Quality ingredients are the backbone to any food establishment and food trucks are no exception. Whether the restaurant or food truck industry is more of a competitive battle-ground is debatable, however, they both need to source fresh ingredients from somewhere. And more often than not, that ‘somewhere’ is the local farmers market. In large cities, like San Francisco and Seattle, these markets can be excessive, varied, and confusing for a novice food entrepreneur to get the most out of. With local, healthy eating coming more into focus for the average metropolitan consumer, navigating a farmers market successfully (and thriftily) is becoming increasingly necessary – for food truck owners and health-conscious foodies alike. Farmer’s market produce will deliver on big taste, but when price is mixed into the equation, there are a few tricks of the trade to be considered.
First and foremost, be friendly to the vendors! Not aggressive. I repeat, not aggressive. You don’t have to have the networking skills of a “Wall Street suit” in order to make this happen; just be kind, inquisitive, and start building a relationship. Especially if you need items in bulk – looking at you food truck owners… you might be able to score a great deal if you buy on a regular basis or get an extremely low price on “seconds.” “Seconds” are the produce that is less than visually stunning (think bruises and marks); they can make for a great jam, sauce, or any other dish where the ingredients will be heavily broken down.
Additionally, vendors can give you tips, like what time their best produce sells out and when they are packing up and eager to sell their last baskets, which means better quality and lower prices for you. Or pickling and storage instructions, such as never refrigerating your tomatoes in order to maintain their taste. Don’t be afraid to ask for more or inquire about bulk prices and carrying a particular product. Let those bartering muscles finally get a good workout in!
We know you are already food savvy enough to buy seasonal, but which of these 24 different options of strawberries would you like? Hood, mignonette, seascape? Questions like these leave some bamboozled and confused about how to choose produce wisely and according to ones’ individual cooking needs. Don’t let the rows and rows of bright colors meld together, or even worse, find that your food is spoiled the very next day. Always ask to taste a product, see where the produce is from, and ask for prices before deciding. Sample to your hearts content – ok at farmers markets, not ok at Costco. Make sure not to eat too much beforehand or you won’t have room left to try everything!
Moreover, larger shipments from a big supplier typically will be priced lower due to the advantages of economy of scale. But remember, that does not mean that they are the best looking and tasting option. To really shave off pennies, try only buying the most unique or “star” ingredients at the market and get the rest from a more traditional (bulk) retailer. If you are still discovering new vendors, or an unfamiliar market, this will help reduce your time spent shopping around the different stalls as well.
Bring the kids, some cash, and your own sturdy, reusable bags. Enjoy the beauty and bounty of your farmers market while helping support the local food movement.
Extra Tip: If the city allows you to park there, farmer’s markets are a fantastic location for health food trucks to set up shop.
We’ve put together a short cheat-sheet to help you out!
- Sweet Corn: Try to buy sweet corn early in the day. The sugar converts to starch after being picked and sitting unrefrigerated; it looses its sweetness.
- Cantaloupe: Use your sniffer. It should have a distinct
melon aroma around the stem end and be round and firm.
- Blackberries and blueberries: The bottom of the container shouldn’t be wet or stained. They should be plump and fully-ripened, but not moldy or squished. Do not wash them until time of consumption.
- Peaches, apricots, and nectarines: Pick a few at various ripening stages. They will continue to ripen, therefore if they
are not being consumed at once, a variety of ripeness should be considered.
- Okra: Think small (< 5 inches). Long, large okra will be overly tough.
- Beets: Dark-red beets are known for their Betalains, a cancer-fighting property. Look for beets with their greens still attached.
- Cherries: There are many different varieties, so shop around. Don’t look at the cherries themselves to gauge ripeness, but rather, the stems. Aim for bright-green and flexible.
- Pineapple: March through June is the optimal time to buy pineapple. They are actually more of a spring treat than summer pool-side indulgence. Choose ones that are heavy, firm, and have dark-green leaves.
- Artichokes: Baby artichokes and their big brothers are similar to buying pineapples. They are best in the spring, should be plump and heavy, and have tightly closed leaves. Make sure there aren’t any black spots.
- Bok Choy (Chinese Cabbage): April is the month to get in all your bok choy joy. Talk to farmers to discover all the unique and fun ways you can use the different varieties.
USDA Farmer’s Market Directory: http://search.ams.usda.gov/farmersmarkets/