Berkeley Farmers Market

Farmers Markets: The New Grocery Industry Trade Show

What’s the new trade show for new grocery food? Try your local farmers market. That’s where Neal Gottleib’s ice cream took off, and that’s where Whole Foods found his organic ice cream, at the Berkeley Farmers Market.

Most people think of farmers’ markets as a place to pick up healthy food from mom-and-pop-operations, but it can also be a breeding ground for entrepreneurship. In fact, grocery stores often visit them looking for new ideas, said Harv Singh, a “forager” for Whole Foods’ Northern California region. “A farmers’ market is like an incubator for food companies,” he said.

In 1980, there were about 1,800 farmers markets across the country. Now there are nearly 6,000 and they’re the agora in the full sense of the word: community meeting places, usually outdoors, a Saturday or Sunday morning ritual that fills the need once served by churches.

And they’ve become, as the business press loves to say, “big business.” Well. There’s a lot of money changing hands, but it’s mostly changing hands within the same region. But marketers always want to market something “authentic,” so they’re closely watching what the bicyclists and chefs and anti-gluten cultists are excited about at the neighborhood market.

Neal Gottleib’s Three Twins Ice Cream is now sold in restaurants and its own ice-cream shops around the Bay Area, and it’s only one of many local gourmet ice creams people have very strong opinions about.

But the really interesting part of his story is how real businesses are finding their place at the most person-to-person neighborhood level. And these are also real businesses that provide decent local jobs, use local agricultural products, are good “corporate citizens,” and sell much of what they make to their own community. It’s almost as if humans should behave this way on a regular basis!

Photo of the Berkeley Farmers Market by Jay Cross.