From the day it first started selling lamb legs and short ribs there in September, Border Springs Farm never made an official commitment to Union Market, but remained more a vendor on permanent pop-up status. The farm's tentative relationship with the fashionable destination for urban foodniks was underscored last weekend when Border Springs owner Craig Rogers abruptly announced he was leaving the market.
Except it wasn't so abrupt. Rogers says his decision to walk away was based on a slow-but-undeniable shift in Union Market's focus: from a true market, such as Reading Terminal in Philadelphia where you can buy groceries and prepared meals, to a de facto food court. Rogers is quick to add that it's a great food court, with vendors such as Rappahannock Oyster Co. and Red Apron Butchery. But under the guiding hand of Edens, the giant developer that launched Union Market, the hall has evolved into an indoor drinking-and-dining destination that doesn't suit Rogers's needs, he says.
"Fundamentally the market has taken on a different personality than what was articulated as a vision for it in the beginning," Rogers says. "The current one ... seems to be what the developer wants, which is more a food court and bar."
Edens executives bristle at the term, "food court."
"Calling it a food court is like missing the point," says Steve Boyle, managing director of Edens. "The point is we're trying to create this experience for people around food, and I think Richie (Brandenburg, the director of culinary strategy for Edens) has done an incredible job of curating this mix of local artisans."
Brandenburg says that Union Market has been, from day one, about balance. The culinary strategist wants to model the Edens project on the Spanish markets he visited as a chef with Jose Andres's ThinkFoodGroup.
"There were experiences throughout the markets in Spain where you can buy things there, spend time there and eat there in-house," Brandenburg says. "It's been a constant conversation on what's the right balance, what's the right mix [at Union Market]. It's a destination where you can spend all morning and afternoon [there] and then go home with products to cook your dinner and for the entire weekend. Over half of the vendors there, you can bring products home."
Boyle and Brandenburg say that Edens plans to roll out more vendors at Union Market, including ones for groceries. The developer has also signed a lease with a seafood vendor, but both Boyle and Brandenburg preferred not to name the fish monger at this point.
Edens had hoped Rogers would sign a lease and continue to hawk his delicious, made-to-order sandwiches, but the farmer says remaining at Union Market would not have served his purposes. As a livestock producer, Rogers says, he needs to sell those cuts of lamb that chefs don't want for their restaurants. He says he couldn't begin to convert all the leftover legs and shoulders into sandwiches, even with his new Border Springs outlet in Reading Terminal.
In fact, Rogers says that over the course of the 11 months that he sold meats and sandwiches at Union Market, the latter started to dominate his sales. In the beginning, when a handful of vendors displayed their products in plastic storage containers on fold-out tables, Borders Springs sold 100 percent meat, Rogers says. During Border Springs's last weeks at Union Market, meat represented only 10 percent of sales.
As a point of comparison, Rogers says his meat sales at Reading Terminal "far exceeds our prepared food sales." What's more, he sells more meat in one day at his stand at the FreshFarm Market in Penn Quarter than he does all week at Union Market.
"My brand is better served at a farmers market than just being a lamb shop inside a food court or a watering hole sort of place, no matter how popular," Rogers says. " You just look like a little side show.”
Edens counters that the "market has gone through sort of its own ebbs and flows where we're seeing different vendors do better than others at different points during the year," Boyle says. "I think the ultimate personality of the place is still evolving as our clientele and consumer base grows and continues to understand what the place is. For many people still, it's a first-time experience."
Border Springs officially closed its pop-up at Union Market on Sunday. It has already moved operations into Union Kitchen, the food-incubator warehouse near Union Station. At Union Kitchen, Border Springs will prepare items, whether lambstrami (made from the shoulder cut) or mutton barbecue or lamb prosciutto, which the farm will eventually sell at the Penn Quarter farmers market and other retail locations.
Eventually, Rogers hopes to open a retail shop in the District, one that would better balance his needs to sell both meat and prepared foods. "I would love to find a place in D.C. for retail," he says, "where the focus is on a butcher shop.”