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As grocery store shelves empty, Tampa Bay farmers and markets find new customers online

Large farmers markets were forced to close, but they’ve found success with online ordering and drive-through pickups.
Holly Leist of Little Pond Farm loads a box of preordered produced into a customer's car at the retooled Saturday Morning Market in St. Petersburg on March 21.
Holly Leist of Little Pond Farm loads a box of preordered produced into a customer's car at the retooled Saturday Morning Market in St. Petersburg on March 21. [ BOYZELL HOSEY | Times ]
Published Mar. 31, 2020
Updated Apr. 1, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG — Things are looking different at the Saturday Morning Market. There are no musicians playing, and no one is dancing. There are no parents pushing strollers, no dogs, no children. There are no lines queued around the empanada stand. In fact, there is no empanada stand at all.

Though it might look very different, St. Petersburg’s popular weekly farmers market is still there. But now, cars drive through it, passing by a few small tents where staff from local farms have set up a temporary distribution center during the coronavirus pandemic.

“There’s nothing to look at besides trucks and bags,” said Gail Eggeman, who manages the downtown market and has helped lead the pivot to an entirely online model.

“Anything at the market has to be preordered and prepaid for," she said. “There’s no music, there’s no tables, there’s no walking around — there’s nothing. But it’s working.”

On a recent Saturday, a customer drove up to one of the tents, rolled down the window and flashed a receipt. They popped their trunk, and a market staffer swiftly dropped in a crate brimming with fresh strawberries and scallions, radishes and sunflowers. A smile and a wave, and the customer was on their way.

Luke Talalaj of Worden Farm loads a bundle of preordered sunflowers for a customer at the Saturday Morning Market in St. Petersburg.
Luke Talalaj of Worden Farm loads a bundle of preordered sunflowers for a customer at the Saturday Morning Market in St. Petersburg. [ BOYZELL HOSEY | Times ]

The farmers market is the largest of its kind in the Southeast, attracting thousands of shoppers on an average Saturday morning, who arrive in throngs for the promise of fresh Florida produce, artisan baked goods, craft vendors and musical entertainment. For local farmers and producers, the market has been a lifeline. During the busy spring months, it provides the lion’s share of their income.

Like all other events that attract large gatherings and crowds, the market was forced to shutter several weeks ago amid state-mandated closures to help curb the spread of the coronavirus. That, coupled with the restaurant closures throughout the area, seemed poised to threaten the livelihood of many local farmers.

But instead, a complete pivot to online ordering and drive-through pickup has helped many stay afloat during these uncertain times.

Related: Tampa Bay restaurants try to adapt to an unprecedented crisis

The market’s new model launched with 15 vendors, including six local farms, and all of the ordering is done online. Guests can order directly from their farm of choice, linked on the main market’s website, and pick up their orders Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon in the Al Lang Stadium parking lot.

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, or EBT/ SNAP cards, are accepted by both the farmers and the online vendors, and the market has also partnered with the Daystar Life Center for a separate Thursday online market.

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Luke Talalaj of Worden Farm arranges a box of preordered produced at the Saturday Morning Market. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the St. Petersburg market, like many other businesses, has shifted to an online model.
Luke Talalaj of Worden Farm arranges a box of preordered produced at the Saturday Morning Market. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the St. Petersburg market, like many other businesses, has shifted to an online model. [ BOYZELL HOSEY | Times ]

“Our distribution model has changed completely,” said Ellen Turner, who together with her husband Cole runs Little Pond Farm in Sumter County. Though there has been a dip in some of their wholesale accounts, the majority of Little Pond Farm’s profits still come from the St. Petersburg market, where they now sell preordered boxes for $28 filled with everything from strawberries and turmeric to peppers and eggplants to broccoli and cauliflower — whatever is fresh and available that day.

“We try to make it so there is a little bit of everything that you would need to make most meals,” Turner said. “We’re definitely taking a substantial hit. But the sales of the boxes is keeping us afloat. It’s keeping the bills paid and keeping the payroll going."

Brick Street Farms in St. Petersburg is another local grower and market that has been busy lately.

The indoor hydroponic farm recently moved from its original space to a much larger 1,800-square-foot warehouse down the street — an expansion that had been in the works for months when the first cases of COVID-19 were reported in Florida. Herbs, greens and microgreens are still grown on-site at 2233 Third Ave. S, and a popup market — open Wednesday through Saturday — acts as a one-stop shop for products sourced from local farms and small producers. Customers can find pantry staples like honeys and vinegars, plus vegetables and fruits like tomatoes, yams, squash and blueberries.

The new popup store at Brick Street Farms stocks both lettuces and herbs grown on site as well as other pantry items from local farms and producers.
The new popup store at Brick Street Farms stocks both lettuces and herbs grown on site as well as other pantry items from local farms and producers. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

Because the market is considered an essential business, it can remain open, and the increased space allows for better social distancing, said owner Shannon O’Malley. The market allows phone and online orders, with a curbside pickup service for customers who might not feel comfortable shopping in public right now.

The company, which until recently had a “Tampa Bay first” focus when it came to sourcing, has since had to expand regionally and now includes the entire state of Florida.

“There’s been a huge increase in demand,” O’Malley said.

One clear benefit amid the current crisis, many farmers said, has been an increased focus from consumers on fresh and local produce. More attention is now spent on where the food comes from. For many consumers, smaller feels safer right now.

Shannon O'Malley, co-founder of Brick Street Farms, shows off a container of baby greens in her new popup store at 2233 Third Ave. S in St. Petersburg.
Shannon O'Malley, co-founder of Brick Street Farms, shows off a container of baby greens in her new popup store at 2233 Third Ave. S in St. Petersburg. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

Some local farms are even selling — and delivering — directly to customers.

Travis Malloy, who runs TrailBale Farm in Temple Terrace, said he’s kept his business going by selling preordered boxes at the Saturday Morning Market as well by dropping off boxes of chicken, eggs, pork and grass-fed beef right outside customers’ homes.

“I give everyone the option to leave a cooler out," Malloy said. “It’s all very hands-off. It’s made business a little harder from an organizational standpoint, but I think my numbers are pretty much the same.”

Both Malloy and Turner attributed the sparked interest in online ordering and delivery to a public increasingly wary of grocery stores, where it can be hard to social distance from crowdsand the food supply is less reliable.

Rowland Milam, who runs Life Farms in Clearwater, said that although the economic backlash caused by COVID-19 “took a whack out of” their revenue stream, the business has been able to stay afloat by using a new online ordering system and a drive-through pickup method, where customers can pick up boxes of produce and flowers right from the farm Friday, Saturday and Monday mornings.

The effort has attracted new repeat customers who have become quick fans of the farm’s fresh produce, Milam said.

“They’re finally realizing what we’ve been trying to tell them for years,” he said. “Buy local.”

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