Despite our current worldwide pandemic, the last two months have been some of the busiest for Bow Market, a retail and food space in Sommerville, MA.
“We have tons of different kinds of shoppers coming through,” says Leah Pringle, the venue’s event coordinator. “We’re seeing new faces and so many people who have never even heard of Bow Market before.”
In the past, she’s helped put on book fairs, jewelry pop-ups, family photo days, vintage markets, and record sales, but now, ever since the COVID-19 pandemic has turned our lives topsy-turvy, she’s found a new duty to take on at work. Dubbing herself “the gatekeeper” of Bow Market’s courtyard, Pringle now spends most of her time outside, greeting and welcoming the shoppers who have come to buy produce and other essentials at the venue’s newly created Safe Supply Outdoor Grocery Markets.
Similar to a farmer’s market, the events — which happen multiple times a week — take precautions up a notch, offering shoppers the chance to procure groceries in a safe and controlled environment. Face masks, as well as reservations on Eventbrite, are mandatory, and the usage of credit cards is “strongly preferred.”
“You have to make shoppers feel really comfortable as soon as they get here,” Pringle says of her new role coordinating the Safe Supply markets. “You have to explain how it’s going to happen, and you have to do it in a playful manner and make it fun. The psychology behind it is we’ve turned it into a board game setting. We even do trivia when the line gets long.”
Bow Market is an old stone storage unit that was repurposed into a multi-use outdoor shopping center in 2018. Under normal circumstances, it hosts a range of 30-plus vendors that run the gamut from restaurants and art galleries to comedy studios, breweries, and wine bars.
Now, those individual shops are closed due to the pandemic at-hand, but thanks to Bow Market’s quickly concocted Safe Supply markets — which have been happening since March 21st — vendors still have a way to make sales and offload their fresh, edible products.
To attend, shoppers make a reservation on the venue’s Eventbrite page, which allows 26 people to RSVP per half-hour slot, with events running from 10am to 4pm, no less than three times a week.
In the early days of Bow Market’s Safe Supply Outdoor Grocery Stores, the organizers used feedback from shoppers on how to improve and strengthen the security and safety of their events.
“We were hearing from more and more people who were letting us know how unsafe they felt at grocery stores, which hadn’t yet figured it out,” Pringle says. “So it just blossomed into this need to get people fed safely, efficiently, and if they can support local in the process, then let’s do it.”
Bow Market has since made a free, downloadable Safe Supply field guide available, laying out the protocol and lessons they’ve learned along the way for other marketplaces and farmers’ markets to adopt. For instance, they’ve learned that shoppers find it helpful to get emails of the items vendors will be selling before the event so they can plan their marketing lists ahead of time.
“Our goal here is to spread the word of the Safe Supply model. We want people to adopt this as a way that makes sense for them, to help them re-open safely in that regulated manner,” Pringle says.
So far, their guide has been downloaded more than 100 times across the country.
Grocery supplies aside, a number of restaurant and food event creators have similarly risen to the challenges that COVID-19 has created. With people quarantining at home, restaurants can’t sell meals as easily (if at all), and in-person cooking classes have been effectively staunched. Whereas Bow Market adjusted by taking things outdoors to make their business model work, others are turning to online platforms to keep their customers happy and fed.
Junzi, a “homestyle Chinese kitchen” with locations in New York and Connecticut, has started a new three-course meal delivery program dubbed “Distance Dining,” throughout Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Long Island City. The bi-weekly meals — which have sold out on Eventbrite consecutively — feature mash-ups between Chinese cuisine and a different culinary region, such as Puerto Rico or Malaysian.
In New Orleans, dessert chef Joy the Baker has transitioned from teaching baking classes in-person at her event space in the historic Bywater neighborhood to teaching them virtually. With classes on pretzels,biscuits,raspberry rose cream puffs, and strawberry and chess pie, her Eventbrite-hosted lessons are curated to be both comforting for the soul and simple to make at home with easy-to-find ingredients.
Many others have also shifted their brick-and-mortar cooking courses to online classrooms. To stave off boredom and help people retain an interest in home-cooking, you can now find virtual cooking lessons for almost every cuisine, including chicken and dumplings and “backyard BBQ classics.”
New York City-based fromagerie Murray’s Cheese has also found a way to work around the limitations of quarantine life. In non-COVID times, the multi-shop establishment, whose products are sold in Kroger grocery stores nationwide, regularly teaches cheese-pairing classes.
But now they, too, have transitioned online, streaming cheese-themed webinars to help acquaint acolytes and newbies alike with finicky but oh-so-tasty dairy products. Instead of showing up to their Greenwich Village shop, curd lovers RSVP on Eventbrite and are then mailed a quarter-pound of four different cheeses plus four accoutrements, such as jam or crackers, to use, nibble on, and learn more about.
“We already had a really great product, we just needed to find another way to get it out to people,” says John Braga, a cheesemonger at Murray’s. “Teaching classes is a huge part of my day-to-day and it’s obviously what I love to do. So it was kind of like something that we had to be able to provide … to kind of continue spreading that joy and also just to create a sense of normalcy.”
Bow Market’s Safe Supply Outdoor Grocery Stores similarly add a modicum of regularity to its shoppers’ lives. Sure, you didn’t have to wear a face mask or stand in chalk-drawn circles before this pandemic happened, but you can still experience comradery and social interaction through these newfangled events.
“People are coming out for their essential goods, but they’re also using it as their day out,” Pringle says. “They’re meeting a friend, standing 6-feet apart, but still shopping together for a half-hour, chatting about what they’ve been doing all week, the different wines they’re going to drink later, the flowers they plan on getting, and then they part ways.”
Those in the food industry have also found that their newly adopted business models can provide insight in ways that their regular means of operation might overlook. Through reviewing sales, Bow Market has been able to hone its offerings to better meet the needs and desires of its customers who often ask for things they can’t find or would like to see more of. And, at least for the time being, that has translated into supplying fresh flowers, offering potted herbs that can be transplanted into gardens, and procuring as many eggs as humanly possible.
Braga, from Murray’s Cheese, has also noticed a shift in his interactions with students and how they behave during his online classes versus his in-store ones.
“I find that, sometimes, in a classroom setting, I look out to a bunch of blank faces because they’re a little bit hesitant to ask the questions they really want to ask in front of the big crowd,” he says.
But when teaching online cheese pairing courses, students feel emboldened to be more chatty.
“Honestly, I think it gives people a bit more freedom to ask the things they are thinking,” Braga adds.
These recently concocted ventures likely won’t be our new normal forever, but they have provided valuable lessons to those in the food industry looking to expand and broaden their businesses.
If anything, they’ve proven that even in times when it seems like every opportunity has been blocked or taken away, there is hope. All it takes is a bit of creative thinking, guidance from your customers, and of course, good food.