In 2015, my husband and I decided to start our own small batch hot sauce company. Besides working as waitress at a novelty 1950’s diner (complete with polyester uniform and beehive wig), I had no background in food, let alone experience with running my own business. To say we were naive would be an understatement.
All we knew at the time was that we liked hot sauce, we were pretty good at making it, and we wanted to be our own bosses. What we didn’t know could fill volumes.
Originally we had no intention of selling hot sauce at the farmers’ market. We thought we’d launch an online store, secure a couple wholesale accounts, then sit back and watch the checks roll in. It wasn’t long before we realized we needed consistent cash flow and warmed up to the idea of farmers’ markets. We traded in our weekends for a pop-up tent.
Although working farmers’ markets week after week can be grueling. It is also incredibly fun and reassuring to see our customers enjoy our product right before our eyes. The farmers’ market also gave us a sense of community that we were sorely lacking as brand new small business owners.
Sometimes being a small business owner can feel lonely. Yeah, sure, there are perks to being your own boss. You make your own schedule and choose who to do business with. You call the shots. But at the end of the day, you’re the one who’s paying the bills and solving complex problems. It’s hard to be king.
When we became vendors at a farmers’ market we realized we were the newest members of a large, loud (and at times dysfunctional) family. Sometimes there is sibling rivalry and competition, but there is also a sense of familial belonging. In the last three years, we’ve learned a lot about how to find our place in the farmers’ market family and how to make the most of it.
Here are some tips on how to take full advantage of the resources available when you’re a vendor at a farmers’ market.
Get to know your farmers’ market neighbors
At most farmers’ markets, vendors are in the same spot each week. This means that your booth is most likely flanked by the same vendors each week. It will only benefit you to make nice with your neighbors and get to know them and the products they sell.
Sample their products. Memorize their prices and ingredients. Familiarize yourself with their best sellers. Know their regular customers. If you do this for them, they’ll do it for you. And then, when you have to use the bathroom, grab a bite to eat, or take an emergency phone call, they can cover for you and you won’t miss out on sales.
Ask questions and answer questions
Who’s your packaging supplier? Where’d you get that nice custom-branded tent? Who prints your labels? Farmers’ market vendors are always sharing inside tips and contacts. Sure, you don’t want to give away all your secrets — if someone asks me who my pepper guy is, I tell them to kick rocks! — but helping out your fellow farmers’ market vendor will always come back ten-fold.
Many suppliers and purveyors will give you a discount if you bring them more business, so sharing tips with your vendor friends will help, not hurt you! It’s part of the karmic nature of the business. You scratch their back and they’ll scratch yours.
Shop the market
As a farmers’ market vendor you spend a good chunk of your time at the market and when you’re not at the market you’re busy doing a million other things. Why would you want to spend your limited free-time at a grocery store? Make an effort to get to the farmers’ market early so you can set up and do some shopping before the crowds show up. Pick up some groceries and say hi to the other vendors.
When you’re shopping at the market, ask if vendors offer a vendor discount (many do) or see if they’d like to trade product with you. This is one of the perks of the job. But, it’s also a good idea to pay full price once in a while to show you value what they’re selling. The more vendor friends you have the better. Many of our regular customers were sent to our booth on the recommendation of other vendors at the market.
Shopping the market will also give you a sense of what other vendors are doing, what’s working for them, and what’s not working. Check out their display, signage, and booth arrangement – get inspired!
Notice new faces at the market. Maybe there’s a new farm that’s growing the variety of figs you need to make jam. Or there’s a prepared food vendor that you can supply hot sauce to. If you never leave your booth and interact with other vendors, you’re definitely missing out.
Look out for each other
Unfortunately there are lots of situations in which small business owners can be taken advantage of. There are retailers who stiff their vendors, sneaky commercial kitchen owners, and people who generally don’t keep their promises. I don’t condone gossip, but if you can save your farmers’ market neighbor from making the same mistake you did, give them a heads up.
Occasionally on a rough sales day it can be easy to see other farmers’ market vendors as competitors. But in reality they are co-workers and neighbors. If you treat them as such, you’ll see your sales increase and your overall experience at the market will be much more pleasant. As they say, “a rising tide floats all boats.”
My husband and I are no longer the new guys in our local farmers’ markets. We’ve learned so much in the last three years. Some things we learned the hard way, but we also avoided a lot of mistakes by learning from other vendors. The least we can do is return the favor.