Farmers markets are fertile business ground

Business infusion: Ryan Bertollini, owner of B&B Homegrown prepares his wares at the Colorado Farm and Art Market. Many entrepreneurs launch their small businesses from farmers markets.

Among the cucumbers and tomatoes at this summer’s farmers markets, a number of budding entrepreneurs are planting the seeds to grow their own small businesses.

Local farmers markets are the place to get fresh fruits and veggies right from the Colorado farmers and urban gardeners. But, the markets also have proven to be a venue for getting a small business out of the home kitchen and into a storefront, retail shops or major grocery stores.

“I’ve seen several salsa companies start at the farmers market and then get into grocery stores and move on,” said Joe Miller, owner of Miller Farms and one of three Colorado Springs farmers’ market managers registered with the Colorado Farmers Market Association.

The farmers markets are where a business can test its legs, get its name out and gain customers. Makers of gluten free pet treats, wine jellies and gourmet cupcakes are setting up tents, passing out business cards and hoping their product proves to be the next big thing.

It’s a formula that worked for Elvia and David Caldwell, who started selling their fresh gourmet Baja Salsa at the farmers market in Old Colorado City a few years ago. Today, Baja Salsa, which has its manufacturing kitchen on North Academy Boulevard, is sold in Whole Foods and Natural Grocers and in military commissaries in several states.

“The reason why farmers market is a great start is because of the low overhead, you can give (business) a try,” said Ryan Bertollini, who started B & B Homegrown with his wife Mechelle last year.

It takes a lot of hauling product across the state to as many as eight farmers markets a week. And, it requires a determined sales attitude when the market browsers are strolling by.

“You like salsa, come and try the best,” Gene Krhin says to prospective customers at the Colorado Farm and Art Market at the Fine Arts Center. Sales for his Mountain Lightning Salsa are up for four straight years, he said. In June, he hired his first employee.

Venders at the market need only to buy liability insurance, which ranges from $100 to $300 depending on product, and pay the booth fee, which varies at the different markets.

Bertollini said the low start-up fees meant he could spend all his money on growing the products — perennials, tomatoes, eggplants and peppers. Now, in its second year, B and B Homegrown doubled its crops and hopes to double profits.

“It’s a low investment compared to anything you would pay in a retail establishment,” Bertollini said. “There is no way I could have done this without taking a huge loss.”

The Colorado Springs farmer’s market circuit offers venders a variety of venues to set up tents and tables in locations such as Old Colorado City, Memorial Park, the Fine Arts Center and Acacia Park.

The Colorado Springs Farm and Art Market, for example, is open Wednesday at a Fine Arts Center and Saturday at The Margarita and Pine Creek. The market is a co-op and has about 60 members, which includes 16 Colorado farmers, ranchers and urban gardeners, said Amy Siebert, market manager. In addition to the membership fee, venders put 5 percent of their day’s revenue into the community pot. This year, the market hopes to distribute dividends, Siebert said.

Other markets, like the one run by Frank Schmidt, a 25-year honeybee farmer, do not share profits.

Schmidt has about 30 venders at Memorial Park and Old Colorado City farmers markets, including hopeful restaurateurs like Errol and Debra Williams, who set up tent at the Memorial Park market every Thursday and give tastes of Jamaican jerky, pork and curry made with Errol’s own Jamaican seasoning. They envision opening E & D Jamaican Grill featuring authentic Jamaican dishes. Colin and Naoko Hueston, of My Fair Niece, are giving out samples of Japanese desserts and food.

“Right now we are getting our name out,” Colin Heuston said. “Hopefully, by this time next year, we will have our own place.”

Joan Maxwell, who owns High Mountain Dessert Spreads, too is thinking beyond the farmer’s market season. She sells lemon, lime and fruit curds at five markets around the state, including the Thursday market at Powers Boulevard and Carefree Circle run by Joe Miller of Miller Farms, which has 49 vendors at its markets.

This year Maxwell teamed with a Colorado winery to make wine jelly and she is hoping to team with more wineries to keep her business going through the winter months.

“I’ve been in business a little over a year and a half and I’m getting people who recognize the label,” Maxwell said. “There are a lot of businesses that start in the garage and then end up being sold to a huge company — it could happen.”

Mike Buzzell, owner of the Mile High Whoopie Pie Company, wants to get his pies in gas stations, convenience stores, and grocery stores and start shipping overseas. He already ships his whoopie pies anywhere in the states and sells to coffee shops in Colorado Springs, Estes Park and Manitou Springs. The cream-filled cakes are a popular East Coast dessert, which Buzzell makes in 160 flavor combinations. He celebrated one year in business in June and sells about 2,500 whoopie pies a month at $2 a pie. This year’s goal is 5,000 a month.

“If you bring a new product into the area, you have to introduce it,” Buzzell said. “I am hoping (the whoopie pie) takes off like it did back home.”

Jerry and Debbie Downing, makers of Gotta’ Love It Garlic Butter Sauce, opened their own store after one year in the farmers market. They had been making their garlic butter sauce for a local restaurant and found it to be in demand.

They started selling it at local farmers markets last summer and this winter they opened Gotta’ Love It Kitchen in Old Colorado City — it’s a co-op kitchen and store where 15 other small businesses make and sell their products.

“This is how we got the product to market is through the farmers market,” Jerry Downing said.

You gotta love that.