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Going the Distance 

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

Page 4 of 4

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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