This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Market at Pepper Place, a non-profit organization sustained by the generosity of its sponsors and members. Sloss Real Estate bought the first buildings there in the late 80’s with the intent of revitalizing the neighborhood and attracting people back to downtown Birmingham. But it wasn’t until the opening of the Market in 2000 that we began to see real change take place. The connection to our farmers was inspiring and a true partnership developed because of the Market between Alabama farmers, artisans, Birmingham chefs and other city dwellers.
The relationship proved to be mutually beneficial. Farmers provided Market shoppers with fresh healthy foods. Founding board members Frank Stitt and Franklin Biggs began challenging the farmers to grow different and more interesting varieties of crops, and to develop more sustainable growing practices. This in turn allowed them to charge more money for their produce. Meats and cheeses were added later and Birmingham restaurants began to build their menus from farm to table, gaining them a national reputation for exceptional southern cuisine.
The Market also helped the farmers, who were joined by Alabama artisans and other purveyors, to test their products and build their business practices. All this occurred at a time when small family farms were threatened by suburban development and competition from agribusiness and our small local businesses were struggling. Over the years, the Market grew into a huge success locally and was recognized nationally as one of the best farmers markets in the country.
If you visit the Market at Pepper Place today, because of COVID-19, you will see a very different model. Unlike the now familiar festive atmosphere — created by white tents, thousands of weekly shoppers with dogs and children, live music and cooking demonstrations — the Market is a drive-thru “contactless” experience with farmers wearing rubber gloves and masks. You preorder/prepay online for your foods and just pop your trunk (so a farmer can fill it with your orders) before you drive away. No walk ups or cash are allowed. Not as much fun, but a life saver for our farmers and a gift to our shoppers, who can continue to access locally grown, fresh produce, meats, cheeses and homemade breads. That’s about as short as a food chain can get, without growing it yourself. The Market has launched a new website that provides one-stop shopping and will add a home delivery option soon. Not surprisingly, in spite of this new structure, the market remains congenial, and everyone still feels a strong sense of community and support. Shoppers wave, shout hellos and thanks as they drive through and offer enthusiastic reviews online.
Best of all, our farmers are selling more than they would at a regular market, helping them make up for lost restaurant orders.
This model has also been embraced by other food-related tenants at Pepper Place and helped them continue selling, in partnership with the Market, making up for lost sales.
As the COVID-19 situation continues to evolve, our extraordinary board of directors and Market team will keep looking for innovative ways to expand, accommodate more farmers and better serve our community. We acknowledge the Market’s 20th anniversary with hopefulness. As long as we can continue to adapt to the challenges that face us, we will survive and thrive.
Cathy Sloss Jones is president and CEO of Sloss Real Estate.