Monday Q&A: Branching away from just produce

It’s market season in Richmond, and hardly anyone is busier than George Bolos. Farmers markets are hot right now, but that has been a mixed blessing for the region’s oldest operation.

Bolos manages the 17th Street Farmer’s Market and single-handedly runs the city-owned operation. He arrived on the job in fall 2008, and he has worked to bring new life to the market even as resources have declined. Since he started, the staff of four has been cut to one – and that’s Bolos.

BizSense visited the market to talk with Bolos about how he keeps it going as other markets give the city’s oldest a run for its money.

Richmond BizSense: George, tell us a bit about some of the changes you’ve made since you arrived two years ago.

George Bolos: The market is a great outdoor venue, so I have been adding lots of events. One of them is Red, White, and Brew, which has become wildly popular. Virginia is the eighth-largest wine producing state, and there was no consistent event in the capital. Now we have a different vineyard come each week with live music.

We also have kept up with our staples like the July Tomato Fest, which we resurrected. Last year we drew more than 5,000 people even though it was the same time as the Hanover Tomato Fest.

RBS: So you’d say that events have been successful in bringing more people to the market?

GB: Events are through the roof. We drew more people last year to the market than in the past 10 years. We even turned a slight profit.

RBS: Really? How much?

GB: It was less than $3,000, but it was more of a moral victory.

RBS: So people seem to be coming down to party, but what about to buy fruits and veggies?

GB: Five years ago, there were only two or three markets in town. The whole green movement has brought a new mindset, and there are a lot more people looking for fresh fruits and vegetables. The problem now is there is a proliferation, more than 20 around town.

The market is in an area of more than 8,500 city dwellers. Many of those have bought $250,000 condos. They live next to a farmers market but they still drive to Whole Foods.

This market has tremendous potential. The neighborhood does not support it as much as it should, but its fortunes are turning.

RBS: So how do you make the market more competitive?

GB: Our future in the short term is definitely events. But I am trying to push for a year-round indoor market. If you look at major cities, they are partly defined by their markets, like Pike Place in Seattle or Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia.  Ninety-nine percent of them are not city run or owned. They are mostly run by foundations and have more flexibility to be entrepreneurial.

One option is to create a foundation to run the market, similar to Venture Richmond, which could raise the financial support. There is space available next to the market, and I’ve been talking to the landowner about it. It’s a 15,000-square-foot warehouse with two 400-square-foot walk-in fridges.

As a foundation, the market would have a better chance of getting grants and a better chance to be more attractive to outside partners.

RBS: What other things could you have at a year-round indoor market?

GB: I would like to have a small business incubator, with a set group of small vendors that can set up shop in inside, year-round, for two or three years and grow their businesses.

You can also have seafood shipped in fresh. And also wholesale hours just for chefs to come in and buy produce for their restaurants like they do in many other cities.

RBS: What do all the old-timers who’ve been selling goods at the market for generations think about the growing interest in local foods?

GB:
I’ve talked with them a lot, and they feel like it is about time it finally caught on. They are the trendsetters.

Al Harris is a BizSense reporter. Please send news tips to Al (at) richmondbizsense.com.

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pjpinkJeff E.J KingBill Recent comment authors
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Bill
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I would like to see management have greater influence on what its vendors sell. For instance, the corner vendor at 17th and Main sells produce that is not indigenous to the region (ie–bananas). It comes across as not being authentic…in the most visible part of the entire market.

J King
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J King

The Crosst Street Market in Baltimore, MD would be an ideal model for the type of indoor market suggested. A place to highlight Virginia’s local vendors, produce, and hopefully, seafood.

Jeff E.
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Jeff E.

Regarding Red, White, and Brew… I really like the concept and I’m glad that it has been successful in bringing people to the market however I found the event very lacking on the “Brew” end of things. Instead of working with Brown Distributing who only seemed to bring standard Legend and Starr Hill kegs that can be found at almost any bar these days, I think it would lend more credence to the event if they would bring harder to find kegs of seasonal beers and ideally work with some of Virginia’s smaller micro-breweries like Devil’s Backbone, Blue Mountain, and… Read more »

pjpink
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If anyone has photos of local area farmers markets, please consider adding them to this flickr pool:

http://www.flickr.com/groups/rvafarmersmarket/pool/

Thanks!