ST. PETERSBURG — Mike Silverstein measures the Saturday Morning Market's success with that of his barbecue business. Both are growing.
For Silverstein, 45, and his wife, Marcia, it all started six years ago with tangy barbecue ribs and pulled-pork sandwiches sold from the back of a small flatbed trailer at the market. Since then, his menu at the market has grown to include sweet-chili-glazed smoked salmon, and he has added catering to his services.
And the market? When its seventh season opens on Oct. 4, the festive browsers' mecca will be at a new location: the Al Lang parking lot. And it will be spacious enough to accommodate Silverstein's 20-foot-long trailer and custom enclosed kitchen.
As M-N-M BBQ has gained appeal, so has the market.
"We've evolved as a family business ... and the market has helped with that. It's kind of a success story for us," Silverstein said.
The vendor parking is not all that's new this year. The new location, at First Avenue S and First Street, will have booths that are 2 feet wider, roomier walkways and access to storage space, electrical outlets and garbage facilities. There will be a paved and wheelchair-friendly entryway. Best of all, the parking lot offers room to grow.
It was lack of space that prompted the move from Central Avenue between First and Second streets. Market organizers had long urged city officials to help them move their musical performances and local produce vendors.
"We've been so successful that customers have indicated it's gotten too crowded," said market manager Mark Johnson.
Now, the only drawback is that the future of the historic ball field is in question. The city has granted the market use of the parking lot until May.
Johnson is hopeful. "I anticipate that we will continue to be there," he said.
Al Lang Field has been the subject of much speculation and controversy since the Tampa Bay Rays identified it as a possible site for a new and bigger stadium.
The City Council will hold a special meeting at 2 p.m. Thursday to discuss a zoning amendment that may limit what is built there.
Johnson said the market, the largest in the Southeast, with more than 100 vendors, has been able to thrive and grow year after year because it has the energy of a community meeting place, not just a farmers market.
The expansion was necessary to preserve the intimate quality of the market as it grew, he said.
Statistics Johnson compiled last year show about 6,000 customers attending weekly, with 73 percent from south Pinellas and the remainder from as far as 40 miles away.
Since 2002, the market has grown about 30 percent a year, and weekly sales are estimated at $100,000. Johnson boasts that the same survey found a customer approval rate of 4.83 on a five-point scale. He expects attendance to soar past 10,000 people in a matter of years.
Local officials agree on the market's popularity and that it's good for the city.
City Council Chairman Jamie Bennett said the future of the market at the Al Lang lot depends more on its management, which he praised.
"I've been for it, even prior to all the stadium conversation. It just made all that sense," Bennett said of the new location.
For his part, Silverstein has taken sides in the debate over a new ball field. He prefers things to stay the way they are.
"I don't think the taxpayers are going to be too happy about it," he said of a new and pricey stadium plans. "I'm one of them."