Downtown Market vendors discuss successes, challenges
Collaboration and camaraderie are surprising benefits from the venture.
Downtown Market celebrated its two-year anniversary earlier this month, and a handful of its 23 Market Hall vendors discussed the successes and challenges they’ve experienced since the market opened.
All of the businesses that spoke with the Business Journal indicated they are doing well, but a few of them noted there have been some unexpected challenges to which they have had to adapt, including less foot traffic than expected and a perception in the community that prices are too high.
“My business is going great. I feel like we are doing exactly what I had set out to do,” said Shelby Kibler, owner of Field and Fire.
Field and Fire employs 15 people and sells oven-fresh, handcrafted breads.
Kibler said Field and Fire is making a profit and has become a sustainable business venture; however, he noted the profits are driven more from wholesale sales than retail sales.
“Coming in, I expected I’d do a lot less wholesale than I’m doing, but the sales in terms of my retail dollars haven’t been as high as I’d anticipated so I got the sales I needed by going in a wholesale direction more,” he said.
He said he hopes to see retail sales pick up.
Kibler has benefitted from the collaborative atmosphere of the market.
“We do sell bread to a couple of other vendors in the market,” he said. “That is one of the things I love about being here: We do have relationships with each other and we are feeling like we are on some sort of journey together, even though we are separate businesses.”
Kibler said he hopes to increase local sourcing of ingredients, but noted there are challenges that have to be overcome to do that.
“My goal is to work with farmers more and more who are directly in this community and who can start growing grains for me,” he said. “That is a long-term project because it’s complicated to get that type of system working.
“I have to figure out what kind of grain will work for these farmers and then they have to take a risk in planting it, and it takes years to build up a seed base. So I see this as a long-term goal for Field and Fire, but it’s an exciting goal and it’s one I’ll be working on the next five years.”
Jermale Eddie opened Malamiah Juice Bar with his wife Anissa Eddie, and after two years they are preparing to open a second location in Grandville. With both locations, the business will employ 10 to 14 workers.
“It’s meeting our expectations because we wanted to have a successful business, first and foremost, and we wanted to be involved in the community, and the way we can do this is by our business succeeding. It’s doing that,” Eddie said.
He agreed the business cannot survive on Market Hall foot traffic alone, which is why, in addition to its fresh-made juices and smoothies, the business also does catering, offers 24-hour and five-day juice cleanse product lines, sells its own peanut butter and almond butter, and even offers T-shirts.
Eddie is working to increase foot traffic through getting out in the community and making people aware of the business and Downtown Market.
“We do a lot in the Grand Rapids community,” he said. “We have partnerships with three different schools, we go to health fairs, etc. It’s a form of marketing, and we’re getting some new customers that way.”
Malamiah is one of the vendors taking advantage of Downtown Market’s greenhouses, where the company grows its wheatgrass.
“It was tricky at first; fresh produce has its challenges,” he said. “Now it’s working. We go through about 30-35 trays of wheat grass a month.”
He is also committed to collaborating with other vendors in the hall.
“We go to Spice Merchants for spices, we purchase from Relish, we are working with Tacos El Cunado and Sweeti-licious,” he said.
Malamiah has a partnership with a local urban farm for some of its ingredients.
“Our current partnership is with New City Urban Farms. It is a local inner-city farm on the northeast side of Grand Rapids that hires inner-city kids,” he said. “We get all of our leafy greens, mint, basil and parsley from them.”
Aperitivo is Amy Ruis’ second business venture in Grand Rapids. She also owns Art of the Table on Wealthy Street SE. Aperitivo employs 14 people.
“We are really happy with how things are going,” Ruis said. “Our sales have been better than we thought they ever would be.”
She said retail sales and sales from the wine bar have been equally good.
The business was able to expand its outdoor patio this year, which is helping it keep up with customer demand.
“We doubled its size and that was a huge thing because now we can host larger parties out there and obviously people don’t have to wait as long,” she said.
Tony Montello, who owns Montello Meat Market, said while his family business didn’t start out performing as well as initially expected, he does see improvement and expects it to thrive in the future.
“It’s not what we expected from the standpoint of the beginning, but the growth is happening on a monthly basis, and again we are going in the right direction,” he said.
He noted the key reason the business didn’t take off as quickly as anticipated had to do with less foot traffic than expected, which he said might have been because the wider Grand Rapids community didn’t have a clear understanding of what Downtown Market was and which businesses were located there, due to how the facility was advertised.
Vendors looking to do more counter sales are hoping the opening of Slows Bar BQ and the upcoming opening of Social Kitchen & Bar will drive more business in the door.
“I think all of us felt like that was a part of the lack of sales because two cornerstone businesses that were supposed to be here didn’t show up for two years,” Kibler said. “Now it feels like Slows is drawing regular crowds. Can we see it with sales here? I’m not sure we can yet, but I’ve always felt if we fill those two corners of the building and get more vibrant life going on from the street, it might make it more attractive to stop in.”
As to the perception that products sold at Downtown Market aren’t affordable, vendors and Downtown Market leaders reject that notion, pointing to the quality of the products.
“I’m making baked goods, breads and croissants,” Kibler said. “We use organic flour, we mix by hand, we bake in a wood-fired oven — and yet my prices are no higher than anybody else in my industry.”
Eddie and Montello both believe the community needs more education about why the prices might be higher for some items and how that actually benefits the broader community.
Montello noted his business deals with farmers who are raising animals in a much different way than those raised through the “factory farming” process with which most people are familiar.
“The farms we work with — these animals are raised differently and much better,” he said. “They are raised more humanely, treated better, fed better.”
He said that means the farms’ costs are higher, which adds to the final sticker price of the products.
At the end of the day, Kibler said he hopes people realize there are 23 small local businesses operating in Downtown Market that deserve to be supported like any other small businesses in the community.
“There are hundreds of people working in this market who are passionate about food,” he said. “Let’s not get lost in pointing out all the problems, and forget about the small businesses that are here and rely on people coming here and supporting us in order to keep doing what we are doing.
“Learning more about the vendors and what they do and where they source can help people understand the value.”