Morton Grove Farmers’ Market 2014

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August 10, 2014 at 8:12 pm

I haven’t written about the Morton Grove Farmers’ Market on The Local Beet for a while now. Running it has kept me too busy to write about it. But as I go back to read older posts about the Market I’m struck by how often we realized that our crowds were thinner than they should have been. And the difference between today’s situation and how it was several years ago is dramatic enough to justify a whole post about it.

Since we began in 2009, the Market has lost all but one (me) of our founding mothers and fathers (although some still come to shop regularly) and we’ve got a marketing coordinator, designated vendor coordinator, bookkeeper and volunteer coordinator. We’ve focused more on signage and our location on busy Dempster St. has resulted in an influx of first-time shoppers, out-of-towners and other unexpected patrons each Saturday.

In the olden days, we used to see the same few dozen regulars show up Saturday after Saturday. Some days, between the thrill of opening month in June and the threat of closing in October, not much more than the regulars would appear. We hosted festivals, recruited more entertainers, invited community groups and partnered with sponsors, but we put in a lot of effort for relatively little payoff.

In 2014, the combination of thoughtful signage and street visibility has helped give us visibility both in Morton Grove and neighboring communities. Each Market day, I greet visitors who had never heard of us before but passed by on their way to work or to the highway. They saw a sign or the tents and stopped by to investigate.

We’ve sent out direct mail to every household in the village and passed out coupons at festivals and parades. This has helped somewhat, but I sense that many people just stay home Saturday morning out of habit or inertia. On the other hand, someone who is already out in their car may be more inclined to make an extra stop compared to someone who must still get dressed and start the car.

We’ve increased our email blasts and social media presence as well, which has helped solidify our existing fan base and make them aware of what’s will be in season and who will be performing. Whenever a vendor drops out or has car problems, patrons inevitably ask where they are. Few absent vendors go unnoticed.

We’ve taken on several new, excellent volunteers who are both a pleasure to work with and very talented at what they do. Setup and takedown, which used to be physically difficult and tedious chores, fly by in less time and with less hassle than ever before.

Both the Park District and village have been wonderfully cooperative in helping us overcome minor obstacles and ensure the safety of our vendors, sponsors, volunteers, and shoppers in what is essentially an unused parking lot. In return, I like to think that we bring a certain level of prestige and pride to the village and subtly enhance the lives of all our residents.

I may be making too much of this, but I think we have earned a reputation as being one of the friendliest and most innovative farmers’ markets in the area. To top that off, our daily visitor rate has grown steadily. As a result, we regularly turn down vendors and entertainers vying for a chance to be at our Market because we can only handle so much. And we still put in the effort to visit each farm at the start of each season to verify that they have begun growing what they say they will sell later in the summer and fall.

On the days when I was the designated Manager on Duty (and even when I wasn’t), I could tell when vendors were having a good sales day when they lacked time to chat with me. If we had long conversations, it was because they had no customers. Happy as I am to chat with them, I’m happier that I often only get a chance to talk to some vendors during setup and shut down or when reimbursing them for the coupons, gift certificates and EBT tokens (newfangled food stamps) that they accept from our customers. And when I’m managing the Market, I rarely hang out at the Welcome Booth. I typically pace the Market, keeping an eye on things and helping answer anybody’s questions.

Through a generous donation from Northshore University Healthsystems, we can double the value of a LINK card transaction (up to $25), which has attracted many customers who might otherwise not have purchased local, fresh produce. The end result is thousands of dollars in additional sales that we believe would not have materialized without the grant and without the state subsidy.

So far, we’ve had only one rain date (when the Lieutenant Governor came to visit and play banjo, of all days!), and even then, enough people shopped to give a few vendors decent sales.

My favorite pasttime at the Market is talking with patrons (my least favorite is ejecting people who come with their dogs). I ask if it’s their first visit, how they heard about us, where they’re from and other nosy, personal questions (you don’t get THAT at a chain grocery store, do you?). With few exceptions, they share information with me, compare us with other markets they’ve attended, talk about what they might do with the produce they bought, offer ideas and suggestions, and thank me for my interest. I direct them to the Welcome Booth where they can enter a free raffle to win a basket of Market goodies or borrow a wagon to cart their kids around. I’ve met people who were jogging along the nearby bike trail and detoured just to see what was going on. I’ve met a number of young couples who had just moved to Morton Grove. I’ve talked with lifelong residents who’ve lived across the street from the Market for years but only just decided to visit for the first time. I’ve never met anyone so grouchy or bitter that I couldn’t disarm them by listening respectfully to their viewpoint or offering solutions. As a man who has spent his whole career in office jobs, seldom dealing with customer service issues, I’ve surprised myself at my ability to remain calm, professional, and deferential to people I disagree with.

I’ve gotten to know solo musicians and small bands as I’ve booked them to play the Market. We’ve chatted about their other gigs. I’ve helped them set up and carry their equipment. I have bought them coffee and listened to their wonderful performances and watched them work the crowd and liven up the Market with their music. I’ve also had to ask them to turn down the volume, which is slightly less appalling to me than banishing dogs, but still has to be done sometimes.

All in all, planning and running the Market these past five years has consumed an enormous amount of my free time. There are Saturdays when I would rather sleep in than carry tables and tents across a parking lot. But I do it almost every week and my co-managers help me when they’re not the Manager on Duty, which makes it easier on all of us. And even when I’m not technically in charge, I’m happy to spend the morning schmoozing with the other volunteers, asking vendors how their week went, listening to the free music, talking with customers about their meal plans for the week, and contributing–in my own small way–to helping build a stronger supply channel for local entrepreneurs, farmers and craftspeople to bring their products directly to the consumers who enjoy them. I can always sleep late on Sunday.

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