A new policy requiring all vendors at the Boulder Farmers’ Market to earn a minimum amount of revenue to keep their space has raised some eyebrows, but the market’s executive director says the move is not motivated by a desire to increase profits.
Some say they are concerned that implementing the new sales thresholds could drive up the cost of products at the market and limit the ability of the “little guy” to remain competitive enough to maintain a presence there.
Bob D’Alessandro, executive director of the Boulder County Farmers’ Markets, told Boulder Weekly that he recently announced to the approximately 50 market vendors who are not farmers that minimum revenue thresholds will be created to determine whether a vendor is invited back next year. Those thresholds will not be set until early May, after market officials hold discussions with the vendors, D’Alessandro says.
But he confirms that the system being considered could require vendors to earn progressively more in each of the first few years. He says initial estimates, based on the average amount made by vendors currently, is $20,000 for a vendor’s first year, $28,000 for the second year, and $36,000 for the third.
D’Alessandro says the farmers who sell their produce at the market have operated under a threshold system for years, and farmers must also attend the market a minimum number of days to keep their slot, but a similar system has never been in place for non-farmer vendors, such as those in the food court.
“Why that has never existed, I don’t know,” he says. The Boulder Farmers’ Market collects about 14 percent of those vendors’ sales, but D’Alessandro says the creation of minimum revenue thresholds is not a profitdriven decision.
“We are a not-for-profit corporation, so we don’t make a profit,” he says. “Our budget is pretty tight. We’re just trying to break even.”
He says the thresholds are simply a way to decide which vendors to have at a market that is tight on space — and where slots are in high demand.
“How do we determine how to allocate limited space to keep the market vital?” he asks. “There’s no more room, and we’re turning a lot of people away.”
There are about a dozen spots for food court vendors, according to D’Alessandro, and when a vacancy occurred this year, there were more than a dozen applicants vying for that open slot. Four or five of those vendors were chosen to participate in interviews and a food sampling process to help assess the quality and local sourcing of the products, but only one could be chosen, he says. The market needs another way to choose vendors in such a competitive environment, D’Alessandro explains, and the thresholds provide that.
He acknowledges the concern about prices going up in order for vendors to meet their minimum revenue levels, and about continuing the presence of the small business owners at a community market that is all about the “little guy” in a world of Safeways and King Soopers.
“There’s no perfect solution,” he allows. But he adds that all but one of the vendors would have met the proposed threshold based on last year’s numbers. “We will not see that much money,” D’Alessandro says of the new policy. “We set what we thought were reasonable bars.”
And the market has made a change that may address some of the concerns. Traditionally, D’Alessandro says, vendors in the food court were not allowed to sell the same items, but that rule has been relaxed so that there can be two vendors offering similar products. That competition results in lower prices, he says, because it’s no longer a situation where “you can get lazy and the price can go up because you’re the only game in town.”
He says it also improves quality, as it has done among the farmers who sell many of the same produce, because “it creates motivation to have the best possible tomatoes you can.”
D’Alessandro says an example of that new vendor duplication is that, this year, Modmarket was chosen to fill a vacant spot at the farmers’ market, even though one of its specialties is flatbread pizzas (Laudisio’s also sells pizzas at the market). But he points out that Modmarket also sells soups and salads, so there is still variety.
As for keeping the “little guy” at the market, he says that is a genuine concern.
“We’re trying to figure out how to keep some spaces for the little people,” D’Alessandro says. “That’s why we haven’t already set the thresholds.”
For example, he says, a similar concern about preserving the presence of the small farmer at the market prompted the creation of a “guest of the market” category, in which a farmer who only grows a limited crop can attend for six weeks without having to meet a sales threshold.
“We’re not in business to make money,” D’Alessandro says. “We’re in business to give local farmers an outlet to sell their products.”
He says some have suggested expanding the market north along 13th Street, toward Pearl Street, but having pedestrians crossing busy Canyon Boulevard is too big of a concern. Other options for addressing the space constraints are to open an additional market elsewhere in town, or expand to a year-round market, a possibility that has been discussed for a couple of years.
But D’Alessandro cautions that would require the market to find an indoor location and carry a limited number of crops in the winter months. What he wants to avoid is to have the market rely more on things like arts and crafts, as other year-round farmers’ markets have done.
He says that if the Boulder Farmers’ Market really wanted to increase its revenues, there would be easier ways than creating the sales thresholds.
“I don’t want this to look like a mercenary thing, because it’s not about making more money,” D’Alessandro explains. “If that were the case, we’d increase the percentage we get from the vendors. It would be a lot less of a headache to raise that by 1 percent.”
He also points out that, being a zero-waste operation, the Boulder Farmers’ Market purchases compostable plates and cutlery from Eco-Cycle, which up until this year had a grant to help offset the costs of that service. The market used to add $3 to the cost of each case of those supplies when it sold them to its vendors. But this year, even though Eco-Cycle lost that grant and had to increase the cost, D’Alessandro says the market is selling the plates and cutlery to vendors at cost and is no longer adding that $3 to the price, which is now $35 a case.
“If we were all about making money, we’d charge $38 a case,” he says. “The sales thresholds have nothing to do with making more money.”
D’Alessandro adds that the market gives customers the opportunity to use a credit or debit card by purchasing “market bucks,” but does not pass along to customers, farmers or vendors the 2.5 percent cost that accompanies each transaction.
“If it was about money, we’d pass along that cost,” he says.
When contacted by Boulder Weekly, David Segal, owner of market vendor Berry Best Smoothies, explained that it’s not a simple issue.
“I think that basically it’s a good idea,” he says of the thresholds. “All vendors should meet a minimum standard to be there. Those spaces are valuable, and those who are not selling much product shouldn’t be there.”
At the same time, he thinks the market should be sensitive to the needs of local businesses.
“I think it’s a good policy, but it should have exceptions,” Segal says, adding that perhaps the vendor’s first year should be a grace period.
“I think it’s great that Bob is trying to have highquality vendors, but I think it should be done in a way that is sensitive to the vendors who are trying to make it,” he says. “This is a community-based market.”
Richard Convertito, who has operated Amaizing Corn Tamales at the market for more than 22 years, says that while he has heard some “whining” about the new policy, he thinks it’s fair.
“If you’re not pulling your weight or having enough sales, then you’re doing something wrong,” he says. “If you’re a little guy, which we all were when we started, and if your product is decent enough, you should have decent enough sales. I don’t think the sales thresholds are that big.”