Flagstaff Farmers Market used to be a bustling Sunday morning event where people could shop for food, clothes, antiques, plants and just about anything else. With new regulations due to COVID-19, the nature of the market has changed drastically, and vendors and consumers find themselves adapting to the new circumstances.
The market used to take place right outside Flagstaff City Hall, but now it utilizes the parking lot at Flagstaff High School to conduct business because it is private property, said manager Meg Kabotie-Adakai. She said city hall did not want the market to take place on city property for liability reasons pertaining to the ongoing pandemic.
Kabotie-Adakai said another change is the maximum capacity of the market. Currently only 50 people are allowed inside at a time. This number considers the vendors, consumers and workers, which means the foot traffic at the market has decreased significantly. Sue Berliner Owner of b Naked Chocolates Sue Berliner said the reduced number of people is hard on business.
“When it really hit hard was in the spring, which is our busiest time of the year, and we were all just crushed,” Berliner said. “It’s the time that we’re expecting to do really well to bank for the summer. Spring and fall are our busy times, and the numbers in the spring were terrible.”
Although some markets in Arizona stayed open for spring and early summer, the Flagstaff market didn’t open up until the middle of July. Kabotie-Adakai said from May to July, the market solely operated as an online store with curbside pickup. The curbside delivery option remains available for people who don’t feel comfortable shopping at the market.
Market vendor Amelia Blake explained the process of the online store. She said each week, vendors would tell the market operators what they were planning to sell, and those items would be available for purchase Monday through Thursday. After that, the vendors would be notified of what items were sold through the website and would drop the items off to the market so customers could then use the drive-thru option to pick up the items they purchased.
For some business owners, the online model actually worked in their favor. Los Muertos Salsa owner Anthony Perez said despite what’s going on, this has been his best year in sales yet.
“When the pandemic started, we started doing delivery and it took off,” Perez said. “This has been our best year so far. You have to adjust to whatever’s going on around. I think having delivery options available definitely helped us get through it. I definitely feel blessed to be able to still do this through everything.”
Perez said his company was doing around 160 to 170 deliveries a day at their peak. However, not all businesses have been as fortunate. For Berliner, the transition to online sales has been a slower process.
“I don’t have as much assistance,” Berliner said. “I do most of it myself now. I used to have more people working for me, but we don’t have as many markets, so I’m trying to ramp up the online stuff. It’s a slow process. For me, I’m actually building out an auto-ship program for a subscription-based product.”
Other businesses, like Lily of the Field, a local business that sells many different kinds of plants, have opted to let the Flagstaff Farmers Market handle all their online sales through the market’s website.
Blake said she started the business with her husband in February, right before the pandemic hit. Although it might not have been what they expected, Blake said she is optimistic about the future of the company.
“It’s definitely been different than what we originally expected it to be,” Blake said. “But luckily, so many people are gardening with the pandemic that it really helped with our vegetable sales in the spring. It has been more challenging, for sure, to be starting a business this year.”
Besides starting new businesses and keeping preexisting businesses afloat, another challenge for vendors is the market only allows food items to be sold under new regulations. Kabotie-Adakai said certain items were deemed nonessential by the City of Flagstaff, and these items also cannot be sold through the market’s online store.
This regulation keeps many vendors from selling their products at a place where they used to. Kabotie-Adakai said the market used to have about 75 vendors, and right now only about 20 to 30 vendors are allowed to be there.
Memi Perkins is a vendor that relied on selling crafts as an extra source of income, although her main product is grass-fed sheep meat. She said many vendors sell crafts, jewelry and other items on the side to help offset all of the costs that come with selling at farmers markets, and right now they aren’t able to do that.
“Flagstaff particularly has been very harsh in its stance on essential services, but it doesn’t play that across the board,” Perkins said. “They did it with farmers markets, but they didn’t do it with Walmart. You can still buy toys at Walmart, you can still buy arts and crafts and bedding and whatever, and those are not essential if you’re talking about food.”
Perkins said not allowing artisans to sell their work at the farmers market takes money away from the local community. She said people now have to buy from large corporations, which is ultimately hurting the local economy.
“I feel like the municipality specifically loses sight of who they should be protecting,” Perkins said. “If their main objective is protecting the general public with a set of criteria, then that criteria should apply evenly between all of the different industries and all of the different levels of point of sales. The only people that they’re really hurting are small, independent businesses.”
Kabotie-Adakai said the City of Flagstaff determined these regulations when they issued a permit for the Flagstaff Farmers Market. Although these rules negatively impact some vendors, the market has also put other standards in place that are beneficial to some community members.
Kabotie-Adakai said Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards, formerly food stamps, have always been an acceptable form of payment at the Flagstaff Farmers Market. People can use EBT cards to buy tokens, and the rewards system Double Up Food Bucks can be used to purchase produce and other unprepared food items. She also said in the past, the limit on Double Up Food Bucks was $20, but currently, people can buy as many tokens and Food Bucks as they want with no limits. This allows people who use food stamps to get more for their money and helps local farmers as well.
Despite all of the changes, the Flagstaff Farmers Market continues to see more visitors. According to the market’s website, it is open online Monday through Thursday and in person at Flagstaff High School every Sunday from 9 a.m. to noon. Vendors look forward to seeing people come and support local businesses.