By Himanee Gupta-Carlson
The outdoor season for the Saratoga Farmers’ Market begins in eight weeks. What will that mean for vendors, market staff, and the market’s many loyal shoppers as Saratoga and its surrounding communities start to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic?
The market was in a state of flux, even before the pandemic. It moved its indoor location in 2019 from the Saratoga Spa State Park, where it had been for six years, to the Wilton Mall. The market shut down for a week in March 2020 when the strictest restrictions were imposed but was able to reopen quickly by moving outdoors to the empty mall parking lot outside the shuttered Bon Ton. Summer construction work and continued safety concerns made a return to its traditional outdoor locale at High Rock Park impossible, so the market remained at the mall.
That decision proved successful in keeping the market strong, says Mark Bascom, co-owner of Owl Wood Farm and president of the market association’s board. “It wouldn’t have been possible without our dedicated customers who have kept on supporting us through our transitions.”
Now, with a new outdoor season approaching, the market is unsure where its summer home will be.
Bascom said a survey of vendors shows they are split between moving back to the park or remaining at the mall. The market board plans to survey customers, as well.
The mall’s outdoor parking lots are spacious, which creates space for many vendors to operate with appropriate distances between them. Creating that kind of space at and around High Rock Park would require some reconfiguring, says market manager Emily Meagher. Still, to many vendors and shoppers, High Rock is home.
Overall, farmers’ markets nationally have had an increase in business throughout the pandemic, according to retail analysts. This increase has been somewhat true for the Saratoga Farmers’ Market, as well.
“During the first few months of the pandemic, when farmers’ markets seemed to be one of the only trusted places to shop, business was really booming for our food vendors,” says Meagher. “That was due in large part to being outside.”
“When we moved back indoors, our market tapered down,” she added. “That’s to be expected. A lot of our customers just don’t feel comfortable shopping indoors right now.”
The market has responded to that discomfort by establishing an online pre-ordering service. Online shoppers may view offerings from 9 p.m. Monday through 9 p.m. Thursday and place orders for a large variety of goods. Market staff gather the items from vendors and package them for customers to pick up at a site just outside the market.
Some vendors also have chosen to cease attending because of safety concerns. However, newer vendors have joined and are energizing the market as “customers catch on to their presence and the high-quality products they offer,” Meagher says.
Other vendors are learning to adjust to changing conditions. Beth Trattel of Something’s Brewing used to draw much of her business from sales of hot and cold beverages sold on the spot. Those sales have fallen as customers have begun visiting the market more to shop and less to hang out. However, Trattel has seen more robust sales of her fresh-roasted coffee beans that customers take home to make. This shift also has been real for some prepared food vendors. Giovanni Fresco, for instance, offers take-home meals as well as fresh pasta.
Bascom said warmer weather might allow the market to move outdoors earlier than usual, which would help ease safety concerns. “Farmers markets always are changing,” he says. “That keeps things interesting for the customer. But overall, we are glad that they are viewed as an integral part of the food system.”