Wednesday, February 21, 2018
Events

Vendors, shoppers find a niche at open markets across bay area

PORT RICHEY

Mary Jo Rodriguez had been up at the crack of dawn baking bread with the hope that locals would venture out for the Sunday afternoon opening of the Market on the Bayou.

"Bread is the big seller," she said, after tending to a customer at her vendor tent. "After that it's muffins and cookies, then brownies."

Rodriguez, a former body builder, delved into the business of organic, vegan and gluten-free baked foods after researching healthy diet trends. Two years into it, her Better Baked Goods business is "busting at the seams," building a presence at fresh markets in Tampa, St. Petersburg, Safety Harbor, New Port Richey and Spring Hill.

Now, she's pitching her tent at a newer venture at Gill Dawg Marina along Pasco's scenic coastal estuary in Port Richey.

Rodriguez has high hopes that the Market on the Bayou will finally get off the ground after a somewhat rocky launch last spring. Gill Dawg tested the waters with a mid-week twilight offering that didn't pan out for vendors, Rodriguez said. Saturdays were considered, but vendors with conflicting gigs were reluctant to give up a spot at more established markets.

That included Rodriguez, whose bread sells out at the Hernando County Farmer's Market each Saturday just up the road in Spring Hill.

The pet-friendly Gill Dawg location is perfect for Sundays, Rodriguez said, noting the foot traffic from those lunching or grabbing a beer at the marina Tikki Bar and Grill and others capping off a kayak venture on Miller's Bayou by browsing the modest rows of vendor tents lined up around the sand volleyball court.

Offerings on the inaugural Sunday included local produce, jams and honey, dog treats, handcrafted soaps and crafts, some rather aromatic teriyaki chicken cooked on a grill, along with tunes sung by musicians on a 45-foot grounded sailboat that's been converted to a stage.

Around Tampa Bay, the open market concept has been a good bet for cottage businesses not ready for a brick and mortar storefront.

"I love interacting with my customers and educating people to let them know what's important," said Annie Christensen, of Annie's Sweet Organics. She started making her own soaps to soothe her daughter's eczema and ended up giving samples to friends who urged her to start her own business. Now she produces about 70 organic personal products including shampoo bars, body lotions and diaper creams.

"I make everything here," she said. "Every product has a story."

The fresh market has plenty appeal to customers, too.

Crista Ryan, 69, lives in Hudson, but come Saturday morning, she treks to the Hernando County Farmers Market where, depending on the season, 40 to 70 vendors set up in the Rural King parking lot to sell Amish cheese, fresh produce, baked goods, Greek olive oil, heirloom seeds, natural dog treats, jewelry and fresh guacamole made right on the spot for those who want a taste.

"I always come for the fresh tomatoes. The tomatoes are fresher (than store bought). I think and they're also cheaper," she said, adding that the Yahla Bakery tent, that brings fresh bread and other baked goods from Leesburg, is another favored stop. "You really can't get German bread like this anywhere around here," she said.

Jodi Parresol of Spring Hill, owner of Dog Gone Healthy, opened the Hernando County Farmers Market three years ago with Tammy Patrick and Desiree Canora. Parresol sells homemade dog and cat treats made from natural, human-grade products. Canora is the proprietor of Florida Backyard Vegetable Gardener, and with Patrick, sells heirloom seeds and plants grown in her Brooksville home garden.

"This time of year it's a little slower," Parresol said. "We stay busy, though. It's enough to keep us all standing out in the heat."

Daniel Gardner of Spring Hill typically shops with his wife Sue to pick up produce and a bag of Amish cheese curds. It's a taste of home for Gardner, who grew up near a cheese factory in Kansas. "My dad used to buy a couple of bags each week," Gardner said. "They're great on crackers and easy to spread."

He recently shopped with his three grandchildren and his daughter Katie , a first-timer who purchased a bracelet made out of a silver spoon as a birthday gift for her sister.

"We like coming here," Gardner, said. "It supports the local businesses and small businesses. It's something to do."

Michele Miller can be reached at [email protected] or at (727) 869-6251. Follow @mimichele525.

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