Can local food carry the West Side Market into its next century?

Going the Distance 

Can local food carry the West Side Market into its next century?

Tom Dunderman of Basketeria Produce beams like a proud papa when he talks about his asparagus. He bought it from a small farmer he knows in Wellington, Ohio; it was just picked a few days ago, he boasts. Reaching out from behind his stand at the West Side Market, he holds up a bunch of the slender, blue-green beauties for you to see.

"I love this time of year," says Dunderman, who quit his job as a nurse 12 years ago to sell locally grown, organic vegetables at a West Side Market stand with his wife Anita. "A lot of times when we sell stuff to our customers, it's not even 24 hours off the vine."

Turn the corner and you'll see a different scene: kaleidoscopic mounds of produce similar to what you'd find in a big supermarket. They're typically conventionally grown, with chemical pesticides and fertilizers, and trucked in from outside Northeast Ohio. The bulk of it is purchased near downtown at the Northern Ohio Food Terminal, a hub where produce from coast to coast is distributed to restaurants and retailers.

This is the paradox of the West Side Market. It is Cleveland's greatest monument to local food, its majestic 137-foot clock tower and yellow brick marketplace providing shelter to more than 100 unique, locally owned businesses. Yet despite its history as a local-foods resource — an open-air farmers market was planted here at West 25th and Lorain as early as 1840 — much of what's sold here today isn't local.

"People love the old-fashioned counter service and the fact that market vendors have an intimate knowledge of what you'll be serving your family and how to serve it," says market manager Christine Zuniga-Eadie, who is working with city officials, vendors, and market leaders to bring in more local foods and to better market existing local options.

"But we're not yet an outstanding example of what our local food system can offer."

Advocates say that local foods are often fresher, healthier, better for the environment, and better for the local economy than the shipped-in goods found at most major stores. Typically, food in the U.S. travels 1,500 miles from farm to consumer. In contrast, locally raised foods make it from farm to plate in less than 100 miles.

"Adding more local foods at the West Side Market and marketing what's already there will support our economy and give customers what they want," says Jenita McGowan, chief of sustainability for the city of Cleveland and a leader of the Sustainable Cleveland 2019 initiative, which has declared 2012 the Year of Local Food.

With new farmers markets sprouting up across Northeast Ohio and the area being touted as a national leader in urban agriculture, the West Side Market could have an opportunity to become a hub for local foods, says Ward 3 Councilman Joe Cimperman.

"I don't need to buy garlic from China at the West Side Market, because I'm pretty sure garlic grows in Cleveland soil," he says. "A city-owned market should offer local food."

Challenges and Opportunities

Local foods are typically defined as those that are grown or raised within 100 miles of the location where they are sold. Local foods do not have to be organic, but many are.

Right now, there are four West Side Market produce vendors that regularly carry local produce, says Zuniga-Eadie: Basketeria, DeCaro Produce, Fritz's, and A&J Produce. Several other vendors carry local food products other than produce; those include Maple Valley Sugarbush (maple products), Ann Marie's Dairy (milk, cheese, eggs), Meister's Dairy, Foster's Meats (grass-fed beef), and Jorgenson's Apiary (honey).

A few produce vendors also carry locally grown produce sourced from the Northern Ohio Food Terminal during the summer, when it is often available. Additionally, many of the meat purveyors source their products from Ohio. Finally, bakeries and other specialty vendors inside the market like Ohio City Pasta make their products here and source ingredients from local suppliers.

If city leaders have their way, though, plenty more is coming. While Cleveland is celebrating the West Side Market Centennial with a series of parties and public events — including playing host to the prestigious International Public Markets Conference in September — leaders are grappling behind the scenes with myriad changes they say the venue must make to thrive for the next 100 years.

Some of the changes under debate are the addition of evening hours, making much-needed building improvements, and adding a community kitchen.

The push to add more local foods to the product mix is also on the table. "Part of keeping the West Side Market sustainable is to make sure that it stays relevant," says McGowan. "Our surveys show more demand for more local food."

Indeed, a 2011 report by the West Side Market Centennial Commission argues that promoting local foods is not only the right thing to do, but it will also help attract new customers and make the market more financially viable and sustainable in the long run.

"The West Side Market must continue to evolve to remain successful over the next 100 years," the report states. It goes on to argue that "increased customer demand for locally sourced product" is something that must be "addressed creatively."

Of course, like most centenarians, the West Side Market isn't exactly one to embrace change overnight. The idea of adding more local foods has been bandied about for years. The market is known for being a glorious throwback to simpler times, not for proactive change, and quarreling between the city and vendors hasn't helped the conversation move forward.

"The city is the world's worst landlord," says Vince Bertonaschi, the 23-year veteran of Vince's Meats and president of the West Side Market Tenants' Association. He says that the city has neglected tenants' needs for years and is only interested in making improvements now because the market is in the limelight during the Centennial.

Undeterred by blowback from vendors, the city nonetheless is rolling out efforts to market local foods and add more options. To entice local growers, they're offering new six-month leases which cost $300 to $500 per month and require four-day-per-week staffing (though some vendors do not open on Mondays — another source of controversy).

The city has also engaged Ohio City Inc., the local nonprofit development corporation, to help with marketing efforts, branding, and managing new projects.

Cimperman agrees that the city has historically neglected the market, but says that he's committed to giving the venue more attention. "For years, the mayor's office and council simply ignored the needs of the vendors, and their attitude was, 'You can do what you want,'" he says. "The city is not doing a good enough job. We need to do better."

Still, many vendors remain deeply skeptical about the city's proposed changes and ability to carry them out. Those shortened six-month leases are one flashpoint of controversy.

"Local foods are absolutely a good thing," says Melissa DeCaro, the third-generation owner of DeCaro Produce. "But if we struggle all through the winter, they should have to struggle with us."

Yet vendors are missing an opportunity by not embracing local growers, Cimperman says: Focusing on local foods could help them be more profitable.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service, local-food sales through all marketing channels in the U.S. were estimated to be $4.8 billion in 2008 and projected to surpass $7 billion by the end of 2012.

A 2010 study paid for by the Cleveland Foundation and written by Maryland economist Michael Shuman shows that Northeast Ohio purchases about one percent of its food from local farmers. Upping that number to 25 percent could create 27,000 new jobs. The West Side Market could be a key link to make that happen.

"Customers are asking us about local foods," says Zuniga-Eadie. "We need to educate people and show them the options out there."

Zuniga-Eadie says that the city's local-foods marketing campaign, which will include an emblem on stands to identify local options, will be rolled out by fall.

A Farmer's Dilemma

Yet drawing small local farmers into the market might not be as easy as it sounds. Most growers are used to selling produce at farmers markets for four-hour stints, not staffing a busy market stand for 10-hours days. Farmers' main priority, after all, is trying to coax crops out of the fickle earth, not hawking heads of lettuce; and many are weekend warriors who juggle farm work with regular full-time jobs. Time — and the volume of goods they can realistically supply — are two real barriers to signing on to a major retail operation.

So instead of setting up shop at the West Side Market, many area growers have found their niche in farmers markets. The options have exploded in recent years: currently there are 11 farmers markets in Cleveland — up from two a few years ago — and 52 across the region.

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, dozens of local farmers and food purveyors gather in Lincoln Park in Tremont for the Tremont Farmers Market. The seasonal event has blossomed since its 2006 debut; a recent market day drew more than 1,500 shoppers.

Molly Murray is a Cleveland Heights native who returned to Northeast Ohio in her 20s to start Erie's Edge Farm, an urban, sustainable farm spread across five lots in Ohio City.

"I moved to do this because I knew urban farming was happening here and wanted to be part of it," says Murray, who also runs a Community Supported Agriculture program and has a passion for bringing fresh produce to low-income residents.

Murray would love the chance to sell her produce at the West Side Market. Yet she's accutely aware of the difficulties. She says that any lease arrangement would have to be structured to support her business.

"I could see it working if we formed a co-op and had a collective presence," she says.

Dave Divoky of Maple Valley Sugarbush and Farms in Geauga County, who opened a stand here a year ago, says that recruiting farmers to the market will be challenging.

"Many of them are part-timers who have a farm stand in front of their house or go to the markets on weekends," says Divoky, a third-generation farmer who maples and raises fruits and vegetables on his 36-acre farm in Hamden Township east of Chardon. "For them to commit to a venue downtown, it's just not possible. "

Of course, Divoky and his wife are an example of how it can work. The couple used to spend their time traveling to multiple farmers markets each week. But last year they made the decision to concentrate their efforts on opening a stand at the market. The fledgling venture has opened up new opportunities, he says.

"We've developed a real good customer base," says Divoky. "People like the fact that I raised the tomatoes I'm selling them. They like chemical-free food and organic food."

Adding more vendors like Maple Valley at the market is feasible, says Morgan Taggart, program specialist with Ohio State University Extension and convener of the Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Food Policy Coalition. But it will take time.

"The challenges for farmers will be having enough diversity and volume of product," says Taggart. "They'll also have to figure out how to compete on price and differentiate their product from others. It will take cooperation among small and midsize farmers."

But distribution and freshness pose other problems. Dunderman, of Basketeria, says that he spends many long hours each week sourcing produce from local farmers — a time-consuming process. And questions inevitably arise about protecting quality and freshness while handling fragile foodstuffs, especially for farmers without access to refrigerated trucks.

Still, in the past year, the city has recruited both Divoky and Jorgenson's Apiary. As word spreads about the focus on local foods, market leaders hope to attract more farmers.

"We need to start with one or two stands and show that it can work," says Cimperman.

Watching the Bottom Line

While adding local foods to the market may be a plus, it's not likely that they will come cheap. That's because it's more expensive to raise an heirloom tomato on a small farm using natural methods than to harvest one from a mega-farm in Florida. Will customers pay more for fresh, local foods?

Vince Bertonaschi, who, along with other West Side Market butchers, still cuts his own meat in the basement, doesn't see what the big deal is. Ninety-five percent of the beef that he sells is raised on small, local farms across Northeast Ohio anyway. When asked about grass-fed beef, the current darling of the "local, sustainable crowd," he claims his customers prefer the grain-fed variety.

"They don't like grass-fed beef because it doesn't have the marbling," says Bertonaschi, sporting a baseball cap and flannel shirt as he saws through a 175-pound quarter of beef. The old-school butcher, who works 70 to 80 hour a week, doesn't take kindly to people telling him how to run his business, least of all the city. "Besides, I've been doing this how many years, and I'm gonna change now?"

Still, some potential customers say that the lack of product selection keeps them from shopping at the West Side Market. Dan Scharf is one of them. Despite the fact that the market is less than two miles from his house, Scharf travels to the North Union Farmers Market at Shaker Square every Saturday to purchase grass-fed beef and the locally grown produce that he can't get at the West Side Market.

"I want to buy from farms that keep my money local, treat their animals humanely, and provide the best product," says Scharf, a Detroit Shoreway resident who raises chickens, grows vegetables, cures ham, and writes about local foods on his Cage-Free Tomato blog. "And grass-fed beef and heritage breeds really do taste better."

Divoky agrees that shoppers like Scharf are willing to pay a premium for what they perceive as quality products. He recently began selling farm-raised eggs at the market for $4 — at least three times what you'd pay in the grocery store — and he says that sales are going strong.

Still, both producers and shoppers have cause for concern. "People are being very conservative these days because of the economy," says Divoky, "and I don't blame them. Tomatoes are $1.29 at Giant Eagle, and they might be $1.99 at a farmers market. If you're on a limited budget, where are you gonna go?"

In fact, if the West Side Market wants to succeed with adding local foods, it will have to come to terms with the fact that its brand is built on value. Many shoppers are drawn here by price, not pedigree. Undoubtedly, this will prove a challenge for local farmers pushing prices.

"There is a market for those people with growing families who want to buy bargain foods," says Zuniga-Eadie. "Some customers at the market specifically want that."

Scharf says that the West Side Market should aim for balance, continuing to serve neighborhood families while adding new products that appeal to the growing number of young urban dwellers.

"The market does a good job of catering to the price-sensitive shopper," he says. "But it hasn't done as good a job catering to the people who are moving into Ohio City."

Bad Apples

Although the notion that the West Side Market is a farmers market simply isn't true, a far more basic problem threatens to mar the venue's reputation. That is, a few bad apples in the produce section always seem to be spoiling the whole bunch.

In fact, improvements to produce quality is one of the much-needed changes that were identified last year by the Centennial Commission's report. "Many concerns were raised about the lower product quality," the report states. "A majority of vendors have been accused (both formally and word of mouth) of selling rotten produce."

"I can't tell you how many times I've sent staff to the market to buy produce and it comes back rotten," says Ben Bebenroth, a farm-to-table chef who owns Spice Kitchen and Bar and Spice of Life catering. A staunch advocate of local, sustainable foodstuffs, Bebenroth sources his produce from more than 60 farmers across Northeast Ohio. "My staffers say, 'This is what they gave me.' They don't know you have to pick it out yourself."

It's a story West Side Market officials have heard before. Zuniga-Eadie encourages customers with concerns about rotten or low-quality produce to call the market and report the vendor. The city will take action, she claims, disputing the notion that the city has not taken corrective action in the past. Vendor leases can be terminated as a last resort, she says.

"If vendors are selling something that is wholesome but near the end of its shelf life, then we encourage them to indicate that it's been reduced for quick sale," says the market manager. "If poor-quality product is found, then it is swiftly removed from the stand. We also tell people to go to vendors where they can pick out their own produce."

Bertonaschi says the city should be more aggressive about cracking down on bad vendors and also more careful about the tenants they select. "There's too much turnover in the arcade, and some of the people don't know what they're doing."

Cimperman says he hears consistent complaints about produce quality in the arcade and says that adding new, higher-quality vendors could help to address the problem.

"If someone from Strongsville gets a bad banana, they're less likely to come back," he says. "Frankly, adding more local foods may help to drive up the quality of the stands."

Be Careful What You Wish For

Despite all the chatter about changes, perhaps the best thing about the West Side Market is that it really hasn't changed much at all.

While other urban markets like Boston's Faneuil Hall have turned into tourist traps that sell T-shirts and tchotchkes, Cleveland's West Side Market remains the kind of genuine spot that Brooklyn hipsters just dream about. We have real produce vendors, butchers, bakeries, dairy shops, fish mongers, and sausage shops. It's a place where you can find homemade butter, the best pierogi, and a whole pig — if that's what you want.

In recent years, the West Side Market has also become the darling of the national food media, featured on Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations as well as the Food Network. With all this attention focused on the market, it's not too much to ask, "Why change anything at all?"

"Be careful what you wish for," Bertonaschi likes to say. Like many longtime West Side Market vendors, he is concerned that too much change could spoil everything.

Yet Cimperman argues that now is exactly the right time to focus on the market's next 100 years. Doing so, he argues, will not only improve the venue, but also preserve it.

"The whole purpose of the Centennial is not just to have a great party, but to ensure that our grandkids' grandkids can have a great market too," says Cimperman. He envisions things like a smart-phone app to help customers find local foods, a rewards program for local-food vendors, and an initiative allowing seniors to use their prescription cards to buy produce.

On a grander scale, Cimperman and others also envision the market as a regional food hub connecting farmers to individual and wholesale buyers in Northeast Ohio. The USDA has recently rolled out an initiative to promote such regional food hubs, and the International Public Markets conference will hold a workshop on the subject when it meets in Cleveland this fall.

"Change happens when people experience economic success," says Cimperman. "How do we get people to recognize that food is grown in Cleveland? There's so much potential."

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