing Goat, is thriving and she's a regular at markets in Seminole Heights, St. Petersburg and Tampa, where she sells goat cheese, goat milk soap, fresh eggs and similar products.  

What's going on?  In today's down economy, markets can be the perfect antidote for entrepreneurs who want to launch a product line with relatively little risk or upfront investment, says Gail Eggeman, market manager of the St. Petersburg Saturday Morning Market. She estimates that her market has served as a sort of mini-business incubator for at least 25 small business owners.

"There is no doubt in my mind that I owe my success to the market," says Parsons.  "It gave me an opportunity to test my recipes.  Once we had a marketable product, it bolstered my confidence about going forward with a restaurant.  Now the market feeds our business, driving people to the restaurant after they've sampled our food at the booth."

Judy Staunko, who helped co-found the market with Eggeman, agrees.  "The market offers a supportive community for people to get immediate feedback on their product. It is a really safe and accessible way for people's dreams to be tested."

Staunko should know.  She and her brother Bill are the owners of the popular Spice Routes booth at the Saturday market, which led to them opening a daily lunch café located at First Unity Church in St. Petersburg.  Staunko now buys her fresh produce from the farmers at the market.

Farmers' markets are a growing trend not just in Tampa Bay, but throughout the country.  According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, nationwide there were approximately 5,275 farmers' markets in 2009, up from 1,755 in 1994.  

Florida is showing the same trend.  "Five years ago there were maybe 70 farmer markets in Florida," says John Matthews, chairman of the Florida Association of Community Farmers Markets. "Today we're at 120 and growing."  

The St. Petersburg market initially launched in 1996 as a grassroots effort with a group of friends who wanted to create a community venue with a garden, kitchen and market, but the timing wasn't right, says Eggeman.  Six years later, as St. Petersburg's downtown was taking off with new retail and residential development, the group ventured out again.  A $1,000 economic grant from the Allegany Franciscan Ministries gave them a much-needed foundation of support.

Within a short time, the market was adding new life to the heart of the city.  Starting with just 20 vendors and several hundred attendees, it has grown to become one of the largest in the Southeast with about 200 vendors and up to 10,000 people attending.  The economic impact on downtown St. Petersburg has been very positive, says Sophia Sorolis, manager of economic development for the city.  "It brings significant foot traffic to downtown on a Saturday morning. And many of those people will then spin off and visit local shops and restaurants," she says.

Hungry For New Ventures

Downtown Tampa's market was the inspiration of the Tampa Downtown Partnership, a downtown economic development advocacy organization.  "We were looking for ideas that would encourage more traffic and excitement downtown," says Paul Ayres, the partnership's director of marketing and business development.

With funding from the Partnership, the Tampa Downtown Market kicked off two years ago on a Friday, which made sense since an estimated 50,000 people work in downtown Tampa, says Ayres.  

Ayres is pleased with the market's success. "The market adds vibrancy to downtown," he says.  "Several companies have even offered their employees an extended lunch hour so they can get out and experience the market and come back to work recharged.  Lately we've had interest in offering a Sunday market in addition to the one on Friday."

 A January 2009 survey of market attendees showed some interesting results: 93 felt that downtown Tampa's image had been improved with the market and 73.4 percent were more likely to visit a downtown restaurant or retailer after a trip to the market – exactly the kind of results Ayres says the partnership sought.

Tiffany Ferrecchia owns a catering business and is a personal chef. She is also downtown Tampa's market manager and co-manager of the Seminole Heights Sunday Morning Market with urban planner and activist Greg Barnhill.  

Located on the front lawn of Hillsborough High School, the Seminole Heights market is the "newest kid on the block" having just completed its first successful year.  "We were very happy with the results," says Ferrecchia.  "We have excellent quality vendors and a steady customer base."  

Each week, the market features a cooking demonstration from a local chef – part of the group's mission of educating the community about good health and sustainability.

The Seminole market is also unique in that a percentage of proceeds go toward an educational scholarship for a student who lives in the neighborhood and attends Hillsborough High School.

Hatching New Markets 

In Bradenton, market manager Susan Blake talks about her new market giving people a reason to come downtown – and when they do, she says, they realize what a delightful and quaint place it is.  "Downtown Bradenton has lovely tree-lined streets and small shops," says Blake.  "There is really a nice ambience here."

The Downtown Bradenton Farmers' Market is also having a nice impact on downtown's economy, says Blake.  "We've just finished our second season and the market is starting to take on a life of its own," she says.  "We've begun seeing between 2,000 to 3,000 people downtown on a Saturday and local restaurants are telling us that business is up for them as well."

Like all of the Tampa Bay markets, Bradenton offers a variety of fresh produce, which is a big draw for people, says Blake.  Eggeman agrees.  "Initially, it was hard to recruit small farmers, but I think there is a growing awareness that the public is interested in buying healthy, nutritious food that is locally grown," says Eggeman.

One of the goals of the Florida Association of Community Farmers Markets is to help give farmers direct access to consumers by building a strong network of farmers markets in the state.  Eva Worden and her husband Chris are a good example of local farmers benefitting from this concept.  The two have Ph.D.s in agriculture-related fields and own a 55-acre certified organic farm in Punta Gorda, a few hours south of Tampa Bay.  Their produce can be found at markets from St. Petersburg to Sanibel Island.  

"We love connecting directly with members of our community who eat the food we grow," says Worden.  "Farmers markets are a way for us to do that.  We find that once our customers start eating fresh produce that's all they want to buy."

The Wordens represent a different type of farmer – a trend away from the traditional large agri-business farm toward a smaller operation focused on sustainability, says Robert Kluson, who heads up the Sarasota Extension Service of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.  

Kluson's goal is to support small farm operations and help them remain financially stable.  And one way to do that, he says, is to increase consumer demand for and access to locally grown food through farmers markets. "Markets benefit everyone – consumer, farmer and entrepreneur. Fresh is good," says Eggeman.

Janan Talafer is a St. Petersburg-based freelance writer with a passion for swing dancing, tropical gardening and collecting shells.  She shares a home office with her faithful cat Milo and dog Bear. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

Read more articles by Janan Talafer.

Janan Talafer enjoys writing for a diverse group of clients, including print and online publications, nonprofit organizations and public relations agencies. One of the highlights of her writing career was flying with the 91st Air Refueling Squadron out of MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa FL for a feature about this elite military team. A journalism graduate of Bowling Green State University (OH), Janan’s early career was in health care marketing and public relations for hospitals in Connecticut and Tampa Bay. She is an avid gardener, loves East Coast swing dance and enjoys touring around St. Petersburg on the back of her husband’s scooter.
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