Eastern Market vendors — and the market itself — adapt in the wake of COVID-19

After working nearly every Saturday at Eastern Market for the past 11 years, it felt strange to Carlos Parisi to not be there on March 14. He had a cold, and the first cases of COVID-19 had been confirmed in Michigan. So he decided to stay home.

He hasn’t been back at the market since to sell his signature chips, salsa and guacamole through his business Aunt Nee’s. A big part of Parisi’s business entails supplying restaurants and bars, and that has dried up. But sales to stores picked up. At the same time, he has created a Square site to sell chips and salsas for home delivery as well as offer coffee from Anthology Coffee in Eastern Market and beverages from Casamara Club.

Sheryl Gregoire from the People’s Pierogi Collective has been a vendor at Eastern Market since 2008 and she’s still there every Saturday selling her mix of traditional and not so traditional pierogi, from potato to jalapeno popper.

Her ready-to-eat sales are down 75%, she says, but it’s still worth it to come down to the market.

“We have to support the market,” she says. “If all the vendors stopped calling coming, then people stop coming. So I think it's really important to keep going in and support the market and be there for them.”

The market can see as many as 45,000 visitors on a Saturday. But since the pandemic has brought even the most routine things like food shopping to a grinding halt in Michigan and across the country, the numbers have dropped dramatically. “At first when the [statewide shutdown started], we weren’t hitting past 400 shoppers on a Saturday,” says market manager Lonni Thomas. “I’ve never seen a Saturday market that dead, even during a blizzard we hit 2,000 people. Our vendor capacity went from 120 to maybe 30 vendors.”

Parisi and Gregoire, like many vendors at Eastern Market and the market itself, have adapted and pivoted in the wake of the novel coronavirus that has swept through the country.

For example, Parisi’s and Gregoire’s products are available through Eastern Market Partnership’s farm box program offered on Saturdays. Gregoire says while her ready-to-eat sales have taken a hit, her frozen pierogi sales are holding steady, which is helping her to weather the storm. She’s also added online ordering for pickup on Saturdays.

The farm box program has turned out to be an “exploding marketplace,” says Caroline Michniak, Grow Eastern Market program manager. When it was first launched, about 50 orders were placed for the boxes, which feature staple produce from Michigan farmers such as potatoes, onions, and beets with some extras such as parsley seeds or hemp hearts. Shoppers can also add products such as artisanal bread as well as meat, eggs, and other specialty products from vendors. Now the box is consistently selling out as quickly as a few hours of going live on the website, with orders around 325, Michniak says.

“The key mission with the box is to 1) support Michigan farmers and 2) support Michigan food entrepreneurs,” she says.

When the market approached him about participating in the box program Parisi said, “count me in for sure, even if it's just selling 10 salsas, I'm totally down. We've been a staple of the market now for a long time. And I would always want to make sure that our brand is represented at the market. On top of that, you know, if we can add variety to the boxes and give people more of a reason to want to come check it out, and they continue to speak the good word of the market in general, that's part of my mission.”

The plan is to continue the farm boxes for the foreseeable future, Michniak says. The day or format might change, but “we definitely see the interest and want to provide that service to Detroit.”

She adds that the curbside pickup is creating a lasting impact not just on the shoppers but also the farmers and producers who are seeing “that a little bit of innovation can go a long way.”

“I think for a lot of them, they've seen if I can kind of move along the needle and be a little bit more savvy or innovative about the way I'm reaching customers there's a big opportunity,” she says.

As market manager, Thomas mainly focused on non-food markets like the Sunday makers market prior to the pandemic but since COVID-19 she has become more involved in food access programs and community-based projects as well as the market’s Tuesday bulk pickup program. Shoppers can check out a list of items and businesses ahead of Tuesday, and then drive up to the businesses of their choice to purchase their goods and have it loaded into their cars.

It started off with market partner LaGrasso Bros. approaching the partnership about selling bulk produce that needed to be sold or thrown away.

“So we put our minds together and came up with this idea of offering [their produce] to the community at a discounted price,” she says. She estimates about 30 cars lined up that first market day on March 24. By the following Tuesday, about 60 cars had shown up and new businesses were added such as Eastern Market Produce, Milano Bakery, Rocky’s, and more. Word spread and then by the fifth week business took off, with hundreds of cars lining up along Gratiot and waiting as long as three hours.

Andrea Yamarino of Rochester Hills found herself in one of those long lines. Even though she arrived at the market at 11 a.m. and didn’t leave until 3 p.m., she still shops at the Tuesday market because it’s been “a game-changer” for her family of three, all of whom are immunocompromised. She had researched grocery options and was specifically looking for ways to shop in non-enclosed spaces.

“I was very concerned that my family was not going to be able to get healthy food while we were all in quarantine, and Eastern Market doing [the Tuesday drive-through market] has made it so that we can still stay healthy and nutritious and feel safe while getting our food.”

Other than a delivery of dairy and a monthly trip to Costco for snacks, Yamarino says about 70% of her food shopping is done at Eastern Market these days.

The bulk pickup is slated to end at the end of May, Thomas says, as the partnership shifts its focus to the Tuesday markets that begin the first week of June. But the organization is looking to incorporate some of the recent adaptations to the market such as the online ordering as well as curbside service.

Amid COVID-19 food access has become a main priority for the partnership, Thomas says, “which is why the Saturday market never closed. Even when we only have 15-20 vendors on site, they were food essential, [providing] essential needs of the people.”

In addition to the market programs, the partnership has launched other initiatives that address food access, such as distributing boxes to senior centers and dropping off fresh produce to local organizations like Alternatives for Girls, which serves homeless and at-risk girls and young women.

There will be many lingering effects of the pandemic on the food hub. “Social distancing is going to be around for a while, and we have to be prepared to better manage them. So to that extent, some of these new forms of commerce will stick,” says Dan Carmody, president of the Eastern Market Partnership, the nonprofit organization that manages the market on behalf of the City of Detroit.

“Pieces of these programs will more than likely survive in probably somewhat different formats than we're doing today. We were trying these things, sometimes from one week to the next. And so you just try stuff in times of crisis and you learn from it, you try to do better the next week. And that's the spirit that will continue as we work through this. From a sustainability Eastern Market standpoint, and we are about food and people got to eat.”

Shoppers supporting local businesses is one of the things keeping Parisi’s business afloat, he says.

“I am very hopeful that Aunt Nee’s will survive this. I'm not scared. Not scared at all, because at the end of the day, it's a beautiful community that we have here and I'm just happy to be a part of it.”

Perhaps the biggest pivot and ultimate challenge will come with the plans for the 2020 Flower Season. The annual Flower Day, an Eastern Market tradition since 1967, usually takes place the Sunday after Mother’s Day in May but this year was canceled. Instead, the partnership is offering an online ordering platform, which will launch on Sunday, May 24, through which shoppers can place orders for pickup from flower growers. In addition to the online orders, the partnership’s Facebook page will host live streams highlighting flower growers.

Flower Day supports more than 50 Southeast Michigan flower growers, Carmody says, with many of them also growing vegetables later in the system. "They're an important part of the agricultural ecosystem of Southeast Michigan.

"Our mission at Eastern Market is to support local businesses but to do it in a way that's safe for our vendors, our staff, and our customers. And so just as we've done with developing the drive-through Tuesday market or Saturday food box program where people can get the goods they need with limited human contact, we feel compelled to develop those formats. And so really a virtual model for [Flower Season] is just another step in the journey of trying to continue our function of supporting small businesses continue and our function of connecting Detroit residents to healthy food and beautiful plants in a way that responds to the urgency of the coronavirus situation."


Read more articles by Dorothy Hernandez.

Dorothy Hernandez is a freelance writer and editor who frequently writes about food at the intersection of culture and business. She has contributed to NPR, Midwest Living magazine, Eater, and a variety of other publications. Visit her website and follow her on Twitter @dorothy_lynn_h.
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