It’s Sunday morning, and the air outside the Chattanooga Market is filled with the intoxicating smell of fresh strawberries. Near the entrance to the First Tennessee Pavilion, Mercier Orchards has placed dozens of buckets filled with the sweet, heart-shaped fruits on a table under a canopy, where a young man is offering passersby a free taste.
It’s a temptation few people resist. After sampling one of the juicy treats, picked two days earlier in Blue Ridge, Georgia, many shoppers open their wallets or purses and make a purchase. One woman says she’s going to make strawberry pies; another is looking forward to a fresh smoothie as she selects a quart piled high with the fragrant produce.
Around 25,000 shoppers will pass the Mercier Orchards booth as they make their way into the Pavilion, where about 240 vendors are selling not just strawberries but also meats, desserts, health and beauty products, crafts, clothing, artwork and more.
Although the kinds of products available from one booth to the next vary – a booth that sells hand-blended herbal teas is neighbor to a tent lined with pop culture artwork – every item sold within the open-air Pavilion has two things in common: they were made, baked, sewn, or grown by the person selling them, and with rare exception, that vendor is located within 100 miles of Chattanooga.
“People like to talk with our farmers about how they grow their produce,” says Steve Brehm, operations manager of the Chattanooga Market. “When they purchase a product, they want to have a conversation with the person who made it and find out what went into it.”
Lannie Hart, proprietor of Daylilies, looks forward to talking with her customers each Sunday. Hart makes and sells a variety of jams and jellies, most of which are based on her grandmother’s recipes. Her fig jam is a Chattanooga Market favorite.
Hart, the oldest of 66 grandchildren, learned her trade on a wood burning stove. As her grandmother explained how to make different jellies and jams, Hart stood on a log on which her grandfather had added legs, taking mental notes she would carry into adulthood.
But making a great jam or jelly involves more than following an age-old recipe, Hart says. It also requires ingredients grown either at home or close to it.
“I grow 75 percent of my own product, and what I don’t grow, I buy from the farmers here,” she adds.
Hart is especially proud of her blackberry jam. “I grow a combination of domestic and wild berries, so you can still taste the old timey twang of the wild ones,” she says.
Vanessa Cole, owner of Blue Turtle, might not harvest the main ingredient for her all-natural bath scrubs – salt from the Dead Sea – from her backyard, but she still handcrafts her products.
“These aren’t made in China and shipped here,” she points out, looking over a table topped with deep blue jars of facial scrubs, sugar lip scrubs, foot scrubs and more. Each container sports a cartoon turtle a friend drew when Cole launched her business two years ago. “I order the salt, and then I make each product myself in small batches.”
Chatting with a vendor can reveal a surprising back-story. On most Sundays, Cristian Neculae, owner of Sausage World, can be found at the Chattanooga Market slicing up links of aromatic grilled sausages and offering shoppers a taste. Like the strawberries, few people turn him down.
One of Neculae’s best-sellers is his Dracula Sausage, which comes in two varieties: pork and chicken. Neculae acquires his meat from two North Georgia farms and uses a thick grind he says holds the flavor better than thinly ground sausage.
As a potential customer spears a chunk of pork sausage with a toothpick and begins to chew the juicy, garlic-infused meat, he says Neculae should tell people he’s from Transylvania.
It turns out Neculae actually is from the land of bloodthirsty vampires and howling wolves. He was born in the central Romanian region in 1957 and moved to the U.S. in 1994. Today, his home is Lilburn, Georgia, a town of about 13,000 people located just over 200 miles from Chattanooga.
“I started making sausage when I was 10 years old,” he says, the accent of his native tongue permeating his English. “At 10 years old, I have my grandmother. In the beginning, I asked her what to put. Before long, she asked me what to put.”
Although Sausage World falls outside the 100-mile rule of thumb most “localvores” (as Hart calls people who have decided to eat food produced close to home) follow, one taste of his hand-made sausages wins people over. His son, Cristian Neculae, Jr., expects to sell out the contents of three coolers located behind the booth.
“The Chattanooga Market is a bit of a cash cow,” he says, smiling.
Although localvores are flexible, one of the driving forces behind the market is the desire of a growing number of people in Chattanooga to purchase products made as close to home as possible. Called “farm to table,” the phenomenon has taken root in the city and continues to grow, helping to make the Chattanooga Market one of the largest producer-only markets in the country.
“Chattanooga has embraced the idea of buying local, which has worked out great for our community and our vendors,” Brehm says.
Lee Chadwick, an employee of Humble Heart Farms, says people don’t buy local foods just because fresh, homemade products taste better; she explains they’re also healthier than processed foods.
Humble Heart sells a selection of goat cheeses made in Elkmont, Alabama, which also falls outside the 100-mile radius. From the farm’s Rio Grande variety, which comes with a Chipotle pepper kick, to its farm’s Tennessee Valley Feta, Humble Heart has a reputation for offering fine quality chevres.
But just as important as the flavor of the goat cheeses are the benefits of eating it, Chadwick says. “Goat cheese is a healthy alternative to other cheeses because it’s easier to digest and lower in fat and cholesterol,” she explains.
Humble Heart’s cheeses are made from the milk of Saanen goats that graze on a special grass and are fed a custom blend of grains and hay. This is the secret to the farm’s fresh, spreadable, healthy fromages, Chadwick says.
“A lot of people like to put cream cheese on their bagel, but our strawberry parfait is better for you,” Chadwick adds, as she spreads a knife-tip of the cheese on a cracker and offers it to a shopper. After a moment of chewing, the person nods approvingly.
While Humble Heart distributes its cheeses through a variety of retailers, Chadwick says the Chattanooga Market is a vital outlet for the farm, as it allows them to introduce their products to people who might not otherwise encounter them.
“More and more people are moving toward natural foods, but this is something a lot of folks haven’t had a chance to try,” she explains. “The market is very important to us.”
Cole says Blue Turtle’s bath products are healthier than store-bought, most of which are laden with chemicals.
“Our scrubs are made with organic coconut oil and essential oils, all of which are great for your skin,” she says. “Plus, coconut oil is a natural anti-bacterial.”
But when Brehm said buying local has turned out well for Chattanooga and the market’s vendors, he wasn’t just talking about the availability of wholesome alternatives to foods and other products; he was talking numbers, as well. With $3.8 million-plus in 2016 sales, the market is a significant source of income for local vendors.
Cole says a good portion of the $70,000 in sales Blue Turtle did in 2016 took place at the Chattanooga Market. Not only has the exposure allowed the company to begin moving its products into local retail outlets, the infusion of cash inspired Cole to bring on an East Coast representative who will be taking the company’s products to the hotels, salons and beaches of an all-new market.
But the economic benefits of the Chattanooga Market don’t begin and end with the exchange of cash and product at the booth; rather, some companies use the market to drive traffic to their other outlets.
David Lillard, farm coordinator at Mercier Orchards, says Mercier primarily uses the Chattanooga Market as a means of marketing the farm, where people can pick their own fruit.
“We’re the Disney World of apples. At any given time, we have a dozen varieties coming in,” he says. “While we make money at the market, it’s more about getting the banner up, letting people taste our product and telling them about the farm.”
While buying local isn’t always cheap, another key to the success of the Chattanooga Market has been its reasonably-priced products. Although some goods cost more than their store-bought counterparts – a jar of Blue Turtle’s bath scrub sells for $25 – others are closer to what shoppers will find at local grocers, including the hand-picked strawberries from Fitzgerald Fruit Farms in Woodbury, Georgia.
“We’re two or three bucks more per quart than what you’ll find in a supermarket,” notes Grey Dukes, a young man offering samples of the farm’s strawberries. “But for the extra cost, our strawberries are herbicide and pesticide free, and they were picked yesterday. They weren’t shipped in on a truck from who knows where or stored in a refrigerator for who knows how long.”
Hart says she prices her products reasonably to avoid being undercut. While her jams and jellies sell for close to what a jar of similar organic product sells for at most grocery stores, she’s more focused on staying ahead of her local competition.
“The simplest license to get in Tennessee is the one for jams and jellies. Since it’s easy to get, people have saturated the market with their jams and jellies,” she says. “If your product costs more than what you’d find at the grocery stores, you’ll price yourself out.”
In addition to business savvy, Hart has one other weapon up her sleeve: her salsas.
“My competitors don’t have a license to make salsas, so I lure people here with my salsa and then they buy the jams and jellies,” she adds.
Like many of the market’s vendors, Hart is selling a strawberry salsa because that’s what’s in season. When peaches come into season in May, she’ll switch fruits.
Melissa Siragusa, director of marketing and communications for the Chattanooga Market, says the market has had a $30 million-$40 million impact on the region since its launch in 2001. While this is a hefty number for a producer-only market, Siragusa claims the impact on local grocers has been minimal.
“Chattanooga has enough grocers to go around. People still need their Cheerios and they get in a bind during the week,” she points out. “All we’ve done is educate people – and that benefits everyone.”
Now in its 17th season, the Chattanooga Market was launched in 2001 by founders Nick and Elizabeth Jessen, who modeled it after the Saturday Market in Eugene, Oregon.
The Jessens planted the seeds of the local food movement by requiring that every item sold at the market be the result of the direct efforts of the person selling it. They also put in place a panel that reviewed each new item against a minimum standard of quality prior to sale.
Hart, who’s been with the Chattanooga Market since day one, remembers these lean early days, when the market consisted of about 15 vendors. “We had to buy from one another to keep each other in business,” she recalls.
Although the Jessens poured a lot of blood, sweat and tears into the market, limited resources and an inability to financially maintain or grow the endeavor held them back, and in 2008, they announced they were shutting down.
Chris Edwards saw an ad publicizing the sale of the market and bit. Not only was he up for a new challenge after owning a record label, the local food movement was gaining traction nationally, which meant is was good timing for an ambitious venture.
The rest, Siragusa says, is history: “We’ve gone from three employees to ten full-time employees and dozens of seasonals.”
The market has also grown from about 150 vendors and 9,000 people on opening day in 2011 to around 240 vendors and 25,000 people during the opening weekend in 2017. Siragusa attributes this, in part, to the local food movement, but also credits the Chattanooga Market’s newfound ability to pull off large scale events.
In addition to the vendors that fill the 50,000 square feet of space in the Pavilion, the Chattanooga Market is populated with dozens of food trucks offering everything from hamburgers and pizza to more exotic fare, like the boiled shrimp and smoked alligator dogs sold at Red Mountain Crawfish.
“I like to try different foods, and I’ve never had anything like this,” says one lady as she takes her place in line to buy her second gator dog. “It’s spicy but really good. It doesn’t taste fishy; it has a nice combination of gator and pork.”
As the woman waits to buy seconds, resonator guitarist Lou Wamp and his band mates are belting out covers of Bob Dylan and the Allman Brothers on the stage to her right, energizing the back end of the Pavilion with twangy tunes.
Musical acts are a regular feature of the market, as are themed events. MoonPie celebrated its 100th anniversary at the market during opening weekend, offering free sweets to thousands of takers, and during the second weekend, members of the community were able to bring their instruments to the market and perform with the Chattanooga Symphony & Opera.
But that was just the beginning of the fun. For each Sunday between now and the weekend before Thanksgiving, when the season ends, the Chattanooga Market has penciled in a special event. From Bacon, Blues and Brews on Father’s Day, to the Five Star Food Fight on July 30, to Chattanooga Oktoberfest this fall, the goal of the market’s organizers is to offer something that will appeal to everyone.
“People aren’t leaving after they buy their tomatoes. They’re hanging out, eating lunch and listening to music,” he says. “I believe the festival-like atmosphere has made the market what it is.”
All of this has combined to make the Chattanooga Market the Sunday event in the city, says Brehm. It’s also allowed the market to expand beyond the steel and glass interior of the Pavilion to other venues throughout the Chattanooga area.
In addition to the Sunday market, open 11 a.m.-4 p.m., the Chattanooga Market includes a Saturday market outside the Tennessee Aquarium from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. through the first Saturday in October. Edwards and his team have also launched a Friday market from 6-9 p.m. at Cambridge Square in Ooltewah and permanent markets at the Erlanger Medical Mall downtown on Wednesdays from 10:30 a.m.-1 p.m. and Erlanger East Hospital on Fridays during that period.
Edwards and company will expand the market even further in 2018 when they open a new venue in Collegedale, where the city is building a 10,000-square-foot facility that will include an amphitheatre.
“We believe this will be a draw for folks in East Hamilton County, Collegedale and Cleveland - people who don’t frequent the market in Chattanooga because of the distance,” Siragusa explains. “It will also give us another venue for our vendors. We have over 1,000, but can fit only a fraction of them in the Pavilion.”
Despite its financial health, the Chattanooga Market is a 501(c)(3) venture. It charges a nominal booth fee and a small percentage of sales but never aims to exceed what it needs to sustain its operating costs, which include renting the Pavilion on Sundays.
“Some people see the massive crowds and events and assume our organization must be lucrative, but that’s not the case,” Siragusa says. “We’re stable, but this is not by any means a rich venture.”
That Chattanooga Market also uses its revenues to invest in new community projects, such as Chattanooga WorkSpace, and allow other nonprofits to hold their fundraisers at the market, where they collectively raise hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“Being a nonprofit holds us responsible for giving back to the community in everything we do,” Siragusa points out.
The Chattanooga Market has given more to the community than it can ever tally – not just in terms of supporting the city’s effort to eat more local foods or providing a venue for small business to make money, but in the way it has given people a purpose.
From Amanda Arp, a married mother of four who makes and sells pop culture art so she can set aside money for her children’s education, to Bonnie Scoggins, who makes stunning clay dishes with flaming Phoenixes and colorful peacocks, the market is a place where people of profound creativity and business acumen have found a place to thrive.
“Without the Chattanooga Market, there would be no Bonnie Potter,” says Scoggins, who uses her grandmother’s doilies as patterns for her dishes and mugs. “I sell my stuff online, but this is my main jam.”
Gladys Kiser, who has sold fudge and other goodies at the market since it opened in 2001, doesn’t know what she’d be doing with her elder years if there was no Chattanooga Market.
Kiser learned to make fudge at the feet of her mother. Over the years, she changed the recipes and concocted many of her own, all of which were popular with family and friends. When she retired from her job in West Virginia and moved to Chattanooga to be close to her daughter, she became depressed because she wasn’t working. This was just as the market was getting off the ground.
“My daughter saw an advertisement for the market and brought it to me,” she says, a pair of large eyeglasses adding character to a face framed by waves of white hair. “I called Nick, and he was really excited. No one had asked him about selling fudge.”
Gladys’s Fudge, Kiser’s business, now boasts some of the Chattanooga Market’s most desired goods, all made with her timeworn hands using only the finest ingredients.
These are the kinds of things – the foods and other items with a personal touch – that draw people to the market and brings them back, week after week. With continued perseverance on the part of the staff and continued support from the community, these are also the kinds of things Chattanoogans will be able to enjoy for years to come.