Chaia doesn’t use meat in its tacos, but it’s never really branded itself as “vegetarian.” Sure, other people have attached the label to the business, but owners Suzanne Simon and Bettina Stern have never actively promoted it on their menu, website, or signage.
“It was just when someone came up and said, ‘Do you have a chicken taco?” we would say, ‘No, we have a kale taco, we have a potato taco, and we have a corn taco,’” Simon says.
“We’ve always been quiet about it,” Bettina adds. “We’re not going to shove an agenda down anybody’s throat. It feels much gentler to just do it.”
Instead, Chaia adopted the phrase “farm to taco,” an ode to its farmers markets roots.
Chaia got its start vending at the Thursday market by the White House in 2013 and is among the first group of businesses to grow out of a farmers market. Last week, it finally graduated to a restaurant in Georgetown.
Over the last few years, D.C.-area farmers markets have increasingly become as much destinations for lunch as they are for bunches of organic kale. As a result, they’ve turned into popular launchpads for local food and drink makers who want to earn capital or gain exposure before opening their own restaurants or stores.
In particular, FreshFarm Markets, the nonprofit which oversees v13 local markets including ones in Dupont Circle and Penn Quarter, has introduced a lot more prepared, ready-to-eat food vendors in recent years—despite protests from some farmers. The 18-year-old organization allowed its first bakers to join in 2003, then amended its rules to allow other food producers in 2004. Dolcezza became the first business to take advantage of that provision in 2007. In the years since, the list has vastly expanded to include the likes of Red Apron Butcher, Soupergirl, Pinch Dumplings, Fruitive, Timber Pizza Co., and Chaia—all of which have already or will soon open their own brick-and-mortar locations.
Simon and Stern first put together a business plan for StartUp Kitchen, a competition for food entrepreneurs in D.C. They didn’t win, but they did catch the attention of FreshFarm Markets’ organizers. When Union Kitchen launched, Chaia became one of its first members and took the plunge into vending at the market. Stern and Simon handmade the tortillas and manned the cash register completely by themselves on their first day. But things got busier and busier, and by season’s end, they had an eight-person team working non-stop under the tent.
The competition among vendors for an opportunity like Chaia’s has become increasingly fierce. “We don’t open markets very often, and people don’t drop out of markets very often,” says FreshFarm Markets Chief of Staff Maddy Beckwith. “We fit people in as we can.”
The proliferation of prepared food at farmers markets, Beckwith points out, has a lot to do with the growth of D.C. food incubators like Union Kitchen and Mess Hall, which supply professional kitchen space and other resources for food entrepreneurs to get their start. Before these incubators, there wasn’t much easily accessible licensed kitchen space in D.C. for startups like Chaia to use.
The obvious appeal of farmers markets for food businesses is the relatively low barrier of entry. Prepared food vendors pay a $50 application fee and then share ten percent of their sales with FreshFarm. (Farmers pay six percent.) There’s no food truck to buy or lease to sign.
“It’s a chance to try out a store,” says Sara Polon, who sells her Soupergirl soups at three local farmers markets. “You’re operating a store for a few hours a week, and you have to handle your inventory and your costs and your staff. It has to be up to code and you have to pass inspections, so it’s like a trial run.”
Soupergirl opened a storefront in Takoma Park right around the same time it started vending in farmers markets in 2012. But Polon says it gave her brand recognition to get into grocery stores like Whole Foods. “It helped us meet thousands of new customers and [gave] us the confidence and cash flow assistance we needed to take that next step to move into wholesale,” she says.
Red Apron Butcher chef Nate Anda similarly knew from the get-go that he wanted to open a restaurant and retail outlet, but when he launched his cured meats operation in 2009, it wasn’t the best time economy-wise to do so.
Before starting Red Apron, Anda spent time at San Francisco’s Fatted Calf to learn more about making charcuterie. At the time, the meat purveyor operated inside the Ferry Building Marketplace where farmers and prepared food vendors work side-by-side. “That’s kind of what piqued my interest to do it was seeing the response to cured meats and sausages at a farmers market,” Anda says. “There wasn’t really anybody doing it at that time [in D.C.].”
Anda used the farmers markets as hubs for research and development. “We figured out what people liked and what people wanted to see more of,” he says. “The farmers market was huge to get us where we are now.” Today, Red Apron has locations in Union Market, Penn Quarter, and Merrifield.
Despite an increasing number of businesses like these, FreshFarm Markets Executive Director Mike Koch says his organization’s focus will always be first and foremost with what he affectionately calls “dirt farmers.” He dubs the locally sourcing purveyors of pizzas, tacos, and dumplings “value added” vendors.
That “value” is, in large part, attracting people to the farmers markets in an era when they are no longer the only source in town for local carrots or pork. Koch says farmers markets used to be one of the only places to get local produce in D.C. Now, you can get it at Whole Foods, Glen’s Garden Market, and a host of other places. He argues that prepared food makers help the farmers markets continue to be destinations.
FreshFarm Markets’ White House location is a prime example. When it opened in 2009, it operated from 3 to 7 p.m., but it struggled to bring in a lot of people. The organization eventually shifted the hours to lunchtime (11 a.m. to 2 p.m.) and added more ready-to-eat food vendors, and now the market is typically packed. That’s great for lunch-goers—but not always for farmers. The downtown office worker who comes for tacos isn’t necessarily picking up some sweet potatoes or kohlrabi on the way out.
“It becomes hard to compete when you have kale and Swiss chard and greens, and then right next to you is something that has a smell, that can be eaten right that second,” says farmer Eli Cook, whose Spring Valley Farm and Orchard in West Virginia supplies a number of D.C.-area markets. “The prepared food absolutely destroyed the market over there by the White House… It turned into a food court.”
Cook claims the lunch crowd focus at the market by the White House cut his average sales in half. He says he’s not planning to continue vending at that location next season.
But more than that, Cook says farmers markets should be all about the farmers. “Markets used to be pristine to things that couldn’t be had in the city: fresh produce, a fresh peach,” says Cook. He points out that wood-fired pizza is sold at the Dupont market even though Pizzeria Paradiso is right around the corner.
Meanwhile, the D.C. Council is considering legislation that would allow alcohol sales and tastings at D.C. farmers markets for the first time ever. FreshFarm Markets has welcomed this idea. Cook says he supports it if the producers are using their own local grapes for wine or local apples for cider, but not so much if they’re just manufacturers without a tie to the land around them.
If prepared foods are going to stay an integral part of farmers markets, Cook says organizers should do more to make sure they’re in line with the markets’ mission. “They’re supposed to be sourcing from the farmers, but are they actually sourcing from the farmers? They can say they are, but it’s not regulated,” he says.
FreshFarm Markets is in fact looking to make the sourcing guidelines for its prepared food vendors a little stricter. Exactly what that looks like has yet to be seen, but Koch says he doesn’t necessarily want to go around demanding to see invoices.
Koch holds up Chaia as a prime example of the type of vendor they want—with local and seasonal engrained in its identity. While the taco purveyor has stopped vending at markets for now, it may continue in the future.
“If you pay $10 for three tacos, you do it and you feel good that you’re supporting the foodshed,” Koch says. “There are more and more socially minded, values-minded food entrepreneurs in D.C. I’m all about that.”
Photo by Jessica Sidman