Thursday, June 21, 2012

Is a Farmers Market Right for You?

Today’s guest post is by “Chef” Betty Brewer, president & CEO, of Minnetrista, in Muncie, Ind. Lessons from Minnestrista’s hugely successful farmers market can help you assess whether a market like this might be a good fit for your museum. This post is abbreviated from a “recipe for success” Betty has contributed for the expanded edition of the Feeding the Spirit Cookbook that CFM is compiling. Keep your eyes on this blog for more news about the expanded Cookbook (which is a resource and discussion guide for museums), and other projects in CFM’s ongoing exploration of museums, food and community.

Minnetrista is the 40-acre combined estates of the Ball Brothers who made an international impact on food preservation through the Ball canning jar. With that as our heritage, as well as the fact that the family ran an orchard on the estate, selling apples, apple cider and other produce to the community for decades, starting a farmers market twelve years ago didn’t seem too far-fetched. In the ensuing years we have learned a great deal about running a market to keep it professional and fun for vendors and guests.

Minnetrista introduced a farmers market because it fit with our Ball family and Ball Corporation heritage—on-site produce and food preservation. In our first year of operation, we averaged 15 vendors and 150 – 300 customers per Saturday. In 2012, our season opened with 40 vendors and 1,000 guests. At peak season, we will have a waiting list of vendors for our 50 spaces and see an average of 2,000 – 2,500 guests every Saturday. This translates to nearly 50,000 visits to the Minnetrista Farmers Market in a year.

More recently, as we develop a new interpretive framework for our campus and focus our energies on being audience-centric, the farmers market serves a broader purpose. The ambience of the Minnetrista market has always—from the first year—been extolled by vendors and customers alike. We use a small parking lot bordered on one side by the original brick apple barn that now houses a gift shop and our apple cider production equipment (we still produce unpasteurized apple cider). On another side is a low brick-walled courtyard with umbrella tables and chairs. Landscaping trees and flowers on all sides offer beauty and shade. The farmers market has become the place to gather in Muncie on Saturday mornings, May through October. (By the way, “Minnetrista” means “gathering place by the water.”) Market opens at 8 a.m. for the serious shoppers; another wave hits around 9:30. The courtyard will be filled by guests enjoying coffee, pork burgers, pastries and each other’s company. Friends meet and new friendships are made.

For two seasons, we have maintained a waiting list of vendors who want to participate in our market. I’ve resisted suggestions to enlarge the market by moving it. No other space on our campus provides hardscaped and shaded space, ready electrical power, restrooms, ample parking and the ambience that encourages our guests to “set a spell.” Serving our audience with a premier experience is paramount, so we’ll stay with our medium-sized market.

Early on, we thought we could entice market goers into the museum at the same time through family programs at market. No dice. We learned that market goers are just that—they want to shop, socialize then continue their Saturday errands (after getting their purchases out of heated cars!). However, we continue to provide information in different ways about our other programs. Two years ago, we planted a victory garden in the courtyard as part of a museum exhibition program. Market goers didn’t visit the museum after market, but many came back to the exhibit at another time. We continue to offer monthly cooking demonstrations with our own chef and members of the American Culinary Federation. However, we have learned that canning demonstrations were not well-attended, unlike canning workshops, which are—people want to participate, not just be lectured to! This year, Minnetrista staff will have a booth called The Canner is In. Folks can stop by to ask questions or seek advice for canning fruits and vegetables in their own homes, as well as learn about our related workshops.

I offer tips on considering whether and how to start a farmers market at your museum this Recipe for Success. If you already host a farmers market at your site, please share your advice in the comment section, below. 

2 comments:

Sarah Brophy said...

I found this very interesting and valuable, thank you. Your very clear connection to mission, and your multi-dimenionsal approach to planning and then to assessing and reactiong is a strong example. Understanding why this group values canning workshops over talks is so basic that often it is overlooked; determining that marketers return another day to visit exhibits they learned about during their marketing was an important effort and very important, I am sure, to your decision why to continue. Too often, with a new green concept , we give it one try and if it doesn't work we believe it's the idea rather than the format that is the problem.

Thank you.

Betty Brewer said...

Sarah -- Thanks for your comments. Obviously, I am not used to blogging so haven't checked it in quite a long time. :) We had a great program with Jarden Homebrands this summer that aligned with the Market: National Can It Forward Day. We continue to tweak this experience, just as we do other Minnetrista experiences.