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Farmers Markets Become Springboards For Local Companies

Farmers markets are best known for showcasing small businesses that don’t grow beyond the borders of their booths. But many fast-growing companies — some with a nationwide presence — got their start selling products from sunny outdoor stalls in San Diego.

Farmers markets allow vendors to test their goods with the public in a relatively cheap and low-risk way. That’s important because customer feedback drives product development, helping entrepreneurs fine-tune their offerings or refocus their businesses when necessary.

For example, one local company, Bitchin’ Sauce, started off as a personal chef business, but pivoted after the founders realized one of their sauces was particularly popular with farmers market customers. Today, they strictly sell pre-made sauces, spreads, and dips.

Another company, Once Upon a Farm, discovered the most palatable baby food recipes for children by surveying parents at local farmers markets. And local beverage company OH! Juice designed its most popular juice cleanse packages after sampling various flavors to hundreds of farmers market customers.

“Farmers markets can be really laborious, but at the end of the day it’s worth it,” said OH! Juice founder Hanna Gregor. “Hundreds of people may not walk through your brick-and-mortar store or tasting room, but they’re walking through the farmers market every day.”

While small farms and local artisans are key contributors to farmers markets, it’s often these ready-made grocery vendors such as Bitchin’ Sauce and Once Upon a Farm that tend to take off, said Catt Fields White, CEO of San Diego Markets, the organization that manages three of the city’s largest farmers markets.

Some companies transition from farmers markets to opening restaurants or retail locations, but White said many of the most successful vendors are those doing wholesale or e-commerce models.

It would be tough to name all of the successful businesses that got their starts in farmers market stalls. After all, there are more than 40 local farmers markets in the county, according to the San Diego Farm Bureau.

Still, we found six companies that caught our eye for their growth into wholesale or retail. Here are a half-dozen San Diego companies that started in farmers markets and expanded into thriving local businesses.

Once Upon a Farm

Once Upon a Farm, founded in 2015, got its start selling baby food in the farmers market stalls of Little Italy and Pacific Beach. The company sells organic baby food that doesn’t use heat during processing, as heat is said to compromise the nutritional density of fruit and veggies. Instead, the company uses high-pressure processing, or HPP, the same method used to make the popular beverage Suja Juice.

The healthier baby food was a hit with parents at local markets, prompting founder Cassandra Curtis to sell the product in grocery stores and online. By August of this year, the company’s products will be in over 600 stores across the nation, including Whole Foods, Kroger, Bristol Farms, and Jimbo’s…Naturally!.

The company also has a successful e-commerce model, gaining 40 percent of its revenues from a monthly subscription model that has the product shipped directly to parents.

Once Upon a Farm has also raised $5 million in startup capital to fuel growth, and is launching two new product lines later this year.

Photo courtesy of Bitchin’ Sauce
Bitchin’ Sauce makes a line of almond-based dips available in 400 stores.

Bitchin’ Sauce

This popular Carlsbad-based company makes an almond-based dip/spread product sold every day of the week in local farmers markets. Founded by three siblings in their 20s — Starr Edwards, Ryan Smith, and Porter Smith — the company was originally meant to be a personal chef business. After selling some early homemade foods at local farmers markets, the siblings realized their special sauce was a big hit, causing them to rethink their business plan and focus on the sauce.

Today, the company’s products are in over 400 stores nationwide, including Whole Foods, Lassens, and Natural Grocers.

Café Virtuoso has over 150 wholesale accounts since its early days at farmers markets.

Café Virtuoso

Local artisan coffee roaster Café Virtuoso began selling its coffee at farmers markets throughout San Diego in 2008, but quickly evolved the company into a successful wholesale business. As of February, the company had over 150 wholesale contracts, including some of the swankiest hotels and restaurants in San Diego. Café Virtuoso also has a brick-and-mortar café at its roasting facility in Barrio Logan.

The company, founded by Laurie Britton, recently launched a nonprofit called the San Diego Coffee Training Institute that will provide specialty coffee training and job skills to the city’s disadvantaged and at-risk population.

The Cravory recently opened a second location in Carlsbad.

The Cravory

San Diego cookie company The Cravory was founded in 2014 by two young founders, Adam Koven and Nate Ransom, who began selling their confections at the La Jolla farmers market.

The cookie company is known for dabbling in unusual flavors such as rosemary balsamic and pancakes and bacon. The concept for The Cravory was inspired by businesses such as Cold Stone Creamery, which popularized the concept of allowing customers to customize their desserts by selecting an ice cream flavor and an assortment of “mix-ins,” from berries to brownies.

Today, The Cravory has a retail location in Point Loma, and a new (and bigger) location in Carlsbad. In addition to selling cookies at the local shops and farmers markets, the company sells cookies online, as corporate gifts, wholesale to more than 100 local shops and via a monthly subscription. Back in 2015, the company’s revenue was $1.2 million.

Photo courtesy of OH! Juice
OH! Juice has expanded to three locations since its founding in 2013.

OH! Juice

Craft juice maker OH! Juice, founded in 2013 by Hanna Gregor, originally sold cold-pressed juice at a few local farmers markets. Today, the company has a brick-and-mortar location at T Short Galleries in Downtown San Diego, a new tasting room in Carlsbad, and is opening a new location in the heart of Encinitas off Highway 101 in September.

Gregor said the company recently raised $500,000 from an angel investor, which allowed the company to invest in its latest brick-and-mortar location.

Four years ago, the company was selling a couple hundred juices per week at local farmers markets. Today, the company is selling closer to 600 bottles per day, and Gregor expects that number will balloon once the new café in Encinitas opens.

Nearly half of OH! Juice’s customers are either signed up for the company’s six-week cleansing programs or pre-order a six pack at a time.

Photo courtesy of Baba Foods
Baba Foods is stocked in over 80 grocery stores.

Baba Foods

San Diego’s Baba Foods, founded by Anis Ben, is a big name among local farmers market entrepreneurs. For the past seven years, the company has sold in more than 89 farmers markets, many of them right here in San Diego The company’s products — hummus, pita chips, dips, and salads — can still be found at local farmers markets nearly every day of the week, from stalls in Coronado to Lakeside.

But behind the scenes, the company’s wholesale business is beginning to take off. The company’s foods are stocked in over 80 grocery stores including Costco, Jimbo’s and Vons.

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