Renovations to bridge Old Strathcona Farmers' Market into the future

· The Pulse

With its fortieth anniversary approaching, the Old Strathcona Farmers' Market is planning a slate of renovations that will make multi-day operations possible, something the market says both customers and vendors are asking for.

Keith Persaud, market manager, told Taproot the building's history as a former City of Edmonton bus barn has made it difficult for the facility to meet current Alberta Health Services standards and that infrastructure upgrades are a prerequisite if the market were to ever consider becoming a multi-day operation.

"You need to have sinks for sampling and tastings and concession-type food," said Persaud. "Our vendors have plastic bottles with a bucket."

Changes to the local food ecosystem during the pandemic have also been a factor in moving renovations forward, given the proliferation of farmers' markets over the past several years, and the rise in home delivery options. "The industry is changing, becoming more competitive," said Persaud. "People don't want to be in a room shoulder to shoulder with 15,000 people, they want more options to come on other days."

Persaud notes that the shift to a younger cohort of vendors with a different approach has helped make the multi-day conversation possible.

"The new generation is not looking at what their mom and dad did. It's not coming to the market and standing here. It's 'I make this, I hire people, and trucks go out,'" said Persaud. "There's good and bad with that. You're not meeting the owners like you used to. The upside is that the vendors are getting more opportunities to sell products and customers are getting more days to shop markets. It's not as personal as it used to be, but that's the way it's going."

When the proposed renovations — which will include redesigned vendor stalls — are complete, the market intends to open on Fridays from 11am-5pm and on Saturdays from 8am-3pm.

The market also plans to add a general store and a new kitchen and events space, both of which would operate seven days a week. The general store would sell vendor products during off-market hours, and would enable the market to expand its curbside pick-up service to seven days a week. Looking into the future, Persaud teased that a delivery option might even be on the table.

The Old Strathcona Farmers' Market building with a blue sky overhead

Proposed renovations to the Old Strathcona Farmers' Market could enable it to open several days each week. (OSFM/Instagram)

"We've talked about home delivery from the market — why couldn't people call here for delivery if we had the general store? It's not that hard to do any of that if we're set up for it. We're open to anything that is driven by the customers if we have the infrastructure."

As for the kitchen, Persaud is excited about the possibilities. "The concession we will be one of the truest farm to table experiences. My chef is going to be shopping the market for everything he or she does. When it's out, it's out," said Persaud.

Inspired by an idea he heard about in Red Deer, Persaud will also be looking into whether the entire market could be licensed. "Hopefully you can walk the market with a glass of wine in your hand," said Persaud. "Why not? One doesn't ask, one doesn't get."

The idea to activate the building seven days a week comes on the heels of questions about whether the lot across Gateway Boulevard should continue to be designated for parking (the market has a lease on the lot until 2025). Persaud could not speak to whether the plans are contingent upon access to free parking, but did confirm they are in ongoing conversations with the city.

"In an ideal world, I would like to tell you that we have that parking lot forever. We are working with the city, and everybody realizes what is needed in order for this vision to happen," said Persaud. "People drive to the market, it is a destination. You can't build a Safeway without a parking lot."

The market has contracted Clark Builders to carry out its vision over the next 18 months at an estimated cost of $3 million dollars, funded through a mix of private and public funds. Construction would take place on days the market is not operational, and the intention is for vendors to continue with minimal disruption during this period.

"If everything goes according to plan, next year is our 40th anniversary and we're looking to do a ribbon cutting in the fall during harvest time at the end of September," said Persaud. "We just want to give people more energetic things for the next forty years."