Early one morning four years ago, Alison Barakat plucked a swingy blue wig from her extensive collection and slipped into a kitsch 1950s pink housedress. She loaded her car with mouthwatering desserts popular in her native Australia and sped off to the Danville farmers' market. It was there that Bakesale Betty, a throwback oven-lovin' housewife, was born. Customers ate up Barakat's campy act and her predominantly organic goodies. Six months later she quit her job as a Chez Panisse line cook to devote herself full-time to farmers' markets. She's still a market regular but Barakat and her husband now oversee two dozen employees and a buzzing bakery in Oakland's Temescal district that serves not just sweets, but chicken sandwiches that have gained a cult following. Bakesale Betty has become a star.
She's not alone. A steady parade of local entrepreneurs have made farmers' markets their business incubators. With the markets growing in popularity their numbers more than doubled nationally from 1994 to 2004 more would-be Bettys are getting their goods to the masses. But don't think it's that easy. "It's all about networking," says Vince Scalise, a senior manager for the Pacific Coast Farmers' Market Association, which operates 43 Bay Area markets. "You bump into a lot of people; you can have a lot of doors open up for you. What other way do you have other than knocking on doors of grocery stores?"
Yet Scalise estimates that 40 percent of the non-agricultural businesses drop out within a year. Most people who request vendor applications never submit them, he says. Perhaps it's because their kitchens must be certified by local health departments. Or that they need liability insurance in case a customer gets sick. "They think they can sell tamales, salsas, or jam that they make at home," Scalise says. "But it's not a hobby. You've got to sell a lot of cookies to make it worth your while."
Or monkeybread. Southern Oven Foods Inc. founder Patricia Griffith was a stay-at-home mom in 2002 when she decided to contribute to her kids' savings fund by hawking the semisweet, buttery rolls her grandmother used to make at the Concord farmers' market. "I gave it to a friend and her lip hit the floor when she tasted it," she says. "That's when I thought, 'I really might be onto something!'"
Griffith aimed high from the start. "Getting your stuff in front of thousands of people seven days a week is the goal, you know?" she says. A year later, she began pushing to get her bread into local supermarkets. A handful took her up on it, and she soon added cakes and pies. Then she dropped out of the farmers' markets and opened a restaurant in Walnut Creek simply because she needed a bigger commercial kitchen. "Unfortunately the place came with a front-end, and my lease required that I be open," she says, laughing. She has since closed that restaurant, and now works out of a commercial kitchen in Antioch.
Then, in May, the big leagues came calling. After one Diablo Foods store failed to keep Griffith's Texas Chocolate Cake in stock, a loyal customer contacted her to ask why it was so hard to get. "She asked how she could help me expand, and I told her she could write letters to bakery buyers," Griffith recalls. "The day the buyer at Whole Foods got this woman's letter, she called me and said, 'I have to taste this chocolate cake and whatever else you have. Please bring it in.' That's unheard of!" Within a few weeks she'd signed up with one of the nation's biggest distributors.
"The farmers' markets were key to my success," Griffith says. "You get the type of target market that cares about good-quality food. They don't mind paying extra. They like working with small, authentic businesses. And they tell people when they find something they like. Word-of-mouth marketing really is the best kind."
Trouble is, not just anyone can go set up a table. Typically, there's only one vendor for a given type of non-agricultural product. "We want to keep the integrity of each market, keep it balanced," explains Lesley Stiles, a spokeswoman for Contra Costa Certified Farmers' Markets. "As a result we often have a waiting list for the bigger markets, but we encourage vendors to start out at the smaller ones."
But everyone starts small. Five years ago, James Freeman sold coffee adjacent to Megan Ray's cake stall at Berkeley's Saturday market. Today you can sip Oakland-based Blue Bottle Coffee at Chez Panisse and Sketch Ice Cream. Guess where he made those contacts? "It's not like I have some guy in Dockers at a desk making cold calls," he says. "They'll try it at the farmers' market and want to serve it."
In addition to his roastery, the former freelance clarinetist, who started out roasting beans at home on a perforated baking sheet, has a "garage kiosk" in San Francisco's Hayes Valley. He still does Berkeley's Tuesday market and sells at SF's Ferry Plaza market on Saturdays. "I get calls from real-estate brokers saying, 'The owner of my building thinks you'd be a great fit for this,' and it inevitably ends up being four thousand square feet in the Financial District," he says. "I'm waiting for just the right place.
Ray's business has taken off, too. Her upscale cake boutique, Miette, was born at the Ferry Plaza building when the site reopened in 2003. She and partner Caitlin Williams (a former farmers' market customer), now employ more than a dozen full-timers. "The farmers' market way of life is hard, really exhausting," Ray says. "We really wanted a roof over our heads and didn't want to get soaking wet when it was raining." Still, she knows those markets were a necessary step: "I think it's almost impossible to start a business without an investor any other way."
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