One year ago, the twelve of us who formed the steering committee of the Wooster Local Food Cooperative, Inc., held a public meeting at the Wayne County Public Library to share our ideas for a year-round local food market in downtown Wooster. Over the course of a very busy year, fraught with setbacks, mad rushes, hard work, and the occasional party, we found enough ongoing support from the community to open Local Roots Market and Cafe and to start growing the business even before the 2010 harvest season truly kicked in.
Is it any wonder, then, that we felt the need to mark the occasion?
"What a Community Can Do Together"
On May 15, we held a Grand Opening for the market, inviting the community to join us. Sure, we had seven weeks of an indoor farmers' market in November and December and have since been open as a retail food establishment for three and a half months, so "Grand Opening" is something of a misnomer. Still, everyone has worked so hard to bring us to this point that we couldn't resist throwing a little celebration to thank the community for cultivating Local Roots.
Market manager Jessica Eikleberry, one of the founding members of the group, described the event as "a celebration of what a community can do together," illustrated by the thank-you sign posted prominently in the market (seen above). Many local businesses generously donated time, labor, and resources to Local Roots, as noted by the several logos shown on the sign. And of the nearly 400 members of the cooperative, a long list of volunteers demonstrated the added commitment of community members who want to see the business flourish. Without the volunteers, who staff the market, help with cleaning and renovations, and fill many other needs of the business, the market simply would not exist, period.
The board of directors worked together to organize and publicize the event, though the bulk of the work fell to Eikleberry in her managerial role, and several cooperative members contributed to the festival atmosphere of the day:
Producers Spring into Action
Though local outdoor farmers' markets are only just beginning to open for the season with limited quantities of produce, the shelves at Local Roots have steadily filled over the past few weeks. Several of our producer members have grown greens, roots, and other fresh vegetables over the winter in their high tunnels, hoop houses, and greenhouses, and that persistent work resulted in a glorious palette of greens for customers to savor for the Grand Opening. In fact, some of our producers are so ahead of "schedule" in terms of seasonal produce, we had strawberries, tomatoes, and zucchini available by mid-May!
While many producer members pushed to harvest, bake, or collect a bountiful array of products for the Grand Opening, others set up tables in the meeting room in order to offer samples of new products. Customers mobbed the "tasting room" for a chance to catch the flavor of local milk, spelt tabouli, locally-roasted coffee, German cakes, various meats (from turkey and sausage to lamb bratwurst), artisan cheese, rich cheesecake, and more. Those willing to linger a little longer found a corner set up for a cozy tea party with Hungarian pastries, an enchanting interlude for young and old alike.
As with many other market days, both inside and out, people tended to linger as they shopped: talking with friends and neighbors, visiting with the producer members, taking their time to select their food for the week, and sitting in the cafe area up front to sip their coffee or tea, munch on a snack from the coffee bar or the demo kitchen, and chat with others. All along, we've hoped to make Local Roots a community gathering place, and it looks as though we've met that need admirably.
With so many people coming through the store and buying so much, of course, we knew to expect that the checkout lines would be long and slow. Fortunately, with so much activity in the lower quadrant, plenty of fresh air breezing through the open garage door, and more chance to socialize in the line, people waited with little complaint. And each person who visited the market received a "Cultivate Community" sticker and a chance to win one of a few dozen door prizes, from Local Roots-logo tote bags and gifts from producer members to donated items or gift certificates from local businesses.
By the end of the day, those of us who had spent the whole day there –- or participated in readying the market for the event -– experienced both exhaustion and elation. Shelves that had spilled over with products in the morning were left nearly empty by closing, and the word circulated that we had topped our sales record by noon. (We did, indeed, set a new weekly record for sales -- and look forward to growing that number as the harvest season progresses!)
Sustaining the Roots
We have a long, long way to go, of course, to keep Local Roots growing and moving toward sustainability. Open now on Fridays from 12 noon to 7 PM and Saturdays from 9 AM to 3 PM, we hope to add an additional day or two over the next few months in order to expand our customer base and increase sales. We received our approval for the SNAP (state food assistance) program and need to review the details before we advertise its availability through local social service organizations. We're still planning to install a commercial kitchen and are both collecting and searching for the funds to make it happen. We have room for more producer members with unique items (though we now have local sources for a variety of grains, more canned products such as salsa, and more seedlings and plants), and we always invite more customers to become members (and thus financial supporters of the cooperative). We have other ideas for future events and hope to make more connections among the community. We may even find that some of our time is devoted to giving other similarly hopeful groups a helping hand so that other year-round local foods markets can take root in other communities.
As Russ Parsons noted in a recent L.A. Times article, making local food available in a more efficient business model will require more infrastructure as well as making the market "a permanent hub for the whole community." We don't claim we've got that down pat, and we've got more work to do. But these Roots are growing deep and strong, thanks to the generous cultivation we've received from the community.