Rain or shine, hot or somewhat less hot, they come. Every Saturday morning, around daybreak, local vendors set up tents and tables and put out their wares along Tampa Avenue in downtown Venice. Wedged between Centennial Park and the Venice Mall, the Venice Farmer’s Market brings together a mix of entrepreneurs slinging fresh produce, decorative plants, Gulf seafood, steaming-hot coffee and all sorts of snacks and stuff to sup on. Hungry locals and out-of-towners stroll up and down the street, clutching tote bags overflowing with verdant herbs, hats from Madagascar and cuts of bison from Three Suns Ranch. They munch on cinnamon rolls and pepper the vendors with questions about how they make what they make.
The market has actually been in operation for 22 years, but its profile has risen thanks to the stewardship of Linda Wilson, who took over as market manager five years ago. She’s worked to bring a balanced mix of vendors to the market. While some other markets in the region are heavy on tchotchkes and light on local food, Wilson aims to have at least half the market made up of food, with one quarter set aside for artisan goods and another quarter reserved for nonprofit partners.
Wilson’s focus has paid off. “It’s really grown,” says Maggie Balch, who owns Maggie’s Seafood with her husband, Gary Balch, and has been a member of the market since its inception. “She’s gone overboard to get new vendors.”
Under Wilson’s leadership, the market has also embraced the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, better known as food stamps. Recipients can double the value of their money by spending it on Florida-grown organic produce; colorful plates hanging from vendors’ tents indicate whether they accept SNAP bucks, a light touch that lets SNAP buyers know where to go without having to ask out loud. “It’s really helping our community,” Wilson says.
Here are five top stops at the market.
(866) 908-0002 | maggiesseafood.com
Maggie Balch puts a superb selection of catches on ice every Saturday morning, with an emphasis on Gulf-caught species. She says 90 percent of the fish and shellfish is local.
Customers stroll back and forth, examining her long coolers, stuffed with ice and gleaming cuts of pompano, grouper, snapper and shrimp. Since so many of Balch’s offerings are straight off the boat, you can’t always get exactly what you had in mind. “What they’re catching, that’s what I’m getting,” Balch says. But you’re also not limited to Gulf-dwelling species. Maggie’s stocks flow-in fish like salmon, as well as scallops and lobster from the Northeast.
In addition to selling at the Venice market, Maggie’s is a mainstay at the downtown Sarasota farmers’ market, the Phillippi Creek market and the market in Englewood. The Venice one is smaller than Sarasota’s, of course, but it’s grown, Balch says, and the Venice market prioritizes food in a way not every market does. “That’s the big thing that you need,” she says.
Venetian Coffee Roasters
(941) 488-8888 | venetiancoffee.com
Whether you’re an early riser or a late morning arrival, odds are you’ll need a cup of coffee to power your way through the market. To find Venetian Coffee Roasters, just follow the steam. All around the market, customers are gripping and sipping from paper cups as they peruse the line-up of vendors.
Venetian sets out a long row of hot brews, with rotating seasonal flavors, plus teas and cold brew. The beans may not be grown locally, but they’ve all been roasted on the island. The company has been around for eight years; Lizzy Nugent bought it two years ago after moving to Venice from California. She had been toying with the idea of opening a coffee shop and jumped at the chance to own Venetian.
The company also sells at a Venice retail spot and has wholesale deals with distributors and restaurants. On a chilly day, a cup of Nugent’s peppermint-flavored blend, mixed half-and-half with a regular brew, tastes ideal. On a hot day, pick up a growler of cold brew, which is lower in acidity and perfect for poolside sipping.
Dustin Thibodeau and Wes Rundell are two of the busiest guys at the market, manning a sprawling table weighed down with shiny bell peppers, baskets of red and white potatoes, long stalks of fennel and a hundred other types of vegetables and fruits. They sprint up and down the length of their tent, arranging and answering questions about where the items come from.
Much of it was grown at Aloe Organics, an Arcadia farm founded by Allison Nelson shortly before she died from cancer. Her mother, Kay Hall, and other members of her family have carried on the farm’s mission of growing healthful food, selling some of it and donating some to a children’s cancer center in Tampa. “She’s on a mission to grow a lot of earthy greens,” Thibodeau says.
In addition to Aloe, Dusty’s works with a number of small local growers and imports foods that don’t grow here, such as apples. The distributor is in its third season of selling at the market.
The line of customers is starting to back up. Thibodeau bounds back into action, greeting a regular: “What’s up, man? Want to try a honeybell?”
David Mota is making guacamole; he’s also putting on a show. He stands behind an enormous steel bowl loaded with avocado halves. Into the bowl, he throws a few tablespoons of chopped garlic, a generous handful of chunky salt and a Ziploc bag’s worth of chopped tomatoes. Using a hand-juicer, he squeezes fresh liquid from a pile of limes and then squirts in some green chili sauce from a plastic bottle. All the while, he’s spinning a funny tale about his daughter up in Wisconsin, freezing through the winter.
Mota’s Munchies isn’t Mota’s only gig. On other days, he operates a natural smoothie stand called Yesman on Englewood Beach. At Mota’s, the selection includes guacamole, of course, but also tamales, salsa and more. You can chow down on the guac at the market, with a bag of pre-made tortilla chips, or take it to go. Either way, it tastes great, with an impressive kick—particularly if you ask for an extra dose of green chilies. Spend five minutes with Mota and you already feel like a regular.
(941) 224-5924 | chefcraigchasky.com
Wondering what to do with what you just bought? Swing by the tent of Craig Chasky, who each week puts together a new dish based on what’s available from the other vendors.
Chasky is a private chef who’s cooked for a number of celebrities and helped start Publix’s Aprons cooking classes. A typical Saturday morning concoction of his might be macaroni and cheese using cheese sold down the street and a spice blend punched up with ground coffee beans from Venetian Coffee Roasters. “I try to utilize as much as I can to create incremental sales for the market,” he says.
Chasky is a relative newcomer. He joined the market last August, selling olive oil he imports in bulk from Puglia and then bottles, as well as custom-bottled vinegars and other specialty items. His food has a healthy slant, and he’s eager to discuss polyphenols and other health factors. Come for a science lesson—or just come for the mac ’n’ cheese.