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Entrepreneurs Go From Farm to Retail

Eula McDowell, owner of Big Bean Theory
Eula McDowell, owner of Big Bean Theory - Steve Ruark
When Eula McDowell started serving soup at the Owings Mills Mall, she met a customer named Rose Mary Hardy Stew.

“That’s crazy, right?” McDowell laughs. “She was the nicest woman, so I named a soup in her honor—Rosemary Hearty Bean Stew.”

This easy camaraderie with customers was something she picked up after spending years selling her savory creations at local farmers’ markets. Last year, she switched from a stall at area farmers' markets to one at the mall with her shop the Big Bean Theory. McDowell hopes to open a flagship location with a beautiful storefront in the next year, enticing hungry diners with Eula-lisious Black Eye Peas with Turkey and Collards and Mama’s Rockin’ Moroccan Bean Soup.

“I think the [farmers’ markets] are the best way for vendors to get their feet wet,” says Nikki Lewis, who opened Rosedale’s the Mallow Bar in February after years of selling her marshmallow treats at the Owings Mills farmers' market.  “You receive immediate feedback and can tweak ingredients.”

Tracy Baskerville, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore Office of Promotion and Arts, which manages the Baltimore Farmers’ Market, sees the venues as a chance for vendors to hone their marketing skills and network with other entrepreneurs. Building those relationships is key for retailers to profit and expand their businesses.

“As vendors see the success of fellow business owners moving into retail spaces, I think more will consider the transition,” says Baskerville.

And many retailers continue to sell at the markets, Baskerville adds. Continuing to foster those relationships attracts new customers and drives them to visit the retail shops.

Four farmers’ market vendors share the successes and challenges that come with opening retail locations. 

From operating one-woman shows to learning how to manage a team, these entrepreneurs are continually relying on their market lessons and passion for their products.

Dirty Carrots

Lisa Muscara Brice became the newest vendor-turned-retailer when she opened her vegan bakery, Dirty Carrots, last month. She sells vegan baked goods, including scones, cookies and whoopie pies.

Brice started selling her baked goods at farmers’ markets in 2010 and has sold her goods at the Baltimore Museum of Industry and farmers' markets in Catonsville, Fells Point, Johns Hopkins and Harbor East. She recognized an opportunity to have low overhead while gaining access to customers who want to support local businesses.

“Markets require serious stamina, though,” she warns. “The hours are long and weather is always a factor.”

Brice baked her vegan goodies in downtown Baltimore’s Boheme Cafe before opening a shop in Fells Point. Owning her own retail shop with her own kitchen seemed like a natural evolution for Dirty Carrots.

“To have a climate-controlled setting where you can greet customers on a schedule you have determined is a pleasant option,” Muscara Brice notes.

But, like any startup, Dirty Carrots faces challenges.

“It's common to be a one-person show,” Muscara Brice shares. “You’re creating product, ordering supplies, marketing, delivering, designing—and mopping the floor.”

A retail shop can sap energy, but hiring help is not always financially feasible for entrepreneurs. She has hired one part-time employee to assist in the shop.

Muscara Brice has no current plans to expand physical space, but is interested in wholesale. She hopes to develop relationships with stores like MOM’s Organic Market and Whole Foods.

“I’d like to partner to expand the wholesale side of Dirty Carrots within a year,” Muscara Brice says. “Practically speaking, I would need additional help, to invest in a universal product code, and design the best packaging for wholesale.”  

In the meantime, Muscara Brice plans to stay connected to the farmers’ markets where she started.

“[The markets are] such an important part of local communities,” she shares. “I consider it an honor to be a part of that system.”

Iced Gems Bakery

When Christine Richardson started selling cupcakes from a refrigerated truck in 2010, farmers’ markets provided an excellent place to market her treats. With minimal setup, markets gave her access to many potential customers.

“Farmers’ markets were a starting point. I sold at the Catonsville market on Sunday and a variety of markets during the week, including Boordy Vineyards’ Thursday evening market,” Richardson says.

She was renting bakery space by the hour, and by July 2010—just three months after her first trip with the truck—Richardson realized that renting was becoming very expensive.

“I needed my own space to keep costs down,” Richardson explains, and chose a 600-square-foot Main Street storefront in Reisterstown for Iced Gems’ first location.

“I was excited to see the addition of a cupcake shop in my neighborhood,” says Reisterstown resident Carley Orsini. “Iced Gems has a boutique look, but it doesn’t feel stuffy because the employees are so polite and knowledgeable. You can tell that there’s a comfort in dealing with customers.”

While she doesn’t frequent farmers’ markets as often as she did in Iced Gems early days, Richardson still relies heavily on vendors with whom she connected at various farmers markets. Her eggs are sourced from Lehigh Valley View Farms in Northampton, Pa., and milk from Prigel Family Creamery in Glen Arm.

Max’s Empanadas

Max Gonzalez hosted Argentine tango nights and brought his homemade empanadas to offer his students an authentic experience. To his surprise, he started receiving additional requests. In 2008, Gonzalez decided to sell his empanadas at local farmers’ markets, including the Highlandtown, Johns Hopkins, University of Maryland Medical Center, and Waverly markets, to reach a wider audience.

“Farmers’ markets are a good place to introduce your products to the public,” Gonzalez says. “I was able to gauge interest and learn how to present products. We applied all that we learned from the farmers’ markets into the store.”

Gonzalez also connected with other vendors to source his ingredients, providing an authentic taste while supporting local farmers.

After a year of selling at markets, Gonzalez was ready to take his empanadas retail. He needed greater control over production, so Max’s Empanadas opened in 2010 with four employees in a 1,100-square-foot Little Italy bistro.

“People kept asking me why I opened the restaurant in the winter. I told them that opening in the winter would allow all eyes on us—and they were!” Gonzalez says. “We had 10 reviews in less than two months.”

Generating profit from retail is not as simple as just opening and garnering reviews. Farmers’ markets, wholesale distribution (like at Johns Hopkins University), retail distribution (e.g. Whole Foods, Milk & Honey), and catering still make up the majority of Max’s Empanadas profits.

“We are eager to make Max's Empanadas more accessible and cover more areas in Maryland with additional stores,” Gonzalez says. He says that there are no plans for retail expansion within the next year, though.

Big Bean Theory

“My grandmother was an entrepreneur,” says Eula McDowell, describing her grandmother’s grocery and carryout business. “When I asked to help in the kitchen, she said, ‘Go ahead, and it better be good.’”

Since then, McDowell has been stirring up homemade creations, focusing on savory soups. Four years ago, she decided to test her soups at the Baltimore and University of Maryland Medical Center farmers’ markets.

“You know that your family and friends love your food. I wanted to know what the world would think of my soups,” McDowell says. She didn’t know how to market her soups, and markets provided immediate feedback.

After continually selling out, McDowell expanded to other markets and learned which locations were best for business. When a retail space opened at the Owings Mills Mall, McDowell saw a nice kitchen and an opportunity to grow her business with the Big Bean Theory.

Going retail wasn’t easy. When she was selling at farmers’ markets, McDowell didn’t have to think about packaging her soups or training and managing her three employees.

McDowell understands that the economy might dampen her plans to open a standalone store, though she remains hopeful. For now, she’s focused on her current space and maintaining her relationships with the farmers’ markets where she started.

“I will definitely continue to promote my soups at local farmers’ markets,” McDowell affirms. “It prepares you for business on so many levels. It’s your first lesson in customer service.”

Renee Libby Beck is a freelance writer and public relations manager for Medifast Inc. Renee is the Baltimore Food Examiner for Examiner.com (www.examiner.com/food-in-baltimore/renee-libby-beck) and writes for other blogs and publications.

All photographs by STEVE RUARK
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