Last spring, Seattle’s farmers markets were in limbo. After Gov. Jay Inslee instituted Washington’s first stay-at-home order, the open-air operations were listed under “essential services” and allowed to remain open across the state. But Seattle — citing the alarming rise in COVID cases — hesitated to issue the permits at first, resulting in an emotional back-and-forth between market organizers and city officials. Even when a few of the markets did open, restrictions were tight, limiting vendors and eliminating prepared food completely.
Now, the outlook looks a little brighter in 2021. After shutting down all of last year, Magnolia’s farmers market will reopen June 5, and Lake City’s will debut July 1. On April 18, the Capitol Hill farmers market makes its long-planned move from Broadway and Pine Street to E Barbara Bailey Way — not too far geographically, but a world of difference when it comes to development (it’s part of an ambitious new plaza above Capitol Hill Station). Besides Capitol Hill, the all-year-long Neighborhood Farmers Markets (NFM) in the University District and West Seattle are already in full swing, as is Ballard (part of the Seattle Farmers Market Association).
Perhaps the most significant change from 2020 logistically, though, is that stands can once again sell prepared food (for takeout only) and offer samples to customers who request them. This should provide a significant boost for several businesses who rely on made-to-order sales at the markets.
“Prepared food typically makes up about 10 percent of the vendor base,” says NFM executive director Jennifer Antos. “Last year it was zero, and we weren’t able to incubate these small businesses because of public health restrictions. We are delighted to have them back.”
Patty Pan’s tamales and quesadillas returned to Ballard and West Seattle recently, Nature’s Last Stand’s popular breakfast sandwiches are back in the U District, and the ramen and taco plates from Brothers and Co. will soon be making their return as well. “We feel like [allowing prepared foods at markets] is long overdue,” says Brothers and Co. co-owner Zachary Pacleb. “Only being able to sell prepackaged food was not profitable in order for our business to stay afloat.”
The recent approval for hot foods at markets from the King County health department clarifies allowances from the previous phase in Washington’s reopening plan. While rules for restaurants, bars, and cafes are spelled out in detail, the farmers market regulations often take a bit more time to come into focus, Antos says, and they’re a little behind the curve.
As the entire state now enters Phase 3, it’s unclear whether any more restrictions will loosen up, although there’s hope that the markets will soon be able to allow more vendors overall. Currently, stands must be situated at least six feet apart (versus 10 feet previously). Reducing the distance even further could create opportunities for other vendors to enter the fold, Antos says, since space is at a premium.
Even with loosening restrictions, the markets are still feeling the pandemic impacts — Phinney Ridge’s operation will not return in 2021. But some innovations from the past year may prove to be longer term fixtures. Antos says creating online preorder sales was a big success in 2020, helping some vendors reach a wider audience, and will continue for several of the NFM locations this year (Ballard has an online market as well). “It’s something we’ve been able to build on,” says Antos.