Farmers Markets Develop Seattle’s Next Generation of Restaurants

By Allecia Vermillion May 18, 2012 Published in the June 2012 issue of Seattle Met

When the Broadway Farmers Market returned for the season in April, the line for Kedai Makan, a new Malaysian food stand, stretched across three neighboring stalls as Alysson Wilson and Kevin Burzell garnished coconut rice with sambal, curry, peanuts, and egg for curious marketgoers. The couple’s goal: Convert Kedai Makan into a restaurant within five years.

While the heavy hitters of Seattle’s food truck community, including Skillet and Where Ya At Matt, have parlayed mobile kitchens into stationary ones, Burzell and Wilson decided a tent and some induction burners would propel them faster than four wheels.

Not that it’s an easy route. Farmers markets remain the best place to scope the next generation of Seattle food names, but scoring a stall is akin to acceptance to a competitive private school. The number of nonfarmer vendors is capped at 30 percent, and the Neighborhood Farmers Market Alliance gets more applicants than it can accept. The cost—$35 to $50 per market day, plus 8 percent of sales—is just a sliver of the cash required for a truck and mandatory commissary kitchen.

“If you’re going to pay rent on a kitchen, you might as well have a restaurant or a counter in front of it,” says Art Stone, who sells his Honest Biscuits at several markets. Savvy vendors can also gather intel before plunging into a savings—draining truck or restaurant project; Stone never thought of selling packs of take-home biscuits until marketgoers requested them. And food trucks may clean up with the workweek lunch crowd, says Nancy Oltman of Pampeana Empanadas, but at the unhurried market “we get the whole family.” Lots of families. During peak season at the University District, the city’s largest market, attendance can reach 4,000 people in a five-hour span.

The idea of market as incubator has been around almost as long as the markets. Well-known shops and restaurants like Veraci Pizza, Tallgrass Bakery, Belle Epicurean, and Anita’s Crepes all began as market stalls. Newer vendors like Hot Cakes and Rachel’s Ginger Beer have followed suit.

“You’ll open your doors to a long line of people who already know what you have to offer,” says Rachel Marshall, who started selling her namesake ginger beer at markets in 2010. She and a partner opened a bar on Capitol Hill called Montana last December and are already expanding into an empty space next door.

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