Becoming a vendor at The Saskatoon Farmer's Market
After spending a year as vendors at "The Market" selling The Local Bars we get a lot of entrepreneurs who are considering the same route ask us what we think/thought about it. That's a hard one to answer. Overall becoming a vendor was an an experience I would repeat again and if it weren't for time contraints due to the kitchen we would still be there. We miss our customers and the other vendors and there were some amazing benefits for our business. However it's not nessessarily the perfect choice for every business and every business owner. It may not meet the needs of your business and, like always, the best way to avoid wasting your time and the market's time is to have a roadmap for your business and decide if this fits into it. I'll start by giving the lowdown on the facts of becoming a vendor in terms of cost and time (the two biggies for entrepreneurs) and then I'll give my opinion on a few things to be aware of so hopefully you can make a well-rounded decision.
Just a disclaimer that I'm writing this based on what the SFM requires as of now, these things may change in the future. Their website has up to date information on requirements at wwww.saskatoonfarmersmarket.com/vendors. They just recently renovated their website and it looks great and is very user friendly.
MOST IMPORTANT TO KNOW:
-To sell at The SFM you must have products that are produced, baked or grown by you. If you don't meet this requirement don't even bother. They get too many applications to make allowances and that's what the shoppers coming to the market are looking for.
-You need to make your food and food products in an inspected commercial kitchen (Hey, I think I know one of those....) An alternative to The Local KItchen is the Market Kitchen which is right on site at the market and is basically a home kitchen that meets the requirements of the Health Department. It's perfect if you're making small batches of things that don't require any specialized equipment. And they offer a reduced price to vendors, I believe.
-You must be there representing your booth at least two days a week. Saturdays and then you have the choice of Sunday or Wednesday or you can work all three.
Let's get into it. Applications are reviewed on a first come; first served basis so, depending on how busy they are with applications, the wait to hear back from them may be anywhere from a month to 6 months. This may have changed since we became vendors, someone may contact you to let you know your application has been received, I'm not sure. But either way your application will have to wait a bit if there are applicants ahead of you. We waited a month (meanwhile emailing and pestering anyone we knew associated with the market- not nessessarily recommended) before we were invited to attend an interview. I think Thrive Juice Co. waited close to 5 months when they applied to become vendors. It really depends on how busy the season is and what your requirements are. The application is online and once you fill that out you can drop it off at the market directly or mail it along with your cheque. There is a $200 application fee that is held in trust. If you don't make it to an interview because you can't meet the requirements or your products are not needed (too many of the same gendre), you will get $150 back. If you are approved they keep the $200. A board made up of some past and present vendors and employees of the SFM, decides whether they think your products will be a good fit or not.
Then the interview. Guys. This was hard! I'm not joking. The week before Caitlin and I had pitched our bars to the U of S to have them available on campus and I had spent hours preparing. Then I panicked and bombed the whole thing. I still can't think about without my mouth getting dry. So I was looking forward to our interview with the Farmer's Market to "chat" about our product and basically ask where we'll be setting up. Nope. The board members we met with meant business. We explained in depth our process for preparing The Local Bars, who our suppliers were, what our plans for our business were. It was clear that they dealt with a lot of people who apply long before they're ready to be a vendor simply because they think it'll be a relaxed and easy way to make some money. But it's a lot of work for the administration and the board when a vendor starts and quits within a couple months. It's important they weed out the businesses that are going to waste their time or compromise the reputation of the entire market by selling unfit or unsafe products. Anyways, made it through that and we started as vendors within a couple weeks. The whole process took 2 months for us.
As for rent it varies. Their pricing is list on the "Vendor" section of their website. We needed a small booth (maybe 5 or 6 feet wide) and no electricity so we paid about $520 every quarter. Very reasonable, especially for the income it produces.
Now as for some of the "real talk" about being a vendor. I'm going to do it as sort of a "good news"/"bad news" list. You can decide for yourself if the news really is good or bad. Or disagree completely, I'm not going to get my feeling hurt. Which leads me to my first point...
Good News: A TON of people come through the market. Especially in the summer. Like probably a thousand on a Saturday in July. Which means great exposure and is the #1 reason we would still be vendors there if possible. We are a start up so we're adding products to our line as we go and the Farmer's Market is an amazing platform to talk to our buyers directly. We asked them what they wanted to see in our next bars, put out samples of bars we were working on product development for and asked people what they thought of our packaging. Amazing feedback that is invaluable for growing a food business.
Bad News: Wow people are honest. And some are just crazy. But you'll have to deal with the honesty part very very often and you'll need to develop a thick skin and learn to use this feedback constructively to make your product(s) better. A lady once told me The Local Bars tasted too "farmy". Not a word and also not helpful but I just laughed it off and thanked her for the feedback. People are far worse than that but you really do learn quickly to take what you can from it. If you don't you're missing the best thing about being a vendor.
Good news: High traffic obviously means high sales. We would move a lot of product on a weekend, outperforming anywhere else our bars were being sold by triple, including on campus (nailed it).
Bad news: It's slow in the winter. Some Saturdays we would work all day and sell one box of bars. Luckily we had our eye on the exposure we were getting and it made times like that a little easier to bare. It's very likely this will improve as the SFM hired Jennifer, who has done significant work to improve the presence of the market and has events planned to bring a higher volume of customers out. However we all know what Saskatchewan winters are like. People don't always want to go out on the only days they don't have to scrape their windshields.
Good news: You build up "regulars" who buy their usual amount at their usual times which makes your sales begin to stabilize a bit. These people are also very loyal customers since they are buying directly from the people who make the product and have also likely given their advice and feedback on what they would like to see in the future. If you remember little things they mention ("Hey how was that trip you were taking?") it'll stick out in their minds the next time they're standing in front of a shelf full of similar products.
Bad news: If you sell your products out of other locations you're competing with your retailers. It's important you keep your price competitive with other locations or risk losing that location.
Good news: The group of vendors and customers at the SFM is a tight knit group and you can meet some great contacts. Also when you're seeing a thousand people in a day it's likely you'll see contacts that you already have a connection with and it gives you a chance to strengthen that.
Bad news: You will run into the chronic complainers, they're everywhere in this world. The SFM is a big operation with a lot of moving parts, run primarily by people who volunteer to do so. It's not a perfect system but don't let yourself get sucked into other people's frustrations and just remember why you're there. Try to see the positive and spread it around as much as you can.
The final point I have is just bad news and unfortunately the reason we couldn't stay longer, although I totally understand why the market is this way. The market is open every Saturday, every Sunday and every Wednesday. That's a big time commitment for businesses who are growing and need every extra minute they have. I felt like often I would feel like I had put in my time after working all day on a Saturday and would get complacent for the rest of the weekend, just doing basic bookkeeping and inventory. I wouldn't chase the next lead for a new retail location because we were already doing well at the market. Ultimately we needed to free up that time to continue following our plan And our long term plan is to sell The Local Bars nation-wide. Time to yet again leave our comfort zone.
But this is why I say it has to be a personal decision for each business owner. If your business is a locally-based business and you have other plans this might fit perfectly into them. And really you can't beat the people there. The vendors and staff are amazing and incredibly supportive.
So that's my two cents. Take it or leave it, I've got a pretty thick skin ;)