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Farmers

By SHELLY GARCIA Staff Reporter Some might say Studio City was starving for a farmers market. Just six months after it opened, the Studio City Farmers Market has become the third-highest-volume market in Southern California, with revenues ranging from nearly $17,000 to more than $33,000 each week. The market has grown from an initial group of 25 vendors to 60. And with summer fruit season fast approaching, market manager Polly Ward is fretting over how she will fit the returning fruit farmers into the tiny, two-block area. “They’ve done phenomenally,” said Mike Kielty, executive director of the Southland Farmers Market Association. “They have outperformed every other market in that amount of time.” The lightning-fast success of the venture is all the more remarkable because the failure rate for farmers markets is estimated at 40 percent. The organizers of the Studio City Farmers Market did a number of things differently from other markets: they gathered corporate sponsorships and community input, and they hosted neighborhood events. But in the final analysis, something much simpler might be behind its success. “These people have not had access to fresh (farm) fruit for many years,” said Lorraine Tenerelli, owner of Tenerelli Orchards, a family-operated farm in the Antelope Valley. “They seem to be so happy about having that market.” Just a year ago, many wondered if the Studio City Farmers Market, a joint venture between the Studio City Residents Association and the Chamber of Commerce, would ever materialize at all. Local merchants along Laurel Canyon Place, where the market is held, opposed the idea, concerned that parking problems would interfere with their businesses. Negotiations to provide parking and to schedule the market so that it would not interfere with normal business operations of the retailers dragged on for months, delaying the opening until September, when many such markets are winding down. But once an agreement was reached, things moved quickly. “We expected to hit a break-even point sometime in the second year of operation,” said Ward. “We hit that break-even point in January.” The organizers of the farmers market have already repaid a $5,000 start-up loan received from the residents’ association. The repayment came through a fee that market organizers charge vendors, equal to 6 percent of the vendors’ sales. Discussions are underway on how to spend future revenues. “This was established to generate a sense of community, so it’s only appropriate that the money go back to the community,” said Tony Lucente, president of the residents’ association. Those associated with the market attribute a large part of its success to the way in which organizers involved the community in the endeavor. The organizers sold corporate sponsorships of $2,200 each to larger area businesses like Universal Studios Inc., CBS Studio Center and Home Savings of America, which has since been bought by Washington Mutual Inc. Those funds were used for an advertising campaign that included banners for streets, posters that local merchants displayed in their windows, and a direct marketing effort to 10,000 homes in the neighboring area. The group even had an airplane tow a banner on the day the market opened. On that day, the market drew an estimated 4,000 shoppers, about four times the average attendance at most farmers markets, and rang up $28,000 in sales, nearly twice the average of other markets. Business was so brisk that many booths sold out by 11 a.m., three hours before the market was scheduled to close. Since then, the market has expanded its selection to include products requested by residents. In addition to a selection of more widely available produce, like tomatoes and potatoes, the Studio City Farmers Market added more high-end items, including bok choy, artichokes and asparagus. “We did it very slowly and carefully,” Ward said of the expansion. “Our customers asked us for certain things, and we tried very hard to match the farmers and their products to the customer.” The demographics of the area also helped. “The market has a more-discriminating customer base,” said David Goldman, owner of Culinary Farms in Reseda. “So I do very well there.” Goldman’s company offers such exotic vegetables as hydroponic lettuce, grown in water with minerals and vitamins, which sells for $1.50 a head. Even at those prices, Goldman said, his sales at the Studio City market are twice that of the Burbank farmers market, where the company also sells. At the same time, market organizers created events such as a costume contest at Halloween and an Easter egg hunt to help draw shoppers. “These are all things that differentiate us,” Lucente said. The strategy helped to generate sales and attract vendors. Nearby areas like Burbank, Hollywood and Encino all have farmers markets, and they compete with one another for the best offerings. For their part, farmers have to be very selective about the markets they choose to sell at. Most farms are family-owned, and there are not enough family members to cover all the markets, since many operate on the same day. “For me to start another market on the same day, it’s got to be a good market,” said Goldman. “I’ve got to pay a substantial amount of money to someone to drive a truck out there. That can be a couple hundred dollars off the top. Plus, you have to have all this equipment, three or four scales and canopies.” Farmers have been especially enthusiastic about the Studio City Farmers Market because it is smaller than others, and they face less competition as a result. With summer approaching, the Studio City Farmers Market is planning to expand again. The group will add about 10 summer-fruit vendors, five who will be new to the market and five returning from last season. About 10 arts and crafts vendors selling products like soaps and dried fruits will be dropped to make room for the additions. Farmers are somewhat concerned about the expansion, fearful that duplication of offerings might eat into their business. Ward said she has to be careful about positioning the newcomers. “We want to keep the farmers happy,” she said. “At the same time, we want to keep our customers happy.”

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