Volume 19 • Issue 7 | July 7-13, 2006

Food seller hopes outdoor market is ripe for a competitor

Downtown Express photo by Anna Morris
Livvie Mann, president of the Bedford Downing Block Association, watched as a father offered his daughter a pickle at the opening of the Real Food Market on Sixth Ave.

By Neal Schindler

A few weeks ago in Petrosino Square, a small but scrappy-looking new farmer’s market, consisting of fewer than a dozen booths, took its first steps. Passersby strolled up to the table manned by Jon Orren of Wheelhouse Pickles and gave his pickled pears and turnips a tentative try; others gravitated towards David Zablocki’s Wine Cellar Sorbets booth to get a bit giddy on a light, refreshing confection made with New York pinot noir. A tall, lean woman with a French accent tugged her husband over to the sorbets and said to Zablocki: “Thanks for coming back to this neighborhood.”

Real Food Market, which officially opened on June 17, is the invention of Nina Planck, who founded farmers-market systems in London and Washington, D.C., before moving to New York. In 2003 she became the director of Greenmarket, the city’s (and country’s) largest market organization, but her stint there was brief. Now she considers herself a “micro-entrepreneur” in an industry — farmers markets — that rakes in around $1 billion annually in the U.S. Her new project will be open in two spots: Petrosino Square, at Kenmare and Lafayette Sts., and at Downing Street and Sixth Avenue, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. every Saturday between now and December 23.

What differentiates Real Food from Greenmarket’s more than 50 locations is that it isn’t a “pure” farmers market. According to Planck, that designation tells customers that the path between their food and them is as short as it can be without their actually growing, raising, or catching it themselves. Thus, only producers —farmers, fishermen, bakers — may sell at such markets. Real Food, on the other hand, permits farmer co-ops, wherein one farmer drives other farmers’ goods to market and sells on their behalf, as well as purveyors (like the Village’s famed Murray’s Cheese) and artisans (like Wheelhouse and Wine Cellar). Planck’s markets, like their producer-only counterparts, also sell vegetables (from Norwich Meadows Farms), fruit (Stone Ridge Orchards), meat (Cayuga Fields and Valley Farmers), and fish (Eden Brook Fish Company and The Seafood Shop).

The producer-only rule isn’t the only typical famer’s market policy that Real Food flouts. Whereas Greenmarket’s region is a circle, with New York as its center and a radius of between 100 and 200 miles (with the occasional exception), Real Food defines “region” more broadly, drawing products from all nine Northeast states.

“I like people to know where their food comes from, and what their region can produce,” says Planck. Yet Real Food, unlike most markets, has a dual emphasis. Not only does Planck hope to encourage the consumption of what she calls “slocal” (Slow and/or local) food, she also wants to spotlight “traditional” foods that have eluded industrial processing. To this end, Planck enforces a few hard-and-fast nutritional regulations: hormones and antibiotics aren’t permitted (as is the case in all farmer’s markets), nor is corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, and artificial flavors or colors.

In addition, Real Food will only sell beef from cows that eat grass, their natural diet. (Grass-fed meat is lower in total fat but higher in the healthy fatty acid CLA than grain-fed, even though Certified Organic beef is often the latter.) And Real Food’s pork, like its poultry, is pastured, a term that indicates that the animals in question lived out of doors, unlike the ubiquitous and misrepresentative phrase, “free range.”

These policies reflect Planck’s own views on nutrition, which might seem outrageous to some. Of her many pronouncements — which she’s collected in a new book, also titled “Real Food” — the biggest headline-grabber thus far has been her vocal support of lard. It contains mostly unsaturated fat, including the kind of monounsaturated fat that’s earned olive oil its reputation as a health food. The real cause of heart disease and obesity, according to Planck, the FDA, and studies as recent as a June 12 report by the Wake Forest University School of Medicine, are trans fats found in hydrogenated oils.

Planck also favors raw milk and cheese made with it, on the grounds that pasteurization — a practice that only became the law of the land a half-century ago — eliminates important nutrients. Accordingly, Murray’s will sell raw-milk cheese at both markets.

Wheelhouse might be the seller that best represents Real Food’s startup spirit. Though Orren started his company a mere six months ago, he’s already tinkering playfully with old formulas. The Park Slope-based pickle maker draws upon his kitchen experience at various New York restaurants to re-imagine homespun classics using exotic ingredients. His bread-and-butter pickles, for instance, are spiked with dried currants and mahleb, a sour cherry pit with a nutty, cinnamon tone that’s common in Mediterranean cooking.

Also on offer at Wheelhouse were turnips pickled with gin, juniper berries, and ginger, and chunks of pickled beets, which shoppers toothpicked away nearly faster than Orren could keep them in the sample bowl. His start as a professional pickler was humble, he says; it was only a hobby until friends encouraged him to make it his livelihood. Real Food, too, had a humble beginning at the start of the summer, and Orren hopes it will catch on.

“Nobody questions the paradigm of buying produce in an environment where you can interact with the growers and learn about its origins, growing practices, etc.,” he told me recently via E-mail. “However, when it comes to products such as meats, fish, cheese, baked goods, and pickles, people still generally prefer purchasing them in antiseptic settings, two or three steps removed from the people who can answer questions about the product in a meaningful way.” Chatting up vendors is strictly optional, of course. But based on my experience at Orren’s table, it’s educational enough to merit a little extra courage.


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