Once considered a hub of New Orleans food, the French Market is now working on a new plan to make more fresh local produce, seafood and homemade goods available under its roof and across its grounds.
The board of directors of the city-run French Market Corp. this week approved a cooperative endeavor agreement with Market Umbrella, a local nonprofit that produces the Crescent City Farmers Market.
As part of the partnership, Market Umbrella will run a weekly, yearround farmers market at the French Market, slated to begin in the fall. At the same time, Market Umbrella will lend its expertise in managing fresh-food retail operations and community markets to help enhance the French Market as a food destination overall.
Jon Smith, executive director of the French Market Corp., said the goal is to give residents and visitors more reasons to visit and shop at the historic public marketplace.
“We’re not trying to recreate what the French Market was in the past; we’re trying to bring it what it needs today,” Smith said.
Part of the plan is to create a marketplace for the city’s growing ranks of small-scale producers of artisanal food products, from baked goods and fresh pastas to sauces and syrups.
“There are a lot of people out there starting these kinds of businesses, maybe in their kitchens, and we want to give them a way to take it further,” said Kathryn Parker, executive director of Market Umbrella.
She said the French Market could become “an incubator” for these types of businesses, giving them a venue to test out products and ideas on farmers market days with the hope that some will grow into full-time French Market vendors.
Though best known for the three weekly farmers markets it runs around New Orleans, Market Umbrella also provides research and how-to guides to other markets of all types around the country. For instance, it was a regional pioneer in developing systems for market vendors to accept payment from people using the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the government assistance program commonly called food stamps. Those systems will be part of the new farmers market at the French Market as well.
The French Market dates to 1791 and it has long had an appeal for both residents and visitors that goes beyond filling their shopping baskets, as local historian Sally Reeves described in a piece for FrenchQuarter.com.
“They loved its diverse peoples, colorful sights and pungent aromas, the social experience, and the stimulation of shopping partly indoors and partly outdoors,” Reeves wrote. “People came from miles around to stroll among the vendors’ stands and see what earth and sea had wrought with lots of help from produce makers.”
While flea market stalls for souvenirs and retail shops now take up much of the French Market’s real estate, both Parker and Smith were enthusiastic about the partnership’s potential to draw more residents and visitors with food.
“A lot of chefs shop at our other markets, and there are a lot of restaurants nearby in the French Quarter. I think they’ll be thrilled to have another market nearby,” said Parker.
The French Market hosted a weekly edition of the Crescent City Farmers Market from 2004 until Hurricane Katrina. That market attracted fewer vendors and shoppers than the other local farmers markets, which Smith chalked up to a lack of marketing resources at both the French Market and Market Umbrella at that time. He’s confident that today both organizations are better equipped to promote and develop the weekly market day. For instance, the French Market now has an events stage where it plans to schedule live entertainment and cooking demonstrations on its new farmers market days.
Smith, who took the helm at the French Market in September, has his own, very personal experience in farmers markets. Earlier in his career, he owned the Mid-City wine shop Cork & Bottle, which shared a parking lot with the Thursday edition of the Crescent City Farmers Market.
That market didn’t immediately return as Market Umbrella regrouped after Katrina, but in 2008, Smith started his own market on the site, called the Mid-City Green Market, to serve what he saw as a community need at the time. In 2010, he handed management of the start-up over to Market Umbrella, which rebranded it as the Crescent City Farmers Market.
“It made me realize what a community-galvanizing event a farmers market can be,” Smith said of that experience. “It also showed how much work goes into it and how much you need someone managing it day to day. That’s why we wanted to partner with (Market Umbrella) for this. There’s no way we could do this without the expertise they’re bringing.”
Research to determine the best day and time and other operational details of the market will begin in June, and the groups intend to launch their new farmers market day in October.
“We’ll find out what’s the mix that is going to meet the demand here,” said Parker.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.