Royal Oak Farmers’ Market stands the test of time

Mythical wizard Harry Potter might compare the Royal Oak Farmers’ Market to Hogwarts Academy’s “Room of Requirement” for its ability to accommodate so many diverse events in the community.

Between popular affairs ranging from burger bashes, bacon festivals, Barney sing-alongs to Bat Mitzvahs, the market generates more than $400,000 a year in what is the largest free-standing, single-floor building in the city.

Of course, veggies take priority in this 25,000 square-foot market that stays open year round. Even with increased competition from retailers and more local communities now hosting farmers’ markets, the

Royal Oak market draws multitudes looking for locally grown produce on Saturdays. Since its inception, the market has maintained a strict “farmer must grow” rule, meaning any produce sold at the market must be grown by the vendor—no reselling permitted.

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Between 4,000 and 5,000 people come out each Saturday for fresh lettuce and broccoli sold by local farmers like Don Vanhoutte, whose family runs Vanhoutte Farms in Armada. The family has rented stalls here for more than 50 years.  

“We have no trouble selling our produce in Royal Oak. We grow 100 acres of vegetables. People know that we pick our lettuce at 7 p.m. on Friday and put it on display Saturday at 3:30 a.m. You can’t get it that fresh at the grocery store,” Vanhoutte says. “Nearly everything sells out.”

One of market manager Shelly Mazur’s goals is to help develop the farmers market into a hub for local food businesses as well as a magnet for veggie-seeking market goers.

“Our job is to bring recognition to the local farmers. We encourage event planners and fundraisers to use our flower sellers, caterers and specialty bakers in their activities and encourage people attending functions to come back and shop at the market on Saturdays and Sundays,” Mazur says.

Rumors of market’s demise greatly exaggerated

When the city of Royal Oak unveiled plans this spring for a new city hall in the vicinity of the market, rumors flew that the market would be torn down so a high-rise office building could emerge on the site, which is just east of downtown.

Mazur’s phone continues to ring. Emails and texts spill in daily.  

“No, the 90-year-old Farmer’s Market isn’t going away. In fact, it is going stronger than ever,” she says.  

The city does need a new city hall—the 60-year-old building has problems ranging from basement flooding to obsolete technology. Mayor Jim Ellison is backing a $100-million plan to build a seven-story office building on the site. The city would rent the first two floors.

And although the market would lose a portion of its parking lot to a new $18-million police station, it would gain a 550-space, six-story parking structure to accommodate shoppers and revelers.  

Ellison is adamant that the city will never sell out its market, even as developers flock to the thriving downtown. In fact, he hopes the city hall project will do even more for the venerable city institution.

“This is one of our most popular amenities and there was never discussion to lose it. The market will enhance and be enhanced by the city center development,” he says.

Saving the market

Perhaps the rumors were spurred on by a past threat to the market that still lingers in recent memory.

The brick and concrete building has a long history in southern Oakland County. Royal Oak first incorporated in 1921, and by 1925 the city fathers saw a need for a market serving nearby truck farms. According to the Library of Congress’ Local Legacies website, a permanent brick market building was constructed in 1927 at Fourth and Troy streets to serve the growing community, a joint project of Oakland County and Royal Oak.

In 1960 the market was renamed Royal Oak Farmer’s Market. That name stuck even as the partnership with the county came unglued. In 1996 the county, which owned 60 percent of the market, sought to demolish the building and sell the land to a developer. With the opening of I-696 expressway in 1989, Royal Oak was fast becoming a midpoint for east and west travelers and a nexus for nightlife.

In those days before Michael Pollan’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma” launched a national local food system movement, some thought the market was an anachronism.

“So many people clogged city hall to save the market, the commissioners had to listen,” Vanhoutte recalls. “This is a royal gem for Royal Oak and people knew that.

Demonstrators and a petition prevailed in persuading the city to buy out the county’s stake, ending the crisis and saving the market.

On Sundays, a flea—and nostalgia—market

On Sundays the market is transformed into an antique and flea market with an entirely different set of vendors and customers, drawing around 2,000 people on a good day.

No tube sox. No designer sunglasses. Here you’ll find a sea of nostalgia for sale from used DVDs to wringer washers made into beer refrigerators.

“I come on Sundays because the 89 vendors make it a social event,” says Bruce Peterson, a Detroit artist and antique dealer. “They are each hitting 20 to 25 estate and garage sales and putting out the best of their merchandise, saving me the trouble of traveling to all these sales. I’m a collector and I buy parts for my sculptures or stuff I’ll resell.”

Market manager embraces “a crazy place”

Mazur, a longtime Royal Oak resident who grew up watching Little House on the Prairie and fantasizing about living on a farm, sold mushrooms and managed events at the market for eight years before she won the bid to manage the market five years ago.

She pays the two assistants, two custodians and four event set-up workers. Profits from stall rentals combined with event rentals pay for operations and upgrades to the market, like rolling cargo doors and steel fencing around the parking lots. 

Her days are filled with endless questions from entrepreneurs seeking to rent space, musicians hoping to land a gig on Saturday or Sunday market hours (they play for tips), and visitors with complaints. On a recent scorching hot day, a man wandered through in his underwear and was promptly escorted out by police.

People have a thousand suggestions for how she might run the market better, but Mazur doesn’t believe a nudist camp is one of them. 

 

“It’s a crazy place,” Mazur says.

Mazur says it is a daunting job to turn over the market from veggies to weddings to antiques with barely a couple hours in between. Events can stretch into the wee hours and vendors come at the crack of dawn. Weekend party rentals are booked out through 2017.

Now, Mazur says her biggest challenge is growth.

“Our biggest problem now is space. We hardly have any left,” she says. “We don’t have any room for soap, salsa or candle makers, but we’re always on the look-out for innovative products. That is what keeps our customers coming back week after week.”

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