Published on: August 13, 2014
by Kevin Coupe
"Fresh Talk" is sponsored by Invatron: Proven Technology. Innovative Thinking. Intelligent Solutions for Fresh.
Content Guy's Note: "Fresh Talk" is a new MNB feature, scheduled to alternate on Wednesdays with "Kate's Take." It will examine all aspects of "fresh," in both the broadest and most focused meaning of that term (depending on the whims of the columnist). "Fresh Talk" is sponsored by Invatron...which you can learn more about here…but which has no input into the subjects covered or responsibility for the attitudes taken.
Spend any time in Portland, Oregon, and environs, and one of the things you immediately recognize is the broad commitment the city has to great fresh food.
I'm not talking about the kind of extreme connection to food that is satirized so well on "Portlandia," but just a simple belief that great local ingredients can add up to wonderful dishes, whether made in the enormous number of area restaurants or at home from the ingredients available at the broad range of retail options that are available - supermarkets, specialty stores, farmers markets, and the like.
One of the things I became aware of during my "adjunctivity" in Portland this summer was the plan for yet another institution that will celebrate local foods - the James Beard Public Market, which has gone through the approvals stage and now is in the middle of fund raising, with a goal of $30 million and a hoped-for opening date of 2018. The James Beard Public Market - named for the famed author and chef who, in fact, came from Portland - will sit on the west side of the Morrison Bridge (see the graphic at left), within view of the Willamette River; it is designed to be a permanent celebration of local foods, but Ron Paul, executive director of the Market (also pictured at left), emphasizes that it will be a practical, user-friendly experience that will appeal to both locals and tourists, and will be able to generate more than enough year-round business to sustain it. The concept al;ready has played out successfully in places like Copenhagen, Oslo and even Philadelphia, he says … and there is every expectation that it can work in Portland.
And the James Beard Public Market will be all about fresh food.
I recently had the opportunity to spend time with Ron Paul, touring the site of the Public Market and corresponding via email about his plans, and what he sees as a crying need for such a facility. Excerpts from our discussion follow…
MNB: Explain the appeal of the "public market" concept in global sense, and why they make sense in a 21st century urban landscape?
Ron Paul: Public Markets connect producers to their customers in ways that supermarkets never can achieve, and with far more convenience than a weekly Farmers Market. A permanent, daily, year-round, indoor- outdoor food emporium brings people into closer contact with their daily sustenance. Locally owned food merchants (green grocers, cheese and fish mongers, butchers, specialty food sellers, etc.) will showcase local foods whenever possible but will also provide the necessities of everyday culinary life--from near or afar. That local connection to those growing and selling the food we eat has been, literally, a missing ingredient in contemporary North American food culture. Some areas of the world never lost that connection and are staving off the supermarketization of their food-ways; Americans have the opportunity to repair an already broken food system and public markets are one way to accomplish this goal.
MNB: You refer to "supermarketization" and seem to suggest that supermarkets have led to a "broken food system." Some would argue that supermarkets have made more food available to more people at more times and in more places ... but I sense you are referring to something else. What do you mean by that term?
Ron Paul: Regarding supermarketization of the American food system … We have traded mass availability of foods for the increasing consolidation of the wholesale and retail food system into a surprisingly small group of players. Think Kroger, Safeway, Walmart, etc. With this concentration, the accurate labeling of where your food comes from, how it's produced and under what conditions becomes an intentional mystery to the consumer. The shrink-wrapped sliced mushrooms, the bagged greens, the chicken parts have lost all sense of provenance and, as we see with the number of recalls, built in safety factors that now adhere only to the lowest common denominator of federal regulations. Under the watchful and influential eyes of "Big Food," labeling laws are increasingly irrelevant.
MNB: Why Portland? Between the city's already thriving food culture, the farmers markets, the food trucks and the Saturday/Sunday market, why isn't a public market redundant? How is it different from all those things?
Ron Paul: Portland has been on the leading edge of the local food movement for almost 40 years, although it's been only recently that others have paid attention. It started with Oregon's pioneering land use laws from the 1970s that created "urban growth boundaries" around each city in the state. This prevented unnecessary urban sprawl and allowed small and mid-size farmers and ranchers to survive and now thrive as more people pay closer attention to the integrity of their food. Even though Portland's food culture is thriving, there are still some missing links in the food chain. A true pubic market offers daily accessibility, convenience, and a permanent public space that has been proven time and time again, across continents and millennia, to be community magnets. People come to public markets because they offer a venue for authentic and personalized commerce.
Yes, Portland has a robust food scene but a public market is qualitatively different from a farmers market; it's not a farmers market on steroids. Farmers market sellers must produce the foods that they sell and may not serve as resellers. For example, if you bought the best seafood that the Pacific coast has to offer at a Farmers Market and you wanted to cook it with a squeeze of lemon, lime or orange, you would need to stop at a supermarket to get those non-indigenous ingredients. A public market gives life to the almost-lost professions of independent butchers, greengrocers and cheese and fish mongers. They will curate the products that this local robust food economy is spawning, but they can also reach further to sell foods that are either essential ingredients or out of season here. In a public market setting that works as long as you accurately label each food item that is sold.
The pubic market also isn't a food cart pod, although prepared foods will be a part of the vendor mix. More often than not, the restaurant and prepared food providers in the Market will source their ingredients from their neighboring vendors. In many ways, a public market is a small food city within a city that possesses its own culture and ecology. Food carts are an important part of Portland's culture and they will continue to thrive with the Market as a sourcing partner.
MNB: What, specifically, will make up the James Beard Public Market? Will these be permanent or revolving installations?
Ron Paul: The Market will have 120 permanent vendor spaces, divided into 12' X 12' stalls. Some merchants will take more than one space while others, especially ethnic specialty food vendors, will take less, including the opportunity to take only a 12' X 6' space. Our planning indicates that we'll have approximately 50-60 permanent vendors but the Market will also accommodate 30-40 "day tables" which will rotate on a regular basis. The day table participants will showcase their wares, but unlike the permanent merchants, will have no long term commitment and will be able to use the Market to test new food ideas and products.
MNB: Do you see the Public Market as competitive in a real sense with the various and excellent restaurants and food stores in the city? Or, to use an example, why would someone like Lisa Sedlar, who is building her own new food business, want to support the Public Market concept?
Ron Paul: New Seasons, Whole Foods, Zupans, GreenZebra and others have provided significant support for the Market. Overall, Portland has a more collaborative food culture than most cities do and this extends from chefs and restaurants to the arena of food retailing. The prevailing wisdom is that what's good for the health of the food system is good for all of the participants--from growers to chefs to retailers. Restaurants regularly share information on suppliers, staff and real estate while food retailers seem to have a revolving door of players moving from one enterprise to another without antipathy. Lisa understands this as do most of the home-grown food professionals in the community.
MNB: What have been the challenges of building support for the Public Market, and where are you in the development process?
Ron Paul: The biggest challenge was gaining site control, a goal that the Market realized close to a decade after the first citizens' group convened. Planning in the abstract and without a site was an important exercise in defining "what" a public market should be but it didn't bring the project to life. Having the Morrison Bridge site has changed the equation in so many important ways: site-specific concept development defined (and refined) the details about how the Market should function; location creates allies--such as Hotel Rose--and many others; fundraising can follow a more direct path since we can point to a tangible rather than intangible project; and we have a built in political constituency since everyone wants the Market nearby. (Rather than NIMBY, we have the opposite dynamic here: PIMBY--Put It in My Back Yard.)
One of the biggest challenges was the length of time that it took to secure a site. Public support for the Market is not difficult to cultivate; it's more difficult to sustain when "there is no there, there." We now have a highly visible storefront office just a block from the Market's location, a dedicated board and staff, and preliminary concept development and design underway. The public discussion about the Market has shifted from far off "vision" to "budding reality."
Please see the link to the Market's Concept book here for updated information on where we are in the development process. The timeline at the end of the booklet will indicate the time but not the trajectory that we're experiencing; the velocity of progress has been close to seismic.
MNB: So let's pretend it is 2020, and the James Beard Public Market has been open for two years. Tell me what you'd like the impact of the market to be at that point, and what kinds of continuing goals you will have for it at that point.
Ron Paul: By 2020, the Market will have exceeded our conservative expectations in both annual attendance (900,00+) and sales ($30,000,000). It will become a focal point for the community as an educational resource, an example of the local "maker" economy succeeding--individually for the producers and in the aggregate for the Market's benefit.
It will serve as a beacon for residents and visitors alike. The Market's education program, with a focus on grandparents teaching their grandchildren about their almost-lost-forever food-ways, will reach ever-more children and families. And more people will have access to healthy, regionally produced foods than ever before.
- KC's View:
I think that one of the things that a Public Market can do is raise the bar for how citizens think about their food supply, which in turn can create opportunities for local retailers to raise the level of their game. That may not be as important in some markets - such as Portland - but I'm in favor of anything that builds community, and especially things that build community around food.