Dave Cook, Owner/operator
Phone interviews July 12 and September 9, 2011 (Irena Knezevic), site visit September 17, 2011 (Lisa Ohberg), additional information from a conversation with Sarah Merritt, Old East Village BIA, September 16, 2011 (Irena Knezevic).
* Farmers’ market located in what is otherwise a food desert
* Has been shown to have influenced (lowered) overall food costs in the neighbourhood
* Economically sustainable, while providing a launch pad for small producers
* Dedicated to providing opportunities for producers while also ensuring access to affordable food
The market opened in December 2006. At that time David Cook, who had been roasting and selling coffee as a hobby decided to try coffee as a side business. His coffee business took off and he eventually quit his job as an executive in food distribution industry, and started selling at Western Fair and other farmers’ markets. He then started working one day a week with the previous owner, and in November 2008 Cook took over the entire operation of the Western Fair Farmers’ Market (WFFM). In 2009 he was approached by Maisonville Place mall to start up a seasonal outdoor market, which now has about 40 vendors. In 2011 another outdoor market, Southdale, was added.
WFFM is a year round indoor market with some 100 vendors located on two floors of a historical building in London’s Old East Village. The main floor is dedicated entirely to food, and the second floor booths feature mostly vendors selling crafts and other local products. Though the market is only open on Saturdays, the space is not used for any other purpose, so some of the vendors, including Cook’s coffee roastery, are also using their market spaces as production sites. Overall, Cook identified that the market was really a small business incubator – a launch pad for producers who can start by creating a viable side operation to then grow their business in the market. WFFM, though only 5 years in existence, boasts some of the highest traffic counts among London markets.
The market is located in Old East Village, a low income area of London that is otherwise a food desert and has a high concentration of social agencies. Sarah Merritt with the local BIA explained the neighbourhood had long been a marginalized part of the city that had “been left out of the game” but local community building efforts guided by multifaceted redevelopment plan are now transforming the area and the Market is a big part of that. The neighbourhood had been experiencing a range of challenges common to many Canadian urban core neighbourhoods, and the BIA in partnership with the Community Association and the City of London decided to implement a capacity focused approach to addressing local issues. This approach was in contrast to a number of failed revitalization attempts that were deficiency focused. As Merritt described it, it was about “working with what we have, recognizing that everyone had something to contribute… we’re not about gentrification (although there is nothing wrong with neighbourhoods like ours looking gentrified) we are about improving the lives of the people who live in this neighbourhood.” It is in this context that the WFFM started operating and although the area has traditionally been considered challenging for retailers, WFFM has had no difficulty attracting shoppers.
The neighbourhood was identified as a food desert in a 2008 study by two University of Western Ontario researchers (Larsen and Gilliland) who at the time also showed that London was indeed a textbook example of a suburbanization of supermarkets and low-income inner-city areas that had become food deserts. Their 2009 research, however, declared that the Old East Village was no longer a food desert, demonstrating that the market had resulted in significant nutritious food basket savings (12%) for local residents, as well as greater availability and better variety of fresh fruits and vegetables – thus crediting the market with improving both economic and physical access to food in the area.
Cook indicated that all the markets in and around the city are estimated to still only attract only 5% of the population and that the potential to stay financially viable and even grow was excellent for local markets in general and WFFM in particular. “If there are days when the numbers are lower, it’s not because there are too many markets, but because the public is not engaged enough.” Cook also pointed out that with the newest outdoor markets, the market day is Sunday so that they are not competing with other markets in the area.
Merritt also explained that the market traffic has made it possible for the the BIA to think bigger: “We want to grow a food district here… to incubate businesses from the market onto the [main street] corridor and have other outlets that sell food that the market does not offer – because farmers’ markets are not meant to be selling everything”
Cook comes to this enterprise with a wealth of experience. He worked for years in the culinary industry and then for nine years for Sobeys, where he excelled and eventually worked at the head office. In other words, Cook is well-equipped to run a large and complex operation and is well aware of what is required to keep such an operation economically sustainable.
Cook also has a team, which he described as “people who are highly motivated and quick to learn and develop new skills.” He gives the employees a lot of space to grow, so they are all highly skilled in what they do. The team consists of a manager, a maintenance person, and a part-time office person. Occasionally he has had volunteers who come in and help with a specific project, but those instances are on-and-off cases, so there is no organized volunteer support to speak of.
The market operates from a rented building that provides them with 56 000 square feet of open space (approximately 44 000 square feet of selling space). The building is owned by the City of London, and is a historical structure – it was built in 1927 as an exhibition hall for the Western Fair. This adds to the character of the space, but also comes with all the downsides of old buildings – it is difficult to heat, there is no air-conditioning, and there have been no major investments in the structure for a number of years. It is equipped with an audio system that is used to make announcements every so often about the products and sales that can be found at specific food vendors’ booths. The building is located on London’s main street, but in the area that is experiencing some disrepair. Adjacent to the building is a public park (Queens Park) that had been underutilized for years, although it is now starting to see increased activity due to the market. There is also a small 1917 building on the property that has not been used for anything for at least a decade. Cook is now looking to take on that space as well, and use it to relocate some of the production from the market. Other than the building, there are carts and dollies that are needed to operate the market, but no other physical assets.
Table fees are the only source of revenue for this business. The market has not received any funding from anyone thus far. Cook would like to see more investments into the building, but that is simply not feasible yet. The table fees at the market are $50 per day for a 10’X10′ booth on the main floor, second floor booths are $30. Some vendors take more than one booth and the booths are permanent, so many vendors leave their non-perishables there, and some have really built their booths up and created beautiful displays. Cook acknowledges that the fees are higher than they are at other markets, especially municipally-run ones, but this market pays a monthly rent of about $15 000.
Despite the success of his operation, Cook also noted the importance of being realistic about what it takes. Running a market can be hard and stressful work and to start something this big, skills, dedication and capital are required: “The businessman who started [WFFM] had access to $250 000 to open it, and he was dedicated to the idea, so that’s what it takes.”
The market is embraced by the neighbourhood BIA and it has benefited from the marketing work the BIA has done. It has also received academic attention through the work of Jason Gilliland at the University of Western Ontario.
Cook suggested that it would be very beneficial to have a local small business development organization come on board as a financial partner and further develop the incubator model. He would like to see a support network that can facilitate small business lending as well as business skills development. “I came from a business background and I had some pitfalls along the way that I had not anticipated. So someone who does not have that background is even more likely to encounter struggles. We already have many of these things [loans, skills development], but it would be really good to have all that in one place and have a business development agency partner with us.”
Cook also indicated that he would like to see more institutional purchasing policy in the province. While he is aware that some good initiatives have been taking place, he thinks that they need to be more substantial.
The City of London has classified the Market under the “hawker/ peddler” category, which comes with a $1000 licence every three months. The market is not registered with the Farmers’ Markets Ontario , which has created some obstacles along the way. However, by making the decision to not be a member of the association Cook is able to do things other markets are not. For instance, he can have one person selling for multiple farms (though he requires that produce is labelled showing which farm it comes from), rather than having to follow the 70% rule at other markets (can only sell up to 30% from other farms/producers). This, Cook stated, diversifies the offerings in the market and makes market participation more economically viable for producers. On the other hand, this also allows him to bring in resellers of food from the Food Terminal, which ensures that in addition to quality and artisan local food, there is also affordable produce for those who have to shop on a budget – an important consideration when operating in a lower income neighbourhood. He also does not have to inspect his vendors farms – if he had to do this, he would simply not have the resources to inspect every vendor’s production site.
Cook also described how he was having difficulty getting traffic on the second floor of the market building and consequently the rate of occupancy there was only at 60-70%. His roastery had been at a different site, so he decided to move the roasting operation on the second floor and opened up another cafe and “the traffic literally doubled overnight. The quality of offerings also went up and I now don’t have an empty booth to rent, in fact, there are 15 people on the waiting list.”
An additional obstacle was identified with regulation. The Health Unit recently requested more facilities, for instance some vendors are now required to have triple-station hand washing sinks. To keep the market going, Cook estimates that some $100 000 will have to be invested over the next couple of years to meet that requirement. “It’s a significant cost. That said, however, I understand why they are doing this, I agree with it and want to meet their requirements. We want to make sure the opportunities that the market offers continue to grow.”
WFFM is a successful, economically sustainable business. It has been embraced by the community and it has provided incubator opportunities for numerous businesses. “There is creation and strengthening of relationships, support for local business and people becoming more astute in voting with their dollar, and people want to eat better, they want quality and hence have a vested interest in local food” Cook stated, adding that his big motivation was “The celebration of food artistry… creating a strong food culture and recognizing that strong food culture is intimately involved with food security”
Cook also has the coffee roastery that has done very well, having grown by 65% in the last year and having recently secured a contract with Sobeys. That business is now employing more than a dozen people, and projecting a $1.5 million year for 2011 revenue. But Cook is careful to acknowledge how instrumental WFFM has been for that business: “this is a business that started at the Market and has in its entirety been developed in the Market.” And his business is not the only one doing well: “I can name a half a dozen business off the top of my head that re doing upwards of $250 000 in sales a year, and that is one day a week at the market… the economic development component is right there, written on the wall.” The estimates for overall market sales are around $110 000 a Saturday in the summer.
For the two outdoor markets, the fees are only $20 per booth. This makes it somewhat hard to grow those operations, especially because Southdale has been slow to take off (although Cook noted that some farmers there are really committed, and they are now looking to move the market elsewhere for 2012). Though there is no real profit from the two outdoor markets, Cook sees them as marketing opportunities for the WFFM and farmers’ markets in general.
Cook thinks the market is an excellent model for how to provide a platform for small businesses to get started inexpensively. “The employment potential of that can be enormous.” Merritt similarly explained that the informal incubator model in the market really works because “the table fees are low enough that if your business does not work out, the loss is so low, you can afford it… at the same time, being at the market exposes you to opportunities for experiential learning from other vendors.”
Cook would like to see his model replicated, but he also underscored the importance of accessibility in such considerations. He indicated that his markets showcase food that is more expensive, for those who are looking for such food, but also feature inexpensive foods from the food terminal with an awareness that his markets are in areas that are largely food deserts. He suggested that we needed more markets that are affordable. “There are a lot of examples of high-end markets in Ontario, but there are not many cases of markets locating in economically depressed areas.”
Cook felt that markets could really play a role in supporting local connections and relationships, “The community I live in, which is not where the market is, has a void of ‘community’. There is no third place. You know how Starbucks says they are the third place – Starbucks is not the third place. Third place is something that is not quite defined yet here, but that’s what the market is starting to do.” Merritt agreed, saying that “We joke here that the farmers’ market is the only place in the city where it can take up to six hours to buy a dozen eggs… it’s our equivalent of the Italian piazza.” She added that the relationship with the community was key: “His business and any other business that thrives in this community are businesses that understand that it is community and commerce together… you have to understand your role in community building – if you don’t, the community will not be there to support you when times are tough.”
Cook also felt that hubs of local economic activity were increasingly important amid the ongoing loss of local food producers in North America, and the current economic crisis that has affected Southwestern Ontario: “The trust we once had in the large transnational corporations has been damaged through the recession because they left us… the economies that were supporting London disappeared when they decided that they were no longer financially viable.”
Cook also emphasized the importance of collaboration, noting that he does not want to compete with other markets but would prefer to join forces in promoting farmers’ markets and growing the customer base for markets as a whole. Although he has created a successful business without any funding, he was in favour of micro-loans for local food initiatives: “Often it’s not a lot of money they need – for some projects as little as $1000 or $5000 can really make a difference.”