So, on a recent Saturday, I drove 75 minutes north from Philadelphia to the town of Easton, Pa. In the process of purchasing my local goat cheese and heirloom tomatoes, I learned that the market had been running since 1752. That’s when George Washington was 20 years old. And yet “We see about 20% growth every year” in the main Saturday market, says market manager Megan McBride. Here are the lessons she’s learned about keeping it fresh that can be used by any business with a long history.
There’s a reason New Coke flopped. Some aspects of a business are so core to its identity that they cannot be altered. For the Easton Farmers’ Market, that’s location: the Easton town square, which is at the intersection of historic main routes between New York and Philadelphia. That’s a challenge, because the square isn’t big. McBride and others have pondered moving the market to the river front, where there’d be more space, but “when you do have something this old, there is a lot of allegiance and a lot of loyalty to what goes on there,” she says. “If you tried to move it, all hell would break loose.” So that’s out.
Historic reputations are often built on quality, and growing too fast can compromise that. So, rather than try to crowd too many vendors into the Saturday market, Easton has added a Wednesday evening market. People need to shop for fresh food frequently anyway, and the Wednesday time allows market management to audition new vendors before giving them coveted Saturday slots. “It’s kind of like our minor league team,” says McBride. “It gives us a way to support startups and local farms.”
Even if you’ve got a legacy, you’ve probably got competition. There are lots of places to shop for food. These days, normal supermarkets even carry local and organic produce. So the Easton Farmers’ Market plays up the experiential aspect of shopping there. “You might have Wegman’s selling from local farmers, but not get that experience of talking to the farmer who picked that three hours ago,” McBride says. Musical performances and chef demonstrations add to the fun.
“With any business it’s about keeping abreast of consumer demand,” McBride says. But “what we’re dealing with now is a lot more educated customer.” People who like to buy local are often into vegan options, so that’s played into vendor selection. In the larger world the jury may be out on GMO food, but not at the Easton Farmers’ Market, where shoppers don’t want these ingredients. “We keep our ears out and listen to what people want,” McBride says.
To last for centuries, a business needs deep roots in its community. The Easton Farmers’ Market has been encouraging prepared food vendors to source from local farms to build up these producers. The market has been expanding on the buyer side too.
“Because the trend for eating organically and locally has grown so much, folks with less income also want to be able to participate and enjoy healthy food,” says McBride.
So the Easton Farmers’ Market has added the capability for customers to use EBT (Electronic Benefit Transfer) cards. Shoppers bring their cards to a booth, swipe them, and get tokens to be spent on fresh produce. That certainly wasn’t an option during George Washington’s day, but growing the customer base may help the market last for another 262 years.