Austin Farmers’ Markets Offer Hot Food, Again


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What’s better than buying fresh, local fruits, vegetables, and prepared foods at a farmers’ market in Austin, TX? Doing so with a hot slice of pizza in hand, or a steaming cup of gumbo! Thanks to an ordinance passed on October 28, 2010 by the Austin City Council, that’s once again possible.

For much of last year, the sale of food prepared on-site at farmers’ markets was suspended while the health department, city council, and Sustainable Food Policy board worked out a policy under which mobile vendors could comply with the city’s food safety regulations. The October ordinance amended city code to allow temporary permits for food vendors at certified farmers’ markets. Since November, when the ordinance went into effect, vendors have been able to cook and serve hot foods on-site and do cooking demos with samples at farmers’ markets as long as they have undergone the required inspections and have a permit issued by the city. What has been the effect of the ordinance, if any, on the farmers’ markets since November 8 of last year? I went to the downtown farmers’ market at 4th and Guadalupe on Saturday to find out.

The market opened at 9:00am. By 9:20, there was already a good-sized crowd wandering from tent to tent considering local vegetables, small batch jams, locally raised meat, natural soap products, and much more. At least 35 businesses are listed as appearing exclusively at this market every Saturday, and many others alternate between the Sunset Valley market (off Hwy 290 and 71) and here each weekend.

The Sustainable Food Center (SFC), which runs the downtown, Sunset Valley, and Triangle farmers' markets, was instrumental in bringing about the ordinance. The SFC has two tents set up in the center of the market, and at one of them I spoke to Cecil Winzer, manager of the downtown SFC Farmers' Market. Winzer said that having hot food cooked and sold here has had a huge impact, adding "to the ambiance of the market overall."

The business that's most obviously benefitting from the ordinance is the one that also worked hard to get it passed: Dai Due, a supper club and mobile food provider that cooks and serves only locally grown and raised produce and meats. At a city council meeting last March 25, Chef and co-owner Jesse Griffiths was one of the advocates for the city code’s change.

Today there's a long line in front of the Dai Due tent, and at least four people inside work quickly to take orders, prepare and assemble food, and hand off the finished product to eagerly waiting diners. One couple I talked to had just received their order of the duck, rabbit, and oyster gumbo and the pork belly and fried egg on Texas French toast. They both thought the food was "amazing." The man, Vince, is on the board of the SFC and he thought the ordinance’s change was a good idea. "If it's safe to serve food one day, then why not other days too?" Vince said. He was referring to the fact that temporary mobile food permits previously were available for special events, such as parades, but not for regular use at farmers’ markets.

Dai Due chef Jesse Griffiths, a tall, sturdy, cheerful man with a big red beard, agreed. He took a moment to talk between handing out slabs of pork belly at the busy stand. When asked about the ordinance that he helped bring about, Griffiths said, simply, "it saved us."

Dai Due had been hobbled by the suspension of permits last year. Without revenue from working at the farmers' market, Griffiths was less able to buy produce and meats from local farmers, and he felt that keeping money away from local farmers didn't make any sense.

Still, the ordinance and ensuing changes have not all been positive. The Zubik House is a small trailer selling coffee, kolaches, "Czech Benedict," and eggs Florentine, each for $5 or less, at the southwest entrance to the market. Proprietors Andy and Lindy Zubik work at the stand this morning. Though the ordinance did let them prepare and serve food at farmers’ markets once again, they said that the new inspection rules had created a lot of hassles. According to the Zubiks, the city health department, the fire marshal, the propane inspectors, and others were not working together to make inspections efficient and cost effective. An inspection process that used to cost $500 now cost them $800 or $900, and was almost as rigorous as that for a normal restaurant, said Lindy Zubik. The city needs to be clearer about what is expected from vendors before they made changes to the city code. “It’s just a longer process now,” Lindy said.

Nor have farmers and vendors of produce and other products necessarily noted the change since November. Hersh Kendall sells pecan halves and pieces and pecan butter from Indian Hills Farm in Smithville, Texas. He hasn't noticed any difference in volume of customers at the market, or in sales of his products, since the ordinance passed, although he did say that the best time for his business was in the fall when people do more holiday baking. At a farm stand down the way, another vendor told me he hadn't seen an increase in customers or in produce sales either. He works at Oma's and Opa's Farm just north of Stonewall, Texas, helping to grow vegetables and raise goats, cattle, and chicken. It is still a challenge to draw in enough customers and sell enough produce at the farmers' markets, he says.

It’s difficult to know what impact the ordinance will have on Austin farmers' markets in the long run. For now, it appears that some businesses at the downtown farmers' market have benefitted greatly, like Dai Due, and Bola Pizza, which was doing brisk business in breakfast pizza each time I walked by. Other vendors have not seen any change yet, but in the long run they may well see more customers who have been drawn to the market by hot food offerings.

Such is the hope of Sam Langley, who runs the market’s TacoDeli, a local taco restaurant. With his plaid shirt, long salt-and-pepper beard, and cowboy hat, Langley looks like he could be a Texas farmer—and he does in fact buy ingredients from local farms, according to the whiteboard hanging behind him. Because his tacos are pre-made, he has a restricted mobile food vendor food permit, so he wasn’t directly affected by the suspension or the ordinance.

Langley did say that he's sold fewer tacos since November because there are now more hot food options at the market, but that doesn’t bother him too much. He figures that the extra traffic brought in by vendors like Dai Due, Bola Pizza, and The Zubik House will eventually bring more customers to his stand, too. Langley summed up by saying, in true Austin form, "I think it's groovy that we have more choices at the farmers market."

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