A farmers market is, almost by definition, a small targeted assault on grocery chains and their typically taste-challenged array of fruits and vegetables from lands far, far away. Farmers markets are not, usually, a threat to neighborhood watering holes.
Leave it to the Neighborhood Restaurant Group to shake up the model with the Wharf Farmers Market, which debuts tomorrow at the Southwest Waterfront at Seventh and Water streets SW. NRG, which owns the suds-centric Rustico and Birch & Barley/ChurchKey, is teaming with Hoffman-Madison Waterfront to sell both beer and wine by the glass at the market, which will run from 5 to 8 p.m. every Thursday through September.
“The thought was to combine a small market with kind of a pop-up restaurant, outside on the waterfront,” says Michael Babin, co-owner of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group.
By this, Babin means the new market will feature not only locally grown produce but also live music, charcuterie and hot dogs by Nathan Anda of Red Apron Butchery, sweet treats by Tiffany MacIsaac of Buzz Bakery (both NRG brands), and, as The Dude would call them, refreshing beverages by NRG beer director Greg Engert and wine director Juliana Santos. The Wharf Farmers Market will no doubt redefine impulse purchases when toasted: ”Man, I don’t even know what they are, but I gotta get me some fresh kale and garlic scapes.”
Eventually, it will feature the Mobile Market, a converted bus that’s still undergoing its transformation into a farmers market on wheels. Soon, Babin says, the Mobile Market will not only be a weekly feature at the Southwest Waterfront but will also make regular appearances into Wards 7 and 8, both Washington neighborhoods known as food deserts.
Whether the produce is on the bus or not, the fresh vegetables at the Wharf Farmers Market will come from Babin’s own nonprofit education and insider source, the Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food & Agriculture in Fairfax County as well as from other farmers in the area who follow sustainable practices. Arcadia will purchase the produce from the farmers, Babin says, then resell it at the market.
“We didn’t want to convince a bunch of farmers to come out there, suffer a slow sales day and then pack it up,” Babin says.
The prices, the NRG owner swears, will not be out of line; the market will sell the produce for less than what the restaurants in his group will pay -- should any of them want to buy the fruits and vegetables left over at the end of the day’s market, Babin says. The market will work to sell all leftovers so there is no waste.
“We are going to make it more affordable,” Babin says. “ It’s going to be a learning process. We’re not assuming this thing is going to break even at the beginning.”
So what will be available at the Wharf market tomorrow? Babin expects to have grains, kale, collard greens, garlic scapes, carrots, radishes, beets, baby turnips and seedlings for people to buy and plant themselves. The market will also feature one other prepared-food vendor, the People’s Bao, a food truck that sells steamed buns with a variety of fillings. Babin plans to expand and rotate the outside prepared-food vendors each week.
But the main attraction may be that very un-farmers market product: alcohol. Babin says the beers and wines available will focus on refreshing summer drinking, not necessarily those producers located near Washington. (Hmm, how quickly do you think the Wharfs Farmers Market will be criticized for that?)
This may be the first time alcohol has been sold for on-premise consumption at a farmers market in the area — at least on a regular basis. Kevin Atticks, executive director of the Maryland Wineries Association, says the state’s winemakers were recently allowed to increase their appearances at farmers markets in several jurisdictions, including Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. They can now sell up to 15 times a year at markets in these areas, but the wineries must apply for a permit each time and pay a $25 fee. Virginia has no such restrictions on its wineries, which can sell at farmers markets at will.
But these winemakers are usually not there to sell you vino by the glass; they sell bottles. So how did Babin pull it off down by the waterfront?
“We were able to get, basically, a succession of one-day licenses to cover the season,” Babin says. “That’s the only way we could do it....It will add a different dimension at the market.”