West Side Market shoppers accustomed to the usual produce stalls in the arcade just northwest of the main building found something new this past weekend: Bonsai trees, Puerto Rican-style ice cream, and organic urban-farmed veggies.
Those new stalls popped up as part of an effort to diversify the West Side Market with new entrepreneurs and local businesses. Spearheaded by the city of Cleveland with support from The FARE Project (Food Access Raises Everyone), the new Day Stall Vendor program grants local entrepreneurs temporary spots in the produce arcade on weekends. Although this free program only runs from Aug. 7 to Aug. 28, the city has eyes on a future long-term day stall program.
“Being a part of the West Side Market was always a dream for us,” said Rosie Galaz, a Chilean chef and urban farmer who operates The Tomato Guys with her Cleveland-born husband, also a chef and urban farmer, Will Norris. “It was always a dream; we never saw it as a possibility. And when this opportunity came, we were the first ones in line.”
The project has selected seven vendors so far to open up stalls on Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., and more will be operating stalls this upcoming weekend, according to Morgan Taggert, Director of FARE. For the market’s upcoming Summerfest on Sat. Aug. 28, the program will bring in 10 pop-up vendors alongside the live music, artists and other activities put on by the city and the West Side Market Tenants Association. Helados a lo Parrilla, Lucky Bonsai, and The Tomato Guys popped up this past weekend and all plan to return next week too.
“It truly did feel like a bucket list type of thing,” said Josh Oldham, owner of Lucky Bonsai, a mostly online store selling hand-grown bonsai trees.
This opportunity to pop up at the market on Saturday netted his business one of its best days on record with roughly 60 trees sold, he said, a huge day for a small passion project with significant overhead like his. He hadn’t considered renting a stall before, but after seeing his success, he’s more open to the prospect, he said.
He and his partner Angela Sanor, both high school teachers, started selling a couple trees here and there on eBay in 2019. Bolstered by pandemic-induced free time, bonsais now pepper their backyard, Sanor said, and they look forward to expanding their business to teaching bonsai caretaking classes.
For new entrepreneurs like Mike Parrilla, owner of Helados a lo Parrilla, the exposure from the West Side Market marks a significant growth milestone, he said. The cooler full of helados that he brought with him was empty come 3 p.m. on Saturday.
The program brought in Parrilla and his girlfriend Sidney Vega, both from Puerto Rico, to serve up the Puerto Rican-style ice cream they make using a family recipe. They started dishing it out of their Cleveland home and delivering orders placed via Instagram after Parrilla’s father experimented with the ice cream recipe about a year ago.
“When I tried the ice cream, I was like, ‘Man, it tastes like the ice cream when you go on a beach in Puerto Rico, like the little guys with the little carts ringing the little bells,’” Parrilla said.
That’s one thing Galaz applauded: the FARE Project’s support for businesses owned by people of color. She grew up on a farm in Santiago, Chile, and as a chef and urban farmer with her husband, she draws inspiration from memories of picking fresh tomatoes off the vine as a child, she said.
“It gives me hope that actually, now in 2021, we can be heard,” she said. “We only want a fair shot. We’re not asking for anything for free, you know what I mean? We just want a fair shot just like everybody else.”
All the day stall vendors agreed that the city did right to bring together up-and-coming creators and craftsmen, but the program could go even further than that, they said. Parrilla pointed out a need for more networking opportunities among budding local entrepreneurs like himself, and Oldham said he’d prefer to open and close with the permanent vendors at 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.
Especially with the pandemic catalyzing a record number of new businesses and Covid-19 variants tossing more uncertainty into the future, she said proactively supporting local businesses could benefit both entrepreneurs and Cleveland’s broader economy. Currently, the market’s produce arcade is more than 50 percent vacant.
“What they could improve is to have this all year round, to have more vendors come in,” Galaz said, eyeing the sprawling empty spaces lining the arcade’s front entrance. “Give the opportunity to fill this up. It’s just space, and it’s wasted here. Why not showcase other businesses that could potentially increase the economy in Cleveland?”
Michael Indriolo is an independent journalist based in Kent, Ohio.