Going the Distance 

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

Page 3 of 4

"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.

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