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August 01, 2008

Market value: Bearspaw Farmers’ Market

One-stop shopping venue supports homegrown wares and charity in Bearspaw

Anne Morris

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Tammy Martel first set up at the Bearspaw Lions Farmers’ Market to make some extra cash to pay for her daughter’s extra-curricular activities.

Now she and her daughter, owners of Meg & Mom, have turned a one-time outing into a booming business and they plan to eventually fundraise with fudge.

“It was a one-weekend deal because my daughter wanted horse back riding lessons,” the 41-year-old says. “It was a totally accidental thing, but the Bearspaw Farmers’ Market is the reason I’m a company now.”
The mother-daughter entrepreneurs, who based their venture on Martel’s preservative-free sucre de crème family recipe, have expanded to offer 12 fast-selling flavours of fudge and are poised to roll out eight more including lavender, ginger cashew, macadamia nut and chocolate and peppermint.

And her daughter still takes those horseback riding lessons, too.

And the variety of goods sold by vendors—from basic fresh fruits and vegetables to ethnic foods, handmade crafts, elk and bison meat, garden gnomes, natural cosmetics, orthopedic footwear and fresh baked items—are also a departure from the mundane.

It’s also what attracts customers, many of them regulars, to the venue run by Lions Club volunteers since 1993.

“I love the bread lady and I like the artisan stuff and I like to support local when I can,” says Pam Collins, a self-professed market-hopper to the Bearspaw haunt and others around the city, who lives in a nearby community.

“The apricot-raisin bread is to die for,” she says of one of her favourite items. “And you have to eat it quickly because there are no preservatives.”

That organic, health-conscious presentation is popular among many of the market’s nearly 100 vendors and goes far in helping attract the up to 3,000 visitors who filter through on a good day.

Tim Petros, who sells white, whole wheat, multi-grain and gluten-free crust options in frozen pizzas, literally does his business out of the back of his truck. A steady stream of intrigued and soon-to-be paying customers watch as he doles out piping hot samples taken from frozen to fresh in 15 minutes off the barbecue, though his wares can also be prepared in a conventional oven.

His foray into perfecting a frozen pizza recipe began about eight years ago when he made pizzas for his nephew’s hockey team and realized they were a hit.

Since then he’s reaped dough from dough, keeping busy but not so much he’ll miss quality time with his family. “I didn’t even think it would be a business,” he says.

Petros began handing out samples—with toppings from gouda to teriyaki chicken, a spinach/feta/artichoke combination and a sausage, ham and cranberry concoction—in shopping malls at first, researching if there would be a market at all for his pizzas. “All of a sudden people wanted to buy them,” he says.

He threw out 500 pizzas before honing his handiwork and, after convincing people to get past the frozen-pizza stigma, he’s found himself a market regular and a faithful following. “Now I can’t make enough,” says Petros, who converted his garage into a high-end kitchen where he prepares up to 200 Tim’s Gourmet Pizzas a day. “When I want to stop to drive my son to football or take my daughter to skating, I can—it’s liberating.”

And at just $35 per Sunday to lease a table at the market, a vendor can set up a budget-friendly business for the entire June-to-September season or sign up for a day to throw out a trial balloon and see how they fare.

An art gallery can, for instance, take up to a 40 per cent cut of an artist’s profits. But Patrick Yesh does just fine selling his pieces at the more low-key Bearspaw market. A freckle-faced pre-teen sits patiently getting her portrait drawn while displayed nearby—and looking more like an art gallery than an outdoor farmers’ market—is a sampling of Yesh’s art from watercolours to oil paintings “The people are so beautiful and friendly and it really draws people from all over,” Yesh says. “The weather is good, the food is good and they appreciate art.”

Yesh, like many fellow vendors, often spends some of what he makes at the market. “Everyday I buy stuff here,” he says. “There are Polish breads and the food my grandmother used to make, they have poppyseed cake and walnut cake, you just can’t find that anywhere.”

That offer of something unique is also available at Natasha Touchinski’s booth, where she pawns a colourful variety of pretty but practical pottery. Her butter bells, artistic creations designed to store butter at room temperature without it going bad, piques the interest of many market-goers who take one home for use in their household or as a gift for someone else.

Long before her bowls, plates, turkey platters and other items make it to the market, Touchinski is already toiling for the season ahead. “I start right after Christmas,” she explains.

But the hard work is all worth it for the opportunity to sell her wares and see about 1,000 of her items, based on whimsical folk art, find new homes by the end of the season.

 “I like that I can sell directly and talk to people,” she says. “I used to sell at galleries and wholesalers but I like interacting with the people.”

Alex Kowalchuk, one of about 40 Lions Club volunteers who make the market happen, says there is a rule requiring vendors to have home-grown products. “It’s stuff either they grow or they make,” he says. “You can’t buy it at the store and sell it here.”

And to that end, there’s the so-called “ladybug lady” who sells novelties inspired by the pretty insect, cat-scratch posts made by 83-year-old Peter Otvos, and everything from Saskatoon pies and salsa to tandoori chicken, homemade dog food and leather goods.

That quaintness, the homegrown and creativeness, seems to have a universal appeal. “It’s nice to see people living off the lay of the land,” says Helen Middleton, a 34-year-old police officer visiting from her London, England hometown. “It’s great,” adds her friend and Calgary host, Pam Wall. “My husband and I come out every Sunday just for a look around and a morning in the sunshine. People are so friendly and it makes you feel like it’s summer.”

Jessica Hughes, making her jewelry while sitting on a lawn chair flanked by daughters Morgan, listening to Hannah Montana on her headset, and Maria, reading a comic book, seems right at home. The woman who makes blown glass jewelry, and was only recently recruited to the market, is already sold on its charm.

“I’ve been an artist my whole life but when I sat down and started melting glass that was it, it was my medium,” gushes Jessica, who turned to her unique twist on jewelry after enrolling in an introductory glass bead-making class. “There is something very meditative and very calming about melting glass and making it in to things.”

She speaks enthusiastically about a display of recycled glass pieces, in which she has taken discarded bits of stained glass from a fellow artist or repurposed glass with former uses and turned it into jewelry.

“I drink a bottle of wine and then smash it up—this was a wine bottle,” she says, showing off one of her pieces. “I really like recycling pieces, the idea that something is made out of something re-used instead of throwing it in to a landfill.”

And whether patrons know it or not, they are also helping a good cause when they support the seasonal haunt’s homegrown wares.

Money raised, up to $70,000 or $80,000 a season, goes to a variety of charities from food banks to sick children and homeless shelters.

Leigh Blackwell, who has worked with the Lions Club for 38 years and also a market volunteer, says it all began with about 12 vendors as a way to make some charity dollars and just took off from there.
“It was a trial-and-error kind of thing and the main reasons it has expanded is the proximity to the city.”

Sandra Pinto, who runs the wildly popular My Bread business and also happens to be one of the original vendors, is a die-hard fan. “I think it’s one of the best kept secrets in the northwest,” she says. “It’s a fabulous market.”

So fabulous Martel, who grew her fudge business on its grounds, plans to one day funnel profits from her sweet success towards a charity, such as a breakfast program or one that feeds the hungry.

“That’s the end goal—to give back to the community,” she says.


Photos by Joanne Chang

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