Drive-thru farmers’ markets may be answer to social-distancing restrictions
Social gathering has been critical to farmers’ markets from the start.
It brings the public closer to local farmers. That has all been suspended by the coronavirus pandemic but markets and their farmers are finding ways to keep operating.
One successful method is the drive-thru model.
Area market managers who have made the switch said the public has responded well, grateful to still be able to get locally grown food with confidence in their health and safety.
In St. Mary’s County, three markets managed by county government switched to drive-thru at markets in Charlotte Hall, Lexington Park and California and hired back six county employees who had been laid off to help manage traffic and other logistics.
Kellie Hinkle, deputy director at St. Mary’s County Department of Economic Development said other models were considered to keep the markets open but shifting to drive-thru looked to be the best way to space out vendors and customers and utilize limited manpower to manage it.
“When they’re in their cars, we don’t have to worry about them staying 6-feet apart,” Hinkle said.
With market layouts reconfigured, customer traffic was directed in a circle counter clockwise around vendors, donned with protective masks, who were encouraged to designate one person per booth to handle products and another to handle payments.
Customers were able to pre-order and pick up food or make purchases on the spot.
Hinkle said the response from customers and vendors has been positive. At the opening day for the Homegrown Market at Lexington Park, she said some vendors reported their best sale day ever.
Customers are kind of shopping the way they would shop at a normal farmers market,” Hinkle said.
“We really have had great reception from the customers. A lot of people just appreciate being able to come out.”
Hinkle said with the Charlotte Hall market expanding to more sale days per week and strawberry season ramping up, she expects the new format to work with added customers.
“There’s going to be a lot more traffic at farmers markets. We’re hoping to get a few more county employees to come and help us out.”
Also in Southern Maryland, the Calvert County Farmers Market Association first created a virtual farmers’ market for online ordering and delivery or pickup and then announced an additional drive-thru market starting Tuesday, April 28.
In Virginia, farmers’ markets have been deemed non-essential but still allowed to operate, focusing on pre-ordering and pick-up, according to Kim Hutchinson, executive director of the Virginia Farmers Market Association. Onsite purchasing is allowed in some areas provided there is social distancing of 10 feet between vendors and 6 feet between customers.
“Quite a few” markets have moved to a drive-thru format among a variety of models to keep operating safely within state and local guidelines with no-touch or low-touch payment.
“We had to adapt and be very strict with the rules” to provide safety to vendors and customers, she said.
A big hurdle many markets and small growers have had to tackle is getting online ordering up and running as fast as possible to accommodate demand. The association has been holding training webinars and posting resources on its website to help get farmers ready.
“It cost money and infrastructure to set up online ordering and have them trained,” Hutchinson said. “That’s infrastructure most markets don’t have.”
But it’s been working well for farmers who have made the adjustments. Some reporting a five-fold increase in sales over this time last year.
“The volume of sales is through the roof,” she said. “Overwhelmingly, the pubic has been effusive in saying ‘thank you for letting buy food this way.’”
Growers that have made the necessary adjustments have responded well, too, she added, with When a drive-thru market was picked as the best option for the Easton Farmers’ Market in Easton, Md., a new site was necessary to allow for enough space, said Market Manager Marie Nuthall. With a new larger site identified in a Talbot County office park, Nuthall said county economic development director Cassandra Vanhooser was key in getting the necessary permissions from companies leasing the space.
“When this came up, she was the first to raise her hand and say ‘How can I help?’ Nuthall said. “Even with all the changes, it just has been so amazing to watch it all come together so smoothly.”
Vendors were spaced out 50 feet apart with interaction with handled deliberately through passenger side of vehicles to keep distance between drive and vendor.
Opening on April 11 with 11 vendors, Nuthall likened the operation to the pick-up section at airports, where an outside lane could pass by vendors and pull off to an inside lane to stop at a vendor’s space.
“We have not had to stop any of the cars going through,” she said. “There’s a lot of freedom and mobility for the customers.”
She added in the few sale days the market has had, the changed social dynamic has weeded out the people who come to the market but don’t make purchases. She said 100 perfect of cars going through the line have made a purchase.
“It’s just so much different,” she said. “They’re driven, they’re there for a purpose.”
Like so much else during the pandemic, Nuthall and Hinkle said they are trying to adjust as needed to keep the market access open and safe for vendors and customers.
“I’m really just taking one week at a time and not making any promises either way,” Nuthall said.
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