Retail has changed.
The internet, home delivery, free returns, and strangulated supply chains have made ‘shopping’ – which was once considered a national sport for many Americans – obsolete. Instead of window gazing, browsing the aisles, scanning the shelves, or squeezing the produce for firmness and freshness, we scroll on our phones, stack our virtual carts, and schedule deliveries. The social and interactive part of the experience has been largely replaced by our pursuit of convenience it seems.
But when one door closes, another one opens for those who spot these shifts. Diane Kolopanas saw such an opportunity. She recognized there was still a sizeable population who want to have a more intimate connection with their retail experience, especially when it comes to the provenance and quality of their food.
A native of Moline, Illinois – the fabled home of John Deere, her extended family, and ‘everyone she knew’ worked for the tractor manufacturer – Diane has spent much of her life in the hospitality sector.
“I worked in travel, running my own travel agency, then creating a custom home and real estate business with my husband Charles before we decided to relocate to Florida’s Emerald Coast,” said Diane.
Diane and Charles knew the 30A area from frequent vacations and their real estate interests in the area.
“When we decided to move down full-time, I was looking for the next challenge. We asked ourselves ‘What are we good at? What do we enjoy?’” recalled Diane.
The couple had experience in event management, and both are ‘foodies’ who love to cook.
“When my husband and I got married we started helping with the local Greek Church Festival in Memphis where we lived. We kept volunteering and supporting the event and then, in around 2006, dived in and really got involved, and from 2009 to 2012 Charles and I co-chaired it,” said Diane. “We started doing new things, just a little bit different, adding things that weren’t there before, and it just blossomed – attracting up to 20,000 visitors.”
Seeking that next challenge, Diane reached out to others in the 30A community to explore her idea for a Farmers’ Market.
“Back in the day when I was growing up, I don’t remember there being farmer’s markets – zero – which is strange because where I come from, there is so much quality produce, meats, dairy, and everything is incredible, but I left Moline when I was 23, so maybe Farmers’ Markets weren’t on my radar back then,” she said.
Perhaps, I wondered, was this new interest in farmers’ markets triggered by our changing relationship with food?
“It’s possible,” said Diane.“There is a surge in people wanting to eat as clean – or ‘organic’ as they call it – as possible rather than foods that is laden with chemicals.”
Diane’s conversations lead her to the team at Rosemary Beach, and those discussions bore fruit.
“The people at Rosemary Beach were so receptive, and said ‘Yes! We’ve wanted to do this for years but haven’t found the right person to run it!’” she recalled.
Diane and Charles presented their business plan for the Farmers’ Market.
“They loved it, I was expecting them to hire me to run their market, but they said: ‘Run it yourself!’ – so I actually own the Farmers’ Market and that is how my business got started.”
Mothers’ Day weekend in 2013 saw Diane launch her first Farmers’ Market in Rosemary Beach. And the next year, they expanded to Grand Boulevard, and now host events in Niceville and Watersound Origins too.
But what do farmers’ markets need? Well, farmers of course. Diane looked around for local producers and providers, but they were in short supply.
“We conducted online searches, went door-to-door to meet smallholders and farmers, and it paid off. At our first Farmers’ Market at Rosemary Beach, we had around 45 vendors covering the main produce range of fruit and vegetable, meat, dairy, eggs but also honey and baked goods too.”
Now, the markets are well established, they have a consistent set of vendors who sell a wide range of produce and artisan goods.
“Our vendors sell ‘fresh-from-the-farm’ produce, milk, butter, ice-cream, eggs, grass-fed beef, all natural-free range chicken, pork, and sausages. We have a range of fresh local seafood, crab cakes, tuna and shrimp dips, and delicious homemade hummus, veggie dips, salsas, and guacamole. There are jams, pickles, honey, marinades, and sauces, along with baked goods, artisan breads, and desserts. You can grab cold-pressed organic juices or teas in many flavors, treat yourself to organic soaps and lotions – there are even organic pet treats for your furry friends!” said Diane.
While there is no written rule as to what constitutes a farmer’s market per se – there are some expectations.
“It is largely defined by the size and type of community we are based in,” Diane explained. “Although we don’t have as much land dedicated to agriculture and farming here in the southern parts of Walton and Bay counties, there has been a significant influx of people from rural communities in California, Colorado, and Washington state recently who have started to grow and sell high-quality produce and goods.”
Is there a recipe for success with a farmer’s market, I wonder?
“They each have to have their own personality. The locals in all locations come for healthy food options, and the tourists and visitors come for an experience that they may not get in their hometown. And of course, there are products that are only available in their natural growing seasons,” Diane said.
“There is an algorithm of fun and food which works.”
Diane now attends and belongs to a Farmers’ Market Association which meets and communicates on a state and federal level. There are very specific requirements and licenses required. It is critical you know what you are doing. The Florida Agricultural Department, which oversees farmers’ markets across the state was a great resource to help Diane’s business get started.
“They helped me understand the regulations and the evolving needs I and my vendors have to be aware of,” Diane explained. Now with her farmers’ markets well established at the weekends, I enquire about what might come next for this serial entrepreneur.
“That would be telling!’ she laughed. “We have plans and there are exciting things in the pipeline, But I’m not in a position to tell you right now,” she signed off.
30A Farmers; Market at Rosemary Beach, N. Barrett Square, Sundays from 9 am -1 pm
Grand Boulevard Farmers’ Market at Sandestin, Behind Tommy Bahamas, Saturdays from 9 a.m. – 1 p.m.
Niceville Community Farmers’ Market, Palm Plaza, 1003C John Sims Pkwy, Saturdays from 9 a..m-1 p.m.
Watersound Town Center, Watersound Origins, Sundays from 9 am-1 pm and Thursdays (June 1st – August 13th ) from 9 a.m.- 1 p.m.