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The Life of a Vendor at Eastern Market

Photo courtesy of Susan’s Tart Shop

Eastern Market has become a staple of the Detroit community. Every Saturday, thousands of people flock to the market in search of goods produced from local businesses. Throughout its five sheds, one is likely to find everything from fresh produce, baked goods, meats, clothing and even dog treats. The high quality of the products, as well as knowing where they come from has kept people coming for well over 100 years. The market opens to the public around 8:00 A.M., but the day begins even earlier for the vendors.

I’ve always loved Eastern Market, but never in my life did I think I would work there. When I began working as a baker with the small start-up company, Susan’s Tart Shop, I was thrilled to find out they had a permanent spot in the market, and that they bake right out of The Kid Rock Commons—a community kitchen located in Shed 5 that is designed to provide a space for vendors who could not afford an industrial size kitchen. The community kitchen enables small businesses to meet increased demand.

On Saturday mornings, my alarm goes off at 5:00 A.M., then usually for a second time at 5:15 A.M.. Before I go to Eastern Market, I make the necessary stops to pick up my product from our storefront attached to the Detroit Symphony Orchestra building, get my till for the day and a much-needed coffee. Depending on how much I have to do beforehand, I get to the the market no later than 7:30 A.M. I am one of the last vendors to arrive and begin setting up. Compared to the others, my setup is one of the easiest, so I need less time.

The early morning hustle and bustle of Eastern Market is very much alive. People are backing trucks in through the garage doors, carts are being pushed in every direction, tables are brought down from upstairs and stands and displays are popping up in a matter of minutes. For some, they are bringing their goods out of the kitchen where they were just prepared hours earlier.

By 8:00 A.M. customers have already begun to come inside and browse the sheds, and that is what makes Eastern Market so great: the people. Whether it’s vendors, shoppers, the Eastern Market employees or entertainers performing with their large, orange tip buckets set in front of them, there is never a shortage of interesting people to meet and strike up a conversation. In a typical day, I will talk to a minimum of 500 people. Some are regulars, who return for their weekly supply of tarts while others may be from out of town, or even out of state, who are experiencing the market for the first time.

While our company has been around for two years, we are fairly new to the Saturday market. Jason Gregory, part owner of Susan’s Tart Shop, tells how they earned a permanent spot at Eastern Market. “The market can be tricky to get into,” says Jason. “We started selling in the Tuesday market before the coveted Saturday Market. There is a waiting list for Saturday Market spots and we got on the waiting list.” Jason continues, “However, we were told that if you were on the list and still wanted to sell at a Saturday Market you could arrive early and see if there were any vendors that didn’t show up and if you got permission you could sell in the empty spot. So, my partner Sandy and I would show up early Saturday mornings to stake out any empty spots. When we saw one we would get our pop-up together and head to the spot hoping for the best. The hard part was getting permission, you had to find the man in charge, Jim, and get his okay. I like to call this style guerrilla marketing.” Jason ends his story saying, “It has been a full year now of marketing on Saturdays and we now have a permanent spot in the market.”

Getting into the market is a privilege for small businesses, and they treat it as such. Most never miss out on a Saturday market and they work as hard as they can from the time they get up in the morning, until 4:00 P.M. when the market closes. While it is a shopping trip for most visitors, for the vendors it becomes a community. You get to know the staff, other vendors around you, and form a relationship with your clientele. Some vendors even trade their products with each other, which is a great way to try new things and see what the others around you have to offer. After the market is over, most spend the rest of the week getting ready for the next Saturday to come around so they can do it all over again, especially in the Summertime.

I have yet to work the market during the warmer months, but I hear that is when it is at its best. On an average summer day there are more vendors than ever, and more customers as well. Eastern Market will typically average 30,000 to 50,000 summer-time customers walking from shed to shed, and browsing everything that the market has for sale.

While the days at Eastern Market start early and require hard work and dedication from the vendors, I’m grateful to be a part of it. I get excited to go to work, to see my customers and talk with my fellow vendors who I’ve grown to know quite well in the past few months. If this is slow season, then I’m excited to see Eastern Market at its busiest! There is a beautiful feeling of joy that fills the air of Eastern Market, a place where a sense of togetherness spreads from shed to shed uniting vendor and customer alike.

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