Volume 73, Number 3 | May 19 - 25, 2004

A special Villager supplement

Market doesn’t plan to wilt in face of challenges

By David H. Ellis

Villager photo by Robert Stolarik

In the Union Sq. Greenmarket.

It’s rare nowadays that Susan Sonneborn gets to shop at the Union Sq. Greenmarket anymore. Now living in New Jersey, Sonneborn, a West Village transplant, will sometimes go two months before she can pick up some organic asparagus or flowers from the vendors that occupy the park four times a week.

“Now, it’s a treat,” says Sonneborn, who frequented the market on a weekly basis when she lived in Manhattan. “It’s so great, the feeling of getting it from the source.”

Since its creation in 1976, the Union Sq. farmers’ market revolutionized how local shoppers like Sonneborn get their fruits, vegetables, cheeses and even meat by allowing them to buy directly from small farmers who come from as far as Pittstown, N.J., or Pleasant Valley, N.Y., in Dutchess County.

Over the past year, despite two leadership changes at the governing Greenmarket program, talk of proposed construction on the northern end of the park and the scheduled opening of a 47,000-sq.-ft. Whole Foods in the Bradlee’s building on 14th St. at the south end of the square, the Union Sq. Greenmarket remains the sturdy flagship of the city’s Greenmarket program, continuing to flourish and sloughing off challenges.

“The market has been evolving for nearly 30 years and it will continue to evolve to serve growers and consumers,” says Tom Strumolo, Greemarket’s new director. “That’s the mission of the Greenmarket in the city of New York.”

Strumolo, a 21-year veteran of the Greenmarket program, was recently promoted to director in January, replacing Nina Planck, who filled that role for only five and a half months.

One particular area of the market that faces potential change is the wide plaza on the northern border of the park, between 17th St. and the park’s pavilion building, where dozens of market vendors congregate during the four days a week the market operates. There has been discussion among the Parks Department, representatives of Greenmarket and the Union Square Partnership business improvement district group during the past year to build a fountain and possibly refurbish the current asphalt surface in the plaza.

According to Henry Choi, director of public affairs with the Union Square Partnership, this development is still in a preliminary stage. But he said the Partnership believes the project is necessary to complement the appearance of the plaza at the square’s southern end, which was recently expanded and fully renovated. Even though the construction is not expected to affect the vendors, Choi said that when the final decision is made, the concerns of the farmers will definitely be heard.

“The workers there are an extraordinarily visible and vocal group,” said Choi. “Everyone has to listen to their needs since they have become such an important aspect of the neighborhood and for bringing people in.”

As rehabilitation of the park’s northern end is debated and plans finalized, four new businesses, including the three-story Whole Foods, are scheduled to move into the Bradlee’s building at the southeastern corner of University Pl. and E. 14th St. Yet, the national grocery store chain, which offers organic fruits and vegetables and such items as artesian breads, does not pose a threat, say farmers and Greenmarket leaders. Not only are they not worried about the chain store luring away customers, they are actually welcoming the store’s arrival

“If anything it will bring more people to the neighborhood,” says Strumolo about the store slated to open next winter. “We welcome them and they’re going to bring a lot of people to the area. To me it’s an opportunity for growers.”

Chip Ball, who sells greenhouse tomatoes at the Union Sq. Greenmarket for Berry Knoll Farms in Stockport, N.Y., believes that the opening of Whole Foods won’t affect growers like himself since they cannot match the quality of his product.

“You can’t get these in the store because even in a store they’ve been shipped,” says Ball. “Even if it is a good retail outlet, it can be hard to get food that is this fresh. These were picked yesterday.”

David Distler, president of Friends of the Greenmarket, also expressed confidence that the farmers’ market can weather the opening of Whole Foods.

“There’s concern about Whole Foods but we just have to stick to our thing and do it better,” he said. “They can’t beat what we bring.”

He assured the community will be there for the market: “This is a group that comes to life when we have a crisis.”

Choi said the BID feels that having Whole Foods plus the Greenmarket will benefit both, making the area even more of a food mecca and destination. He said they’re hearing Whole Foods may even be considering using the Greenmarket farmers to supply some of the store’s produce.

On most Saturdays, the market’s busiest shopping day, love-struck couples, elderly women with pushcarts and astute foodies stroll between the vendor booths, pausing to glimpse at the different offerings some farmers have driven nearly two hours to peddle. Garlic jelly, Cuban oregano, hot pepper plants and clam potpies are all as close as a shopper’s wallet.

According to Union Sq. senior market manager Davy Hughes, it is this variety of food offerings that has grown the Monday, Wednesday and Friday market days and placed the Saturday market at capacity with nearly 72 vendors. In fact, he believes that it is this singular factor, variety, that continues to drive the success of the market.

“We’re always looking for something new and new products that draw people in,” says Hughes. “Customers are very savvy — they know what they want and they usually know how it’s raised or grown.”

Strumolo says that the growth or these niche products is a result of an interactive relationship between the farmer, local chefs and curious, epicurean customers.

“Growers need to diversify to increase profits. Chefs have a need for new products and to be diverse and the customer has the demand for it,” he says. “It’s a simple business model.”

Tim Tonje, who sells yogurt and ricotta and mozzarella cheeses from Tonje’s Farm Dairy in Callicoon, N.Y., is one of the newest additions to the market. Over the past year, he switched from milk to cheese production and earned a weekend spot at Union Sq. because there are so few vendors selling these types of dairy products at the city’s greenmarkets. “It’s a good move,” he says about he decision to come to Union Sq. “Just a lot of exposure.”

Peter Hoffman, owner of the Savoy Restaurant in Soho, shops at the market three times a week and incorporates his purchases into his restaurant’s Mediterranean-influenced cuisine. What has kept him coming back is the freshness and diversity that the growers have to offer.

“We try to buy directly from the producers and they help keep us inspired as cooks,” he said about the experience.

Despite the shakeup inside and outside the market at Union Sq., things look positive for the hub of the greenmarkets and the entire organization. Strumolo plans to open six more Greenmarkets across the city by July, and is focusing on improving the program’s visibility and infrastructure through brochures, tents and new managers.

“There’s always room for improvement — the history of Greenmarket is about constantly improving,” he said. “We just keep working to improve and encourage this as a place for the city of New York to shop.”


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