Attendance has tripled, sales are up and, yes, you can buy coffee. It seems the Portland winter market has finally found its stride.
The market was swamped with 3,000 shoppers on opening day in early December at its new location, the Urban Farm Fermentory’s food hub. Last year the very busiest day at the market saw only 1,000 people come through the door.
“It’s such a big improvement from last year,” said Lauren Pignatello, who farms at Swallowtail Farm and Creamery in Whitefield and manages the winter market. “I’m so happy with it.”
Last season the market took place in the basement of the Irish Heritage Center. That’s a visible location on State Street in the West End, but has few nearby food businesses compared to the Wednesday farmers market in Monument Square or the winter market’s new home in the heart of the East Bayside food scene.
From 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays the Anderson Street building buzzes with shoppers. The difference this year is that in addition to the usual vegetables, cheeses and meats sold by the farmers, shoppers can now buy bread, pies, cookies, smoothies, popsicles, dried herbs, medicinal elixirs and (finally) Coffee by Design coffee.
“Our sales are all up from last year,” Pignatello said.
She attributes the increased sales to the fact that shoppers can purchase baked goods and prepared foods from the food hub tenants.
“It’s more social,” said Pignatello, an herbalist who also runs the Swallowtail Farm Cottage Apothecary in the food hub. “People can still get their really high-quality farm food and have a coffee and buy a bagel. Everyone benefits – the (food hub) businesses and the farmers alike.”
Last year, Pignatello, a mother of six, got up at 3 a.m. on winter market days to make doughnuts and bagels in an effort to appease customer demand for prepared foods and help boost mediocre sales.
“People would come to the market and say there was nothing to eat,” Pignatello said. “It was rough, and we’re not allowed to serve coffee.”
Most winter markets in Maine offer a mix of farm products, prepared foods and craft items. However, in Portland strict city regulations govern farmers markets and prohibit sales by nonfarm vendors, including bakers and fishermen.
Portland’s winter market started out small, with four farmers providing every-other-week subscription service. Customers placed orders via email and then had to wait in line outside in the cold and snow to pick up their food.
In 2010 Pignatello was part of a group that found an indoor venue for the winter market, a vacant storefront on Free Street facing the Cumberland County Civic Center.
Pignatello and the other organizers, who were all involved in the successful Brunswick winter market, encountered a number of permitting and regulatory difficulties in Portland.
The market eventually opened that year, but the city prevented bakers from being part of it. The following year the market moved to the West End.
Because this year’s winter market is taking place at the food hub, the bakeries can sell their wares during the market. And Bomb Diggity Bakery sells coffee.
“The Irish Heritage Center was wonderful and they were such nice people, but we didn’t have ample parking and there wasn’t a lot of room for growth,” Pignatello said.
The new location has a parking lot and on-street parking. Outside the market entrance, two food trucks (usually El Corazon and Cafe Crepe) sell portable brunch fare.
The Small Axe food truck is typically set up just down the street at Tandem Coffee Roasters.
Plans are in the works to install a large greenhouse at the back of the Urban Farm Fermentory, which also will be open during market hours.
The food hub tenants – Bomb Diggity Bakery, Maine Pie Line, Pure Pops and Swallowtail Farm Cottage Apothecary – sell their products alongside the 19 farmers in a light-drenched industrial space.
Some of the items I’ve seen at the farmstands recently include greenhouse tomatoes, salad greens, kale, kefir, Greek yogurt, free-range eggs, raw milk, dry beans, popcorn on the cob, black bean tempeh, rolled oats, fermented vegetables, jams, maple syrup and honey.
The Good Shepherd’s Farm sells a selection of farm-baked breads made from Maine-grown and milled grains. The breads include pita pockets, baguettes and a sourdough loaf made with a culture that is more than 30 years old and has spent time in the famed microbial air of San Francisco.
Another addition to the market is the Urban Farm Fermentory’s tasting room, which is open during market hours. This allows shoppers to belly up to the bar and order $1 samples from the 12 taps, which feature an ever-changing selection of kombuchas, ciders and meads. This is where I’ve sampled such intriguing kombucha brews as golden beet, ghost pepper, tarragon and chaga chai.
“Everyone is super-psyched about the market,” said Urban Farm Fermentory founder Eli Cayer. “We wanted to make it a better market experience.”
It appears they’ve succeeded.
Avery Yale Kamila is a freelancer who lives in Portland, where she writes about health food and shops at the winter market each Saturday. She can be reached at: