A Saturday morning at the Market at Pepper Place is supposed to be crowded. That’s part of the charm and the allure.
From finding a parking place to finding the right ears of corn, the experience is all about finding your way through crowds, hugging and shaking hands with those you haven’t seen in a while and handling the fruits, vegetables, bread and other goods for sale.
Even the farmers and vendors are packed in tight to allow as many as possible to participate.
COVID-19 and social distancing have eliminated much of what we love about the Market at Pepper Place but what remains is the most important element – the ability for farmers and small businesses to sell their goods to eager customers.
Now, instead of packed together, farmers and vendors are widely spaced within a two-block area.
Instead of crowds strolling through the market, cars follow a pathway, popping their trunks for contact-free delivery of items they prepaid for earlier in the week. The only music, if there is any, comes from the car radio. The live artists that give rhythm to the market have no place in this new form.
The Market at Pepper Place is marking its 20th year this year in what was supposed to be a celebration of two decades of incredible success. Instead, it has turned into an innovative approach to a global pandemic that still speaks to its two decades of incredible success.
“What better way to prove your longevity and your resilience than by adapting and showing your farmers and showing your customers that you have their back, that you’re going to be there no matter what, through thick and then and you will do whatever it takes to continue to protect and nurture this wonderful relationship that’s been growing for 20 years,” said Leigh Sloss-Corra, executive director of the Market at Pepper Place.
Sloss-Corra said it became clear that even as the Pepper Place Market began shifting from its smaller, indoor winter market into its typical outdoor market that concerns over the coronavirus were going to make the traditional model untenable.
“The outdoor market is a place of conviviality and people want to hug each other and talk and catch up,” she said. “Southerners are just naturally warm, gregarious people and it’s really hard for people to just stand around outside in that atmosphere and not want to congregate.”
Sloss-Corra said the focus became how they could save the most important aspects of the market.
“We just realized that if we were going to help our farmers and if we were going to protect our community, the best way we could do it is make it a drive-thru market,” she said.
It helped that Birmingham is a “car city” of commuters. Sloss-Corra said cities that are more pedestrian are having trouble finding workable solutions for their farmers markets.
To verify it would work, the Pepper Place Drive-Thru Farmers Market started small with just five farmers in the main parking lot the first week. Week two, it moved up to eight and then up to 13 last week, causing it to stretch through the parking lot and up the next street. This weekend could see as many as 17 farmers and there is still room to grow.
“This model is working. It’s safe. We envisioned it to be scalable,” Sloss-Corra said. “We foresee that we could have as many as 30 (vendors) on a Saturday if we stretch into the Martin Biscuit parking lot.”
But the real measure of success is not the number of farmers, but how the farmers themselves are doing.
“The beautiful thing is the farmers have said they’re selling twice as much,” Sloss-Corra said.
The farmers lose the kind of interaction with customers that can be a valuable part of the traditional market. But that interaction also eliminates time that could be used to make sales. With the drive-thru market, the sales are complete before the market takes place.
Moreover, customers tend to order more for efficiency reasons and because they are cooking more at home these days with restaurants closed and only able to offer takeout or curbside service.
“On our busiest day in the time that we have been here at Pepper Place, the most customers we have served in a single day was 112; that was our busiest day. This week with the online market place, we have now seen an increase to 2016 orders,” said Matthew Lawrence, co-founder of Marble Creek Farmstead.
The new system offers less anxiety than going into a grocery store, Sloss-Corra said. There is also less concern over the origins and delivery of the food.
“You’re looking right at the guy who is saying, ‘Yeah, I picked that celery or those peas yesterday,’” Sloss-Corra said.
Market at Pepper Place Founder Cathy Sloss Jones said the drive-thru market is making a difference.
“As the Drive-Thru Market at Pepper Place continues to grow, it will help farmers survive financially through this difficult period, and provide the community with accessible locally grown food in a safe environment,” Jones said. “Coming to Pepper Place each Saturday is more important than ever to ensure the Market’s livelihood. We are helping Alabamians access fresh food safely, while protecting and preserving what is best about our culture and community.”
The drive-thru market isn’t just garnering attention among the farmers and customers; it’s getting interest from other farmers markets across the country.
Sloss-Corra was on a conference call with 400 market managers in the Farmers Market Coalition this week. She said there was great interest in what Pepper Place is doing in Birmingham from places as far away as Idaho and New York and as close as New Orleans.
Even with the success and the ability to grow, Sloss-Corra said they are already looking at ways of improving the drive-thru market. For instance, whereas customers now have to go to individual vendors listed on the Market at Pepper Place website, Sloss-Corra said they plan to have a single place to shop from all vendors and pay once with all of the money then distributed to the farmers and vendors. There is talk of adding a second day, maybe in the middle of the week.
“What if we needed to operate like this for the rest of the summer? Can we? I think we can,” Sloss-Corra said. “We can support our farmers. I think that we can continue to provide this essential service. We could do it all summer if we needed to.”
When the traditional Pepper Place Market does return, Sloss-Corra suspects there will be those who like the convenience of the drive-thru market or maybe even the addition of home delivery in the future.
“I think that the silver lining is that in times of stress you have this motivation and impetus to try new things,” she said. “I think this is going to be a really great enhancement for our farmers and for our community. I’m proud that we’re pulling it off and, so far, everybody’s pretty happy.”
Just having the market return in any form has been a relief to many.
“It’s heartening,” Sloss-Corra said. “A lot of people said it gives you hope that things will come back to normal and, in the meantime, there are good things in this world where things are a little stressful now. The Market is like hope in a box.”