City Hall

The City Can't Find Anyone To Take Over Farmers Market. Tom Spicer Knows Why.

Yesterday I joked: Since the city can't find anyone to take over Dallas Farmers Market, maybe Tom Spicer and I would just go ahead and take the keys. But Spicer -- the man behind Spiceman's FM 1410 on Fitzhugh, beloved seller of produce to chefs professional and amateur alike, and a could-be-maybe restaurateur hisself -- ain't interested. No way. No how. And not just because Dallas Farmers Market has never, ever made money. (Annual losses, in case you forgot, run in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.)

I've known Tom for a while -- long enough to have sneaked a peek at his handwritten plans for the market, which he's jotted down in a journal and forwarded over in a few e-mails over the years. I always thought Tom, who's turned a small patch of land behind Jimmy's Food Store into a mighty urban garden, just might end up running the place one day. At the very least, surely someone would ask him to come aboard.

But as far as he's concerned, the place is too "antiquated" as it stands now to bother with.

"Sure," he says, "I've thought about it. But it's kind of a farce. Everyone I've talked to gives me a blank stare when I talk about it. They don't know what I am talking about." Because it's not like Tom doesn't have a few suggestions.

"Look," he says this morning, "I don't think anybody knows how to make it work, quite frankly. Everybody has ideas, but I don't think any of them make sense. It would have to be a lot more competitive, for one thing, and not in the way where you force people out. You bring in other things that are missing -- for one, a better selection of local produce and more of it. Then you have to store and market it better. Whoever the new manager is [Janel Leatherman], it looks like she said, 'Hey, you grow baby carrots. You grow micro-greens.' And why? There's no proper storage for those things. When you got to a grocery store everything's merchandised properly: These things are refrigerated, these things are on a dry island. ...

"You have to be active in developing farmers. They don't have anyone to do that. I do that, but I am barely squeaking out a living. I am self-propelled. I have just enough to put one foot in front of the other. But you have to get it out to the restaurants, have to have an extended line of produce, not a bunch of baby carrots sitting out in the 100-degree heat stacked on a card table. You cant just say, 'Grow baby carrots.' You have to show 'em how. They need to be in refrigeration, and that's just one thing they lack. They're still in the Stone Age."

First thing Tom would do is shut off the sheds -- keep people from being able to park in and drive through the places in which folks are selling their produce. He'd move refrigerators and freezers into the sheds.  He'd partner with the neighboring greenhouses and see if they'd be interested in turning them into you-pick-'ems. He'd get actual farmers involved in the day-to-day and help them ship their product to far-off places that want Texas-grown produce.

These are but a few of the ideas -- a few among hundreds, all of which take money and expertise and people. A few other folks in the restaurant and produce biz with whom I've spoken about the downtown market for years say much the same thing: Whoever winds up with the market needs to have experience in marketing and retail, in dealing with local restaurants and shipping product elsewhere.

There has been talk of some chefs getting together to take over the joint, but a lot of people I know in the food business think that's a very, very bad idea. Tom's among them: "They don't know when to grow, they don't read seed catalogs, they don't know how to change crops. And they don't know how to sell."

Truth told, Tom says, the market's probably in the wrong location. "I'm surprised they didn't let Jerry Jones build Cowboys Stadium there," he says, laughing. "Let him have it." (Which echoes something someone else said to me recently: Instead of one centralized market, perhaps the city should operate four smaller ones scattered throughout the city.)

But, no, the Dallas Farmers Market isn't going anywhere. Not yet, anyhow. Besides, Tom says, "That's still a place for the farmers market, but a lot of things need to be added. A lot of the farmers are nervous they're gong to be kicked out, but set an example for them. Show them what sells and how to sell it, and when they see it works, they'll get on board. There are good things about down-home Texas produce, but they're shooting at the goofy public, and they're smarter than the growers. They go to Whole Foods and Central Market. They want to see what's organic, where it came from. They know what they want, and they know where to get it."

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky

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