ST PETE BEACH, FLORIDA: They are athletic clowns who would rather turn hard work into play time. They get a bad rap sometimes thanks to folks who just don’t understand them. They are also virtually fearless and generally love people. And there are folks who are just plain afraid of them, usually for no reason at all.
“Yep. That’s me!” says the Beach Markets Operations Manager, Laura Garrison. “And don’t forget, we Pit Bulls were originally employed as Nannies!”
Pit Bulls are also extremely devoted to, and protective of, those they hold dear. In Garrison’s case, she’s devoted to the Vendors she refers to as her “Vending Family.”
Being a full time Vendor in an open air market is a much more challenging form of work than most people are aware of and Garrison bristles when someone makes the assumption that she or her Vendors at the Fresh Markets she runs are hobbyists. “Our vendors are some of the hardest working folks you’ll find in this—or any– industry. For most of us, this is a ‘full time and then some’ occupation. We’re either busy creating our products, expanding our product lines, promoting our businesses, or going to market. This isn’t a simple pastime for us, it’s a livelihood.”
And for Garrison, the Markets are a passion. While she maintains a vending presence at the Sarasota Farmer’s Market, she spends “the other five and a half days of the work week” focusing on the Beach Area Markets–the Mid-Week Madeira Beach Open Air Market held on Wednesdays and the Indian Shores Sunday Morning Market– that she and her husband Dan manage. Her vendors’ needs come first. “We’ve been on the phone together, brainstorming, at 11pm,” says Rosa LaBelle of Everyday Meals. “She’s authentic, really cares about us as vendors and she really wants the best for us and our businesses.” Garrison sends weekly email updates to the vending family and networks heavily outside of the market on behalf of the Markets and the vendors. “We love the way she stays on top of things and keeps us informed,” says Audrey Rinker of Southern Belle’s Cottage Creations.
A fact that Garrison is especially proud of is that her vendors are an amazing and extremely talented collection of people with a tremendous wealth of life experiences to offer. Says Garrison: “We have vendors who hold advanced degrees and have taught around the globe. We have other vendors who have gone on to open their own establishments–and several who have chosen to vend rather than maintain a storefront with employees. Several of our vendors have created product lines that have been picked up by nation-wide chains, such as our Granola Girls of Tanya’s Toasted Granola. Still others have made the front covers of major publications with their products.” And Garrison is keen on helping up and coming vendors that show the dedication and the desire to grow their product lines: “She helped make my dream a reality,” says Rinker of Southern Belle’s Cottage Bakery. “She showed me the ropes and made everything so easy.” Garrison recently introduced Rinker’s hand-painted cookie products to representatives from over 250 local businesses.
As the Market Operations Manager (aka “MOM”), Garrison receives hundreds of emails and phone calls each week from prospective vendors. “Not everyone has what it takes to be a vendor. I really want everyone to succeed, especially as entrepreneurs and yet it is imperative to maintain certain boundaries with respect to our Markets. We’re not resale Markets, we do not promote retail and all of our vendors are hands-on owners and operators. Does it upset some people when I won’t allow them into the Market as vendors? Yes. I’ve even overheard people discussing how “scary” talking to me about becoming a vendor–or building their vending business– can be. The fact remains that the Market is a business and we, as vendors, are small businesses within this larger model. Even crocheting wire jewelry at Market, like Heidi of Dancing Buffalo does, requires work. Her designs are beautiful, inspired and unique and take copious amounts of time. I’ve heard customers comment on “How nice it must be to sit and crochet at work!” as they visit Heidi at her booth. The point is that what Heidi does is still work for Heidi. Outside of the Market, Heidi is a ballerina. And this lovely ballerina comes to market with hundreds of pounds of gear that has to be to set up before she can sit there and work.”
The Beach Markets are also very exclusionary Markets in some respects. While some markets may encourage overlapping product lines, Garrison won’t allow it. “I have 28 applicants, right now, for example, who want to sell jams and jellies at the Mid-Week Madeira Beach Open Air Market. My jam maker, Kat Klingerman of Sophie Ann’s Jams, however, hand-makes extraordinary jams, jellies and chutneys. Why would I want to detract from her business by allowing other people in that sell what she sells?” says Garrison.
Garrison has run other markets, events and workshops, both here and abroad, yet she is quick to refer to the Beach areas as her home base. Visit either of the Beach Area Markets two-three hours before its opening and you’ll already find both of the Garrisons striding from one end of the Market to the other. “As vendors ourselves, we are already very seasoned and still work ‘in the trenches; we know what it takes to build a strong Market and we’re very connected with the vendor network. And, as a Board Officer on three of the best Markets in Central Florida, I’m held to very high standards of maintaining the best sense of balance and fairness within our Markets. We all work very hard to maintain the positive ratings from the State level and from our customers and building a database of great vendors takes years. I’m exceptionally proud of our vending family in both of our Beach Markets.”
Garrison makes it a point to connect with the vendors to solicit input for–and feedback about– the Markets and goes out of her way to hug each of the vendors during the Market day. “She’s impossible to keep up with,” says Kevin Ritter of Fudge Boys. “She must put in twenty five miles or more every Market. She loves us, she really does. And we love her.”