A word with Tamara Cameron, market manager of Boise Farmers Market

Liz Patterson Harbauer//April 28, 2020

A word with Tamara Cameron, market manager of Boise Farmers Market

Liz Patterson Harbauer//April 28, 2020

Tamera Cameron

When the Boise Farmers Market found out it was not going to be able to hold an open market, it immediately started brainstorming how to carry on its mission of providing farmers with a way to sell local food to consumers while still adhering to CDC guidelines for public health. Within weeks, it launched the first drive-thru farmers market in Idaho.

This opportunity to buy and sell local food in a safe way has been met with success, and every week since it opened, the Boise Farmers Market has been working hard to meet the increasing demand from the community.

And this new format for farmers markets might be more than just a temporary solution to an unexpected problem.

“I think that the drive-thru has big potential for the future,” Boise Farmers Market manager Tamara Cameron said when discussing the change in the demographics of their customers due to the drive-thru.

Cameron has worked at the Boise Farmers Market for years, starting out as a volunteer then transitioning to interim manager before being named market manager a year ago. She has worked with her volunteers and organizations in Boise to adapt the farmers market to continue serving customers and vendors during a time of crisis and is already looking to the future to see how the changes they have made could lead to increased opportunities even after the pandemic.

The Idaho Business Review recently spoke with Cameron about the story of the Boise Farmers Market’s evolution.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What sort of response have you gotten to the drive-thru market?

Volunteers loading orders into cars at the farmers market drive-thru. Photo by Guy Hand, courtesy of Boise Farmers Market

It’s gotten a really great response. We sell out the time slots every week. This week it happened in about an hour and 10 minutes. So people are excited about it. They want to support local farmers. They’ve loved having local food to eat, and now it’s just a matter of us scaling it up so that we can fill the need and make sure that all of our farmers are selling everything they’re growing.

How many time slots do you have per week?

Right now we’re doing 30 time slots every 15 minutes for four hours. So we have 480 time slots per Saturday, and they were gone in an hour and 10 minutes. From our first week to our second week, the orders got much bigger. I think people have figured out that if they have friends who want to order from the farmer’s market, they can all order together and then one person picks it up for multiple families, which is really smart.

Are all of the vendors that were originally at your market participating in this new format?

No, they’re not. When we talked to Central District Health about this format, we decided that we really just needed to do essential foods to start. We’re doing produce, meat, pasta, bread and a few other items. Also because it’s tulip season, we’re doing tulips. We’ve decided they’re essential. They’re food for the heart.

So basically right now, we’re at about 30 vendors, and we will start to add in more vendors soon. The process is still a work in progress and we change it every week. This week we’re making a lot of different changes that I think are going to make it so that we can handle many more people.

When did you first launch the drive-thru?

Cars line up at the Boise Farmers Market drive-thru. Photo by Guy Hand, courtesy of Boise Farmers Market

On April 11. Our first day of the farmers market was supposed to be April 4. We found out, on I think March 15 or 16, that we were not going to be able to do the regular farmers market. We worked really hard to figure out what we could do because we knew farmers have food for our April 4 launch date, and we wanted to make sure that that food got out into the community and didn’t go to waste. So we started on April 11.

We ran the idea of doing a farmer’s market with distancing rules and that sort of thing. We ran that by some of our customers and by our vendors and they really didn’t like it. They said it was unsafe. So then we went back to the drawing board and said, “All right. We’re going to do an online system or going to buy food hub software. We’re going to figure out how to use it in the next two weeks, and we’re going to open as a drive-thru.”

Have you seen any similar things going on with other open markets or are you the first in Idaho?

We’re the first, but we’re always the first market to open in Idaho in the spring anyway. So that’s not anything special. But nationally there are people doing this. We’re members of the National Farmers Market Coalition, and we were seeing what other people were doing. There’s a lot of different farmers market iterations out there right now. We looked at what was being done, we looked at all the software and we decided that we needed to be a drive-thru where people didn’t have to get out of their car if they didn’t want to. They could pop their trunk. We needed to keep it absolutely as safe as possible, and we needed to make it simple for our customers to come and get an order.

What have the producers thought about this process? 

Orders prepared for pickup at the Boise Farmers Market. Photo by Guy Hand, courtesy of Boise Farmers Market

The producers love it. It’s another outlet for them to sell their food and that’s my job. The farmers market’s job is to make it so that farmers and ranchers and producers can sell direct to the public. And so they’re excited. The ones who are involved have figured out the software; they know how to do their inventory. They are really happy to be participating.

Aside from running out of slots, what have been some of the other challenges you have faced and how have you overcome them?

Well, we’ve never done a drive-thru before. It’s all new. So we’ve had challenges with how to do the math and the logistics that made sense for people to drive through. The first week we did it where they pulled in straight forward and then backed up. We decided backing up wasn’t a good idea and last weekend we had them all come forward and then just go out the exit, and that was fine except for it caused the delay when the car in the front didn’t have their bag yet. This weekend we’re doing it a little differently and people will drive in, pick up and drive out. And so the footprint changes every week as we find the bottlenecks in the system.

The really great thing about this week is we are now partnering with City of Good. They’re a new organization that is working to put restaurant workers back to work and to feed people who need to be fed.

Are they local or national?

They’re a Boise organization. They’re doing box meals that are being prepared in local restaurants and for people. Some of them are for purchasing and then they’re donating a whole bunch too. They had volunteers standing by waiting to help. We needed volunteers, and they needed a way to distribute.

What about the financial aspect of it? Is the farmers market making more money in the system or less?

We didn’t get to do any of our spring fundraising at all. We had all these spring fundraisers planned that are now canceled. The bulk of our revenue comes from vendor fees, and vendor fees are dramatically down because normally this time of year we would be looking at 70 to 75 vendors on the lot. But we’re only able to serve 30 farmers right now, and they’re paying a reduced fee because I don’t feel that it’s fair to charge them a full fee for the drive-thru. So our revenue is down dramatically, probably down 50 or 60%.

The other thing I want to say about our revenue being down is we are a part of Idaho Gives. People can support us through that. To make up the difference in our spring fundraising, we’re hoping that our community will support it through Idaho Gives.

Are you going to go back to a physical location once the stay-home order is up or is this for the rest of the summer?

A volunteer packs an order at the Boise Farmers Market drive-thru. Photo by Guy Hand, courtesy of Boise Farmers Market

We will see what our farmers market community wants. I think that the drive-thru has big potential for the future. We have people who are participating in the drive-thru that don’t care to come to the farmers market on Saturday, but they love being able to get access to local food. It may be that when we do open up on the lot, we are a new combination of the farmers market as we all expect it to be as a community gathering place and the drive-thru for folks who don’t want to come to the market.

Of course, we won’t open on the lot at all if it doesn’t seem safe. We will only open back up if we’re confident that it will be safe for our vendors and our customers and our staff.

Some producers have already implemented pre-ordering. Do you think this will become more common when people can visit the market again? Is it something your customers will still want?

I think it’s probably going to be a combination of both. It’s another sales opportunity for our vendors if they’re willing to pack orders every week. It’s just another revenue stream. So chances are we’ll have vendors who participate in both, who set up on the lot, but also bring 50 preorders.

Is there anything that we didn’t cover that you want our readers to know?

Just that we really appreciate the City of Boise and Central District Health and our board for being willing to allow us to be nimble and figure out a way to be open because honestly, they could have just told us no. But it’s been really great for people to be like, “Oh yeah, we’ll work with you to make sure that it’s safe and we’ll let you try it.”

It is really important for our farmers to be able to sell their products because you can’t store it forever. The fresh stuff needs to be eaten.