Mike Forbes, who owns the olive oil farmers' market booth Mazzone with his wife, Cinzia, says business hasn't just been good at the downtown Sarasota Farmers Market since it reopened on Aug. 1. It's been better than normal.
"For us, it's been quite positive," Forbes says. "We've had some of our best weeks that we've ever had in August."
Mazzone has been a vendor at the market for more than 20 years. "We have a pretty loyal following of locals and they want to get their oil," Forbes says. "We have a lot of return customers that are excited to have us back."
The market has been a part of downtown Sarasota Saturdays for decades, and it is estimated that it draws more than 500,000 attendees each year. Market days had been canceled before because of hurricanes or tropical storms, but the extended shutdown that began in March because of the Covid-19 pandemic was the first of its kind, and it hit many vendors hard.
In addition to appearing at the Saturday market, Mike and Cinzia Forbes operate an olive oil retail store in Sarasota and lead tours to the Italian regions of Puglia, where their olive oil comes from, and Piemonte. The company had booked 10 trips with 12 participants each for this year, but all of those tours had to be canceled or pushed back until 2021, a major blow.
As a food retail store, the Mazzone shop was allowed to stay open during the market closure. That, at least, helped the company supply its customers and make it through the summer. "It hasn't been a disaster. I'll put it that way," says Forbes.
Since the reopening, booths are now spread out by 10 to 15 feet, masks are required and customers are asked to follow a "code of conduct" that is intended to limit the number of people at the market and reduce the spread of Covid-19. Bike racks have been installed to create walking lanes for customers, and arrows on the ground tell shoppers how to navigate the market safely.
"It's really nice that people can shop outside," says Michael Toporowski, who runs the Camelot Breads booth. "They're not breathing recirculated air from air conditioning, and the people who come down there feel somewhat relieved. You certainly feel safer than going in a big box store." He says the turnout so far has been "excellent."
Allie Harris, who runs the Wild Side Farms booth with her partner, Spencer Collins, credits the farmers' market board of directors for creating clear guidelines. "They made it pretty easy for the vendors," Harris says. "It's been fairly easy for us to get into a new routine."
August is always one of the slowest months at the market because little local produce is harvested during Florida's sweltering summer. Wild Side sells potted herb plants for both medicinal and culinary uses. "Summer has always been our slow months, where we're just hanging on," Harris says. "So far, it's been a good crowd. It's not crowded, but it has its waves." She thinks the real test of how safe customers feel coming back will happen when fall arrives. That's when temperatures decrease, and the variety of local produce at the market increases.
"The more people find out that we are open, the more people will start coming out," Harris says.