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ROOT CAFE: Market a success, owner Jack Sundell says. Brian Chilson

As manager of the Bentonville Farmers Market, Stephanie Marpe would ordinarily be impossible to pin down this time of year. The popular market, held in the picturesque town square, would have been on the threshold of its April 18 opening weekend. Instead, she’s got some time on her hands.

“The latest communication that we’ve had with the city is that May 2 is our target start date. I will believe that when I see that,” Marpe said. “I have a gut feeling that it’s probably going to be pushed back at least another week or two.”

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Bentonville’s situation mirrors that of other markets across Arkansas in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. As social distancing continues to be the order of the day, markets are turning to alternative formats, wider use of technology or just staying on the sidelines altogether.

The situation is difficult for small farmers and local artisans who rely on community markets as their primary retail outlet for produce, meat, eggs and various other goods. It also puts a strain on the organizations that run the markets, especially ones like Bentonville’s, which generates revenue for its parent organization Downtown Bentonville Inc. (DBI).

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Last year, the market generated total sales of about $800,000, of which the market claimed a percentage as well as booth fees, although Marpe declined to say exactly how much. Proceeds are used to fund other community events hosted by DBI.

Marpe said that while nothing can make up for the loss of a live market — which at peak season numbers about 100 full- and part-time vendors and what DBI estimates as 5,000 visitors each Saturday — the Bentonville operation was fortunate to already have an app in place that has recouped at least a portion of revenue.

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“We have always had an off-season market that we run through our farmers market app. I believe this is our third off-season where we’ve run an online market,” she said, “so we were able to build and ramp up what we were already currently doing.”

Marpe said app traffic has increased substantially this spring, up from around 20 orders per week to 118 orders on just one day in March. Year over year, average purchases are higher too, at about $60 per order.

Meanwhile, the market is working with the city to revamp its live Saturday market to a drive-thru format, requiring a new location that can accommodate social distancing guidelines.

“The Arkansas Department of Health issued a directive saying outdoor markets can operate and are exempt from the ‘no events greater than 10 persons’ rule,” she said. “But we’re limited to food vendors only; only the sale of consumables is allowed, so if a farmer is selling something that isn’t edible, like flowers or anything branded, they can’t bring that to the market. That shrinks our numbers to about 40 to 50 vendors, or by about 50 percent.”

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Just up the road at the Fayetteville Farmers Market, organizers have already implemented the kind of drive-thru market Bentonville is hoping to develop. It, too, had to move from its usual location on the downtown square to a location where vendors could be spaced appropriately apart, Teresa Maurer, vendor coordinator, said.

“We got permission from a private owner of one of the oldest shopping centers in Fayetteville, Evelyn Hills Shopping Center, who allowed us to set up in the parking lot,” she said. “We had a barrier, like a line that customers had to stand behind. Customers could not touch the products, but they could see the products.

“We had hand-washing stations at the entrance and we broke up groups. If people showed up in a group, we asked them to disperse and send in one shopper. Quite a different atmosphere, but we were able to keep a safe distance between customers and vendors.”

Another sharp contrast was the participation in the market. Last year 73 vendors were on hand for opening weekend, Maurer said, while this year only 14 set up. And while numbers are expected to grow as the season goes along — even with a boost from a new Fayetteville Farmers Market app that’s already catching on — the revenue picture is sobering.

“We’re down to 10 percent of normal business right now,” Maurer said. “We’re increasing that a little bit, but it’s hit us very, very hard. You can say the market has taken an 80 to 90 percent hit right now in [mid-]April.”

Brian Chilson
LITTLE ROCK FARMERS MARKET: Closed.

With the Little Rock Farmers Market, the city’s largest farmers market, the situation is cut and dried: no River Market events until further notice. Diana Long, director of River Market operations for the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau, said there are no plans to develop an app. She said the configuration of the space of the 80-vendor market, which generates $40,000 in booth fees for the LRCVB, weighed heavily in the decision to step back until the COVID-19 situation changes.

“We were worried about the size of our market and the fact that the market hall is also a restaurant place, so that building has been shut down until at least May 4,” Long said. “On a typical weekend, we attract a couple thousand people and there’s just a lot of things that people touch.”

“We erred on the side of the CDC saying don’t get groups of more than 10 together at all, anywhere. We’re just going with the safest choice at this point.”

Meanwhile, one Little Rock restaurant with a reputation for locally-sourced ingredients has taken matters into its own hands. The Root Cafe launched its market operations in mid-March to give its suppliers an avenue for moving farm products.

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“We started thinking about some of the farmers that we have real commitments with,” Jack Sundell, co-owner, said. “Our egg farmer is supplying us with an average of 225 dozen eggs a week. He’s going to have that supply coming and not really have another place to sell them.

“Another good example, we had a mushroom farmer who we have been in communication with for about six months. Our dinner chef [asked him to grow] some of desirable mushrooms, stuff we hadn’t really seen much, if at all, on the local food scene. This guy had been working toward growing those for us for six months and was just getting his first mushrooms as this happened. We felt a sense of personal responsibility to help him find a way to move those mushrooms.”

Sundell credited permitting officials for moving quickly to amend guidelines and make such markets possible. He said the entity is a win all the way around, as an outlet for producers and a way for the cafe to retain workers and supplement sagging revenue. In fact, he said he hopes to continue the market feature in some fashion post COVID-19.

“We’ve talked about the idea of putting some kind of kiosk at the corner, just a little shed with a window that props open,” he said. “It could be a little walk-up grocery store where after you’ve eaten at The Root, you can buy eggs and spring mix and mushrooms, cauliflower. We’re well-positioned to help provide for the community because we’re already interacting with lots of different local farms. Our customers are seeking us out already because they care about local food.”

The Root Cafe Market is open Tuesday through Sunday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

This reporting is courtesy of the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, an independent, nonpartisan news project dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans.