A market without crowds

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The Brighton Farmers Market reopened May 24 with social distancing measures.
(Photos by Robert Mantell)

For more than a decade, the Brighton Farmers Market has been a popular gathering space for families and visitors of all ages. This year is different. Market officials had no choice but to limit crowds and adopt other restrictions in order to operate amid a pandemic. 

Known for its local vendors and community atmosphere, the Brighton market—considered an essential business by state officials—reopened on May 24 for its 13th year of operation. New regulations are in place to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus and ensure social distancing measures are taken seriously.

“In conjunction with Supervisor (William) Moehle and the town of Brighton, we worked to figure out how to minimize crowding and have interactions be as safe as possible,” Market Director Sue Gardner Smith says. “That’s how preorder and prepayments came in. … We knew it would help prevent crowding.”

For its opening weekend, all market sales took place online via preorders on each vendor’s website; no walk-ins or on-site browsing were permitted. Preordering is no longer required but remains strongly encouraged.

“We were thrusted to the future faster than we imagined, but our underlying mission hasn’t changed,” Gardner Smith[P1] says.

The preordering structure helps minimize contact with products as well as time spent lingering while shopping. The market continues to update a list on its website of weekly vendor offerings, as well as links to vendors’ sites for online ordering. Customers can use credit cards and cash to make purchases, although credit cards are preferred. 

Regular SNAP and FMNP customers are able to preorder goods and pay using their benefits card rather than physical tokens. The first hour of market operations is reserved for senior citizens and individuals vulnerable to COVID-19. 

Founded in 2008 as a part of Brighton’s Color Brighton Green Initiative, the market operates in the Brighton High School parking lot during summer months and in Brighton’s Brookside Recreation Center in the winter. 

“Our vision is to support and promote local food systems and the farmers that make it happen,” Gardner Smith says. “A lot of farmers and market vendors rely on revenue from the Brighton Farmers Market.” 

Vendors and customers at the market are required to wear face masks.

Vendors offer the community fresh foods and other locally sourced products, none of which are produced more than 50 miles from Brighton. 

“The Brighton Farmers Market is very important to our overall business and the customers are very loyal,” says Paul Loomis of Growing Family Farms, a certified-organic farm in Spencerport. “It’s an anomaly for Rochester markets. It’s at the perfect time on a Sunday morning with entertainment and food. Because it’s a producer-only market, there’s no reselling, which also adds to the quality.”

Market officials have tried to limit crowds by implementing distancing and hygiene measures. 

“We’re trying to avoid activities that cause a congregation of people, so no music and making sure items are prepackaged. Vendors and customers alike must wear face masks,” Moehle says. “Week by week we’re looking at what works and what doesn’t work, and so far, I’ve been very happy with what I’ve seen.”

Moehle also notes that the town actively follows the state Department of Agriculture and Markets’ evolving guidelines.

“We’ve spaced vendors farther apart, added more hand sanitizer, made lines social-distance friendly,” he says.

With stricter rules in place, business was slower than usual for many vendors during the market’s opening weekend. 

Growing Family Farms completed roughly100 transactions compared with the 500 transactions on a typical Sunday at the market, Loomis says. 

“Obviously, opening weekend was very restrictive,” he says. “A lot of folks shop with their eyes and make impulse purchases when things look great.”

Gardner Smith says the excitement surrounding the opening day event typically includes live music, food trucks, and community group engagement, all of which had to be eliminated this year. 

“The town was concerned the event side of things would make the market unsafe,” she says. “We had a light turnout on opening day, which was actually ideal.”

“It was a pretty somber opening day since it’s usually packed and brings a huge social aspect to the market,” Loomis says. “We have a lot of customers that are like family. Everyone talks by name … and it’s very personal. It’s good to see some people and vendors, but it’s not the same.”

However, he recognizes that positive aspects might emerge from COVID-19’s impact, such as increased awareness of food sourcing and supply chains.

“I think people will look for local food,” Loomis says. “I’m noticing a bunch of new customers I haven’t seen before who are amazed by the freshness and quality of the market’s local products.”

The decision to allow on-site sales and ready-to-eat foods came after town and market officials assessed the opening weekend and realized many customers were unhappy being limited to preorders.

“Listening to vendor and customer concerns with those rules in place the first week, we saw it wouldn’t be a viable market season,” Moehle says. “We weren’t meeting people’s needs.”

After opening weekend, officials decided to allow on-site sales and ready-to-eat foods.

Since making the change, town officials have seen an increase in patrons.

“After we lifted the requirements, crowds were higher in the second week,” Gardner Smith says. “We understand people’s preference to pick what they want.”

She hopes the market eventually will be able to welcome back all of its regular vendors that currently cannot be accommodated due to space requirements at the market.

“I think the updates are reasonable since many farmers markets are open with distance rules set up,” Loomis says. “Allowing customers to pick out what they want without actually touching produce is a safe alternative and a good compromise to just online ordering.”

In compliance with New York’s face mask and social-distancing mandates, all market vendors and visitors are required to wear face masks and maintain a six-foot distance between individuals. In addition, all products are prepackaged and market surfaces are disinfected regularly. Shoppers are not allowed to touch any product that they will not be taking home.

“The last thing us growers want is to get people sick in any capacity,” Loomis says. “Normally we’d haven an open display, but now every single item is prepackaged, whether it’s cilantro or a bunch of kale.”

A mainstay at the market is Rochester’s food truck Le Petit Poutine. Known for its fresh Canadian poutine, homemade desserts and craft sodas, the business created a special menu of takeout goods such as biscuits and gravy to-go. Now that market regulations have loosened, the business is back selling its landmark poutine dishes in addition to these a la carte goods.

Gardner Smith and other market officials are pleased with the cooperation of vendors and patrons. 

“Brighton is a great community, and everyone understands the need for these policies,” she says.

Despite mixed feedback, Gardner Smith is optimistic that the preordering system can continue in a post-pandemic world.

“Some of our patrons and vendors like the preordering system for safety reasons or because it’s developing their business in a forward-thinking way,” she says. “Others just found it to be a burden.”

Adds Gardner Smith: “Covid has made everything fluid and unpredictable. We’re trying to move forward cautiously, carefully and as a reflection of what the circumstances are offering us.”

Robert Mantell is a Rochester-area freelance writer. All coronavirus articles are collected here.

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