Meadville Market House: Local Market House Growing, attracting new customers

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Meadville Tribune reporter Mary Spicer reports on the success of the Meadville Market House
March 14, 2009

Anyone looking for a grim economic forecast should be advised to stay away from Meadville Market House.

Truth be told, Market Master Alice Sjolander is downright bullish on the historic structure.

"Things are going very well at the Market House," Sjolander said during a recent interview, noting that sales through the facility's central cashier were not only up substantially in 2008 but have continued to rise into the new year.

January sales, for example, were 11 percent higher than the total for January 2008 and February sales were expected to show a similar improvement.

As Sjolander sees it, a combination of factors are at work. For starters, under the banner of "we specialize in local, organic and gourmet foods," the selection of items available on the indoor sales floor all year round has increased dramatically in recent years.

However, according to Sjolander, "The main reason (numbers are up) is that people are shopping more locally. We have the same kind of products that people were previously purchasing up in Erie. Now they know they can purchase them locally - save a little gas - and that really helps as far as the local economy is concerned."

A bit of promotion hasn't hurt, either. For example, Holiday Trees of Meadville - community-decorated trees that surround the building during the Christmas season  - "makes the Market House look like a Christmas card," Sjolander said. "People come in - we've gotten a lot of new customers because of that."

As for outdoor sales, which usually get off to a start during April and swing into gear in May, "I feel that it's going to be a great season," she added. "The weather's been really nice (from a grower's perspective). I think we're really going to have a bumper crop this year as far as local produce is concerned."

Meadville Market Authority President John Clendenin, who also happens to be an outdoor vendor during the growing season, is also feeling optimistic. "I'm looking for the Market House to keep growing and to attract more customers," he said. "We want more and more people to be aware that the Market House is here, how much fun Saturday is - and how much great stuff is available here in the summertime."

A growing selection

When it comes to making the distinctive red-brick building at 910 Market St. a terrific place to shop, this market master's only just begun.

As the building's reputation as a successful market has grown, for example, so has the list of interested vendors.

"We're getting a lot of interest from people in Ohio - particularly Amish and Mennonites - who are interested in coming to this market because they really don't have a viable one there," she said, noting that the list of possible "imported" offerings includes produce, baked goods and even some handmade wooden products. "They're within a close radius of the Market House, so if they want to come over from Ohio, we'll welcome them, here," she said.

Local farmers who are already supplying the Market House are also gaining from the growing reputation. "We're getting more chickens," Sjolander said. "As we get more customers, people are producing more meat to meet market demand." And when someone asks, "Do you know where this came from?" she has a quick answer: "Yes. I do."

Adding value, growing profit

While fresh seasonal produce has - and will remain - a major attraction for many Market House shoppers, "value-added" - something added to the product before it's offered to the customer - has become one of the decade's most popular phrases.

In Market House terms, valueadded popularly refers to taking home-grown produce into the kitchen and transforming it into something wilh a substantially longer shelf-life.

Before the 2009 market season begins. Sjolander expects to have a new feature in place that will make doing just that substantially easier for local fanners. A soon-to-be-announced grant will enable a shared kitchen to be established in the Market House.

 Once the kitchen is in place, "our local farmers will be able to process their local vegetables and fruits into things like jellies and jams and hot sauces," Sjolander explained! "We hope, that one ofthe ways they pay us fir using the kitchen is that a percentage of their product will be "Market House" labeled - and then all the money from the sale of that product will go toward the sustainability of the Market House."

Not willing to rely strictly on income generated from "Sunday chefs." however, "we have other irons in the fire, so to speak," Sjolander explained. One option, she continued, would be to bring in an anchor business that would use the kitchen, generating an ongoing stream of money for the Market House.

The first product with a "Market House" label doesn't have to wait for anything to be installed. In fact, the first value-added product to bear that name - a distinctive Cayenne pepper sauce produced by a small company in Delaware - is already on the shelves. All proceeds from products sold under the Market House label will go directly into the sustainability fund.

Going international

The two-story building known as the Market House is owned by the City of Meadville and controlled by Meadville Market Authority, a six-member board appointed by Meadville City Council. Starting in July 2005 the facility was operated by Pennsylvania Environmental Council under the terms of a three year lease, which expired June 30, 2008.

Since July 2005. Sjolander has served as the on-site manager, first as a PEC employee and then as a subcontractor. When the lease expired, she continued in the position under the terms of a contract with the authority.

"We've always worked with local farmers - and that's our main emphasis," Sjolander said. "We have our local produce, but we can't grow things like coffee beans and sugar."

Looking back at the beginning of her formal relationship with the Market House, "the whole idea behind Pennsylvania Environmental Council managing the Market House in the beginning was to help farmers who were trying to market a value-added product to get a fair wage for what they were doing." she explained. "We're taking that local act on the road, so to speak, adding the global things that we can't produce locally. I think it's very exciting."

Carrying on the fair-wage tradition, "we have established a partnership with a Massachusetts-based group called Equal Exchange that has been selling Fair Trade chocolates, coffees and teas for quite a few years," she continued. "Now we are selling their items right here at the Market House."

Building sustainability

As Sjolander sees it, the Market House label, the new kitchen, adding new vendors and product lines and getting involved with Fair Trade is all about making the historic structure sustainable.

"It's very important," she said. "You can't depend on grant money. I've worked for non-profits for most of my professional life and I've learned the hard way. You really need to find ways to make yourself sustainable. You can't depend on the government. You can't depend on foundations. You need to depend on yourself. That's our goal."

It might be hard to teach old dogs new tricks, but the 139-yearold Market House seems to be making the adjustment. When PEC took control of the building, to cite one of Sjolander's favorite examples, farmers who were selling their products at the Market House couldn't afford to shop there because they weren't getting enough return on their investment. "When I see the same farmer who used to come in and drop off things and not show now buying the organics and all the other things we sell here, that is what makes a big difference to me," she said. "This is completing that whole circle - where before, it really wasn't connecting."