Orlando, Florida: East End Market & the New Localism

East End Market looking out.jpg

Getting meat and potatoes from the farm to the table depends upon a smooth, even flow. The smaller farmers' markets are mostly absent in the city these days, with a few vestigial exceptions: Reading Market in Philadelphia, Pike Place in Seattle, and Greenmarket in Manhattan, to name a few. Now, East End Market on Corrine Drive in Orlando has taken its place alongside these venerable exchanges. Owner John Rife hopes this new access to locally grown food will meet the rising demand for an alternative to the large corporate stores and the markets that dot the city’s parking lots and green parks on the weekends.

“We are blessed with many alternatives already,” Rife said to me in a recent interview, “with several large-scale supermarket choices nearby. East End Market fits into a niche that is not served by these chains, and offers a vibrant food culture to the community.” Rife gutted and re-opened an old, two-story private school building in the suburbs, bringing in multiple vendors offering meat, produce, seafood, bread, cheese and a variety of other food that is ready-to-eat, in addition to ready-to-cook offerings. And between the building and the street, Rife converted a large, suburban-sized front yard into a raised-bed planter community garden.

The new East End Market will be open 6 days a week, staying closed on Mondays so as not to compete with a nearby Monday evening market that has already gained a loyal following. Rife is delicately fitting into an ongoing local neighborhood scene, something rare in today’s cutthroat retail world.

The accent is on quality, not quantity, and for some Orlandoans, it smacks of elitism. “A food court for yuppie hipsters,” sniffed one blogger. In an uncertain economy and a struggling job market, the focus on quality seems counterintuitive. Couple this with the backlash against those urban hipsters too smug for their own good, and there could be trouble down the road.

Orlando’s rural and agricultural areas are surprisingly far from the center of the city; one must travel at least a half hour from East End to see the first farm fields come into view in nearby Chuluota or Oveido. Central Florida’s farmers have little to do with this city, so the notion of a “transect,” where food production crosses progressively denser zones to feed hungry urbanites, is largely a myth. In the commercial food stores, Orlandoans find strawberries from California, Mexican mangos, and seafood from South Africa. Urbanites sacrifice freshness and seasonality for the benefit of a broad range and large quantity, and are reassured by the popular press that this is a favorable tradeoff.

Instead, Rife and his vendors seek to re-establish links with local farmers and ranchers, in a move that is more populist than elitist. Saturday markets make a gesture towards this, but do not suit many hyperactive schedules. The notion of East End is simply to bring food into the city from local regional producers. It is not intended, said Rife, to displace the other stores.

Rife is doing something more subtle, as well. His vendors are local entrepreneurs. Many of them built their own booths, or hired local craftsmen to do it. Entrepreneurs that have a small foothold in the marketplace are likely to innovate and stay flexible, adapting to the changing needs of consumers. They have a vested interest in making their ideas work, and while they may sacrifice income in the short term, they're seeking a long-term return. The energy and motivation are thus slightly different than what one typically finds in a commercial supermarket. East End is a visible experiment in the rising trend towards social businesses, where the capitalist driving force is coupled with social improvement.

It's sometimes said that the sidewalks of a city are about the people. Rife is placing people on the sidewalks that are not the hourly, minimum-wage clerks that our cities are used to. A real estate developer and manager, as well as an entrepreneur, Rife has noted that he could have “set up East End, leased it to big chains, sat back, and let the rents roll in.” The employees would have had no stakes in the outcome, no ties to the neighborhood, and no motivation to make an active sidewalk scene out of the marketplace. Instead, East End is a very management-intensive operation, where employees often have a stake in the business. This changes the game of the city. People here are involved.

In the community around East End Market, many of the faces are already tied into the neighborhood somehow: friends, relatives, colleagues and co-workers. There aren't any name brands between the customer and the sidewalk. In the rising millennial generation name brand loyalty is fading, anyway. Many people prefer to swap real time information on Facebook and tweet about their dining and shopping experiences, rather than to rely on a billboard or television ad. For those comforted by big brands, East End probably won’t be a sell, but for those exhausted by the relentless presentation of logos in every new commercial construction, whether urban or rural, the hand-crafted quality of this effort is a welcome relief.

East End Market isn't creating much wealth for people outside of Central Florida, for the rent is not going to a third-party investor, all too rare in a state where outside forces have typically acted for their own benefit first, using Florida as a vehicle for profit. Beachfront and theme park real estate has created great wealth, but in Florida it has largely resulted in a service class without much upward mobility. This food market, and the producers who supply it, are regional, and represent a shift in the economy towards local job creation.

Rife could have chosen anywhere to do East End, but chose this specific building because, like any savvy real estate developer, he was looking for traffic counts, ample parking, and a demographic that would range from moderate income to upper-income households. “And,” he adds, “the building was already there. It was cheap, had good bones, and was straightforward to convert.”

Rife and others like him are creating a recovery with their own vehicles. East End Market takes an existing niche, a once-a-week farmer’s market, and develops around it to fill the other six days. The incremental costs are that of converting a building, but the incremental benefits are potentially great, as neighbors find it easy to stop in, entrepreneurs hone business skills, and profits stay in town for a change.

East End Market builds upon an existing destination, rather than creating one from scratch. The farmers' market is an old idea, and here it is used as a vehicle to rejoin the links between producer and consumer that have been stressed by globalism. This kind of microscale, grassroots capitalism is not limited to tomatoes and cheese. It's one way to counter the erosion of middle-class jobs, and the rise of class divisions. It's a bet on the new localism.

Photo by the author: East End Market

Richard Reep is an architect and artist who lives in Winter Park, Florida. His practice has centered around hospitality-driven mixed use, and he has contributed in various capacities to urban mixed-use projects, both nationally and internationally, for the last 25 years.