The Santa Monica Main Street farmers market is something of an anomaly. Farmers make up the overwhelming majority of the stands at the other three markets run by the city of Santa Monica, but the Sunday Main Street market is evenly divided between farmers on its northern side and prepared-foods and crafts vendors on the southern end. That's partly because it was established in 1995 in partnership with the local business improvement district, with the goal not only of bringing fresh produce to the community, but also of boosting foot traffic and serving as an outlet for local businesses.
In the last month or so, the city's efforts to revamp the prepared-foods sections at its four markets have led to a bit of a kerfuffle, particularly at the Main Street market, which has the most such vendors. Originally, prepared-foods vendors basically were allowed to continue selling there indefinitely. But several years ago, the city's legal department decided that this practice was unfair to other vendors who were being excluded, and that the contracts should be let out to bid on a competitive basis.
Many markets are not able to be so choosy, but the Santa Monica events' drawing power is strong enough that 64 applicants vied for the 23 available spaces in the four markets, says Laura Avery, farmers market supervisor for the city.
Working with the legal department, the city's market managers devised a matrix of selection criteria, with percentage weights assigned to each, for evaluating applicants. Business location counted for 15 points out of 100, with local businesses ranking highest. Environmental sustainability, as certified by independent organizations such as the national Green Restaurant Assn. or the Santa Monica Green Business Certification Program, was weighted 30 points. Applicants who offered foods prepared from local, seasonal, organic and other preferred sources, particularly from the markets' farmers, could earn up to 30 points. Experience in restaurant and food service counted for 10 points.
Taste was not one of the factors because it was judged to be too subjective, but value, emphasizing high quality and original products, counted for 15 points, said Jodi Low, who has managed the Sunday market for five years.
The request for proposals opened in July, and a panel of seven, including three Santa Monica city staff members and four community members, evaluated the applicants. The city announced the decisions after Labor Day, and the selected new vendors started in early October. Of the 13 prepared-foods vendors previously at the Sunday market, six were chosen to remain, and seven either did not apply or were dropped. Nine new vendors have been added, for a total of 15 (several spaces were divided); in addition, the adjacent Victorian restaurant set up two food stalls, and starting in July there has been one spot for a featured restaurant of the week.
As might be expected, these changes upset some of the vendors who were dropped, a few of whom handed out fliers to customers encouraging them to complain. The market received some 200 e-mail comments, most of them complaints, says manager Low, who set up poster boards at her information booth to explain the changes.
Shoppers particularly rallied to the defense of Richard Schackne, who sold bread and pastries as the BreadMan. "I was upset at the way that it happened, that he wasn't given an opportunity to still be here," says Pat Hodges, a regular customer at the Sunday venue. "The main reason that I came to this market was to buy his bread."
However, Schackne's application "was not as competitive" as those from other vendors, says Low. The BreadMan still sells at other local farmers markets including Venice, Westchester and Culver City. The Sunday Santa Monica market now features another bakery, Santa Monica-based Ca' d'Oro. Overall, the new vendors seem to be somewhat more upscale than the previous ones, which some customers appreciate, and pricier, which others do not.
One of the most unusual features of the Santa Monica markets is the absence of processed products from produce not grown by certified California farmers, such as Turkish dried apricots, Armenian pomegranate juice and Greek olive oil. Most farmers markets, at least in Southern California, permit such products, which arguably compete with California produce, to be sold in their "non-agricultural" sections; some even allow out-of-state and imported fresh items, such as Washington state apples, Central American bananas and Chinese mushrooms. This is allowed by state regulations, which do specify that such items have to be sold in the "non-agricultural" section, which is supposed to be indicated by signage; but very few customers pay much attention to such distinctions.
In contrast, the Santa Monica market guidelines, as spelled out in a recent document, state that "any agricultural or processed agricultural product that a farmer grows and could process, such as jam, juice, dried fruit and nuts…" are "not acceptable for the prepared/packaged food section." This may seem like a minor matter, but it is of such principles that a market's integrity is composed.
Santa Monica Sunday (Main Street) farmers market, 2640 Main St. at Ocean Park Boulevard, Sundays 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.