By Rebecca Jahnke
BU News Service
It’s another Saturday afternoon on Blackstone Street. Shoppers squeeze past tables piled high with rainbows of produce. People shout in Spanish, Portuguese and Boston-accented English. On the perimeter, customers duck into tiny storefronts packed with meats and cheeses.
But where Blackstone Street meets Hanover Street sits another destination for food shoppers: Boston Public Market. Inside the brand-new, warmly lit space, people bustle between smaller displays of pricier, local produce. Tourists swarm samples of cider made from New England apples. Lines form for novelties like Somerville-based Taza chocolate drinks and Phillipston-based Red Apple Farm cider donuts.
Malia Maier, an assistant manager at Boston Public Market, acknowledged that despite the markets’ different products, their close proximity means customers at one market often visit the other.
“Some customers are still confused about the fact that we’re separate markets. I guess that can be a good thing or a bad thing, but it attracts people in here,” Maier said.
While the markets work together, they serve different purposes. Haymarket represents tradition. The Public Market caters to the city’s rising young-professional population. The two represent a clash between old and new attitudes about food.
When Boston launched the Public Market as a year-round outpost for locally sourced food, the intent was to educate the public about food sources, nutrition and preparation, values not stressed at historic Haymarket. Price is more important than whether a product is local or organic at Haymarket, where much of what is offered is not organic and is important from distant farms and sold in bulk.
Despite initial tensions over whether the Public Market would divert business from Haymarket, both are finding audiences among the general surge in area traffic.
“Their prices are even more extravagant than the cheese we get from Switzerland or France,” Kate Laramee, an employee at a Haymarket cheese vendor, said. “Some of it’s organic; most of it’s not. That’s not really a big deal to customers here. When people go there looking for a particular cheese and can’t find it, they find us right around the corner.”
Haymarket produce vendor Salvatore Manella, who has worked his father’s stand since age 12, agreed that many who come for the Public Market end up choosing Haymarket for its prices.
“It used to be old Italian ladies and immigrants shopping here, but that’s a dying demographic. The city is changing,” Manella said. “The fact that the Public Market is bringing college kids and millennials down here to check it out has raised awareness and exposure for us. We’re different. We’re not local. But we have inexpensive produce and good quality for a third the price.”
Haymarket’s quality is just below that of the average food store. Produce comes from the same centers that food stores source from, but it has generally been rejected by those food stores for varying reasons. Stickers may have been placed on packaging upside down, or produce may be older, riper stock left over after food stores had their pick.
Boston’s Public Market follows public markets elsewhere that evolved from outdoor markets, like Baltimore’s Lexington Market and Seattle’s Pike’s Place Market. While these public markets are also hubs for local vendors, some allow imported products. Some like Pike’s Place are part of larger complexes with residents and social services like senior centers, preschools and health clinics.
Boston Public Market vendors’ focus is to cater to a growing population that identifies how a product was grown as a benchmark for quality. That’s not an option at Haymarket.
“They do have a wide variety, but it’s shipped from all over the world. It’s definitely not organic, as well as different growing methods. You have to check labels on packages and really don’t know what you’re getting,” said Emma Westling, an employee of Public Market vendor Harlow’s Vermont Farm Stand.
While Public Market vendors know first-hand the differences between where their products versus where supermarket and Haymarket products are coming from, many residents wander into the Public Market to casually check it out – with friends, for lunch or as tourists. On one hand, these crowds bring surging sales to prepared food vendors.
“People come here because it’s more of an experience,” Red Apple Farm employee Anthony Belculfini said. “The fudge and the doughnuts are the biggest sellers. Business has just been thriving since we opened. It’s only been getting better.”
On the other hand, although non-prepared food vendors are key to the market’s role as a food market and not a food court, they must work harder to attract consistent business.
“If we wanted to, we could fill the market with prepared food vendors tomorrow. But we really do want to focus on fresh food. What we really want to do is get those returned customers doing their weekly shopping here,” Maier said.
These vendors try to compete with lower-priced Haymarket stands by selling customers on the unique ways they produce food, like growing produce without pesticides and ethically raised animals.
“To build a bit more of a customer relationship and get people coming back from around this area, we have to build up what we do,” Stillman’s farmer Renee Stearns said.
According to Stearns, vendors emphasize that higher prices are necessary for independent, small food companies to cover overhead costs and maintain their individualized practices.
“As Americans, we’re used to paying a lot less for food than what it should actually cost. We don’t eat as fresh as we should. The way the American business system is set up, the food industry is very tuned into our business culture,” Stearns said. “At the grocery store you have no idea who is behind making your food.”
Some customers have switched from Haymarket to the Public Market, adopting the Public Market’s definition of quality.
“Price doesn’t matter – you pay for good stuff. Here, tomatoes are ripened from the vine; at Haymarket they look ripe, but are ripened in processing after being taken off the vine,” Public Market customer and Boston resident Russell Kohistani said.
But price does matter to Public Market management that hears customers’ criticisms. The market accepts Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) food stamps and supports Boston’s Bounty Bucks program, which doubles the value of a dollar in the market for food stamp holders. Management is looking to better balance accessibility with ways of explaining how the market’s prices support high-quality products and sustainable practices.
“Sometimes our vendors might not realize they’re expensive. I think those are some conversations we want to have, but pairing that with a way to talk to the public about why it’s more expensive. We’re still working on that language,” Maier said.