On any given Saturday morning from April through October, Tower Grove Park in south St. Louis is abuzz with activity. You can start your morning doing yoga with 200 other St. Louisans before shopping regionally grown produce, from summer tomatoes and peaches to unusual finds like cucamelons. Pick up handmade earrings or soaps, daylily bulbs or dog food. Then, grab a coffee and a breakfast hand pie, sandwich, or burrito and browse dozens of small businesses – you’ll probably run into a friend or two, too.
The Tower Grove Farmers Market has become such a staple of St. Louis culture, it’s hard to imagine a time when it didn’t exist. When Patrick Horine and Jenny Ryan launched the market at Tower Grove Park in 2006, they had about 500 visitors shopping 13 vendors.
“I remember the first market – we were stoked for 500 people,” says Chris Geden, program manager for the City of St. Louis, who works as liaison between the market and the city. “I’d say we now see about 5,000 people each Saturday. We’ve grown from 20, 25 vendors to 140 on a good day. The coolest thing is that a lot of our vendors now have brick and mortars.”
Indeed, some of the region’s most beloved food-and-drink purveyors began as vendors at the Tower Grove Farmers Market, including Kounter Kulture, Whisk: A Sustainable Bakeshop, Southwest Diner, Core + Rind, Made Fare Granola Co., Big Heart Tea Co. and Kuva Coffee Co.
“It’s a really great way to connect with everybody in St. Louis and find out what they like, and then take that back to work and factor it into what you’re doing,” says Christina Capstick, brew goddess (official title) with Companion Kombucha. “It really helps the business grow.”
What strikes many vendors and shoppers as a hallmark of the market’s success is the community it has built. Instead of competing, vendors are each other’s customers and supporters.
Megan Rice, co-owner of Mister’s Bake Shop, which sells hand pies, was surprised by this ethos when she first arrived at the market from her hometown of Los Angeles.
“Nobody’s like, ‘I’m selling this, so you can’t,’” Rice says. “There’s room for everyone to succeed, and because of that, everybody supports each other which is, I think, a very cool and very uniquely St. Louis thing that you wouldn’t find in a lot of other cities.”
Katie Sheets of Graffiti Grub, which serves southern and Cajun-style food, agrees that it’s helpful to have so many local ingredients available when they come to sell at Tower Grove Farmers Market.
“We grab whatever we’re going to need for the week, as much as possible, from our meat to our produce,” Sheets says. “That’s one of the best things about being here – it’s all right here for the taking. I absolutely love it; it’s the best place I’ve ever worked in my life. It’s like a family: Everybody roots for each other.
It’s just a really good feeling to be a small-time business and help other small-time businesses.”
Tower Grove Farmers Market General Manager Katherine Smith recalls a recent Saturday after a huge storm, where farmers showed up from all over with thousands of dollars of produce and no one to sell to. Other vendors like Mister’s Bake Shop, Whisk Bakeshop and Poptimism began arriving, and started passing out hand pies, baked goods and popsicles to fellow vendors.
“The beautiful part of this market is the relationships that you build,” Smith says. “There’s that mutual respect there. It’s this beautiful community of people saying, ‘Here’s what I’m bringing to the table. What do you have?’ And then it’s this lovely exchange.
That’s what this market is.”
As the market has grown over the last 15 years, it’s expanded into a Tuesday night market in Tower Grove Park and a Sunday market at The Boulevard in Richmond Heights. And it’s not done expanding; Smith estimates she processed more than 500 vendor applications this year.
“Part of why I do this job is I want to see St. Louis grow in the economy. Every single artisan and farmer here, you’re feeding their family. You’re pouring money right back into St. Louis, and I love that,” Smith says. “It grows every single year because you’re watching people give it all they have and be supported by the Tower Grove community, which is amazing.”
Karen “Mimo” Davis of Urban Buds has been selling flowers at the farmers market for a decade, and the relationships with other vendors are a key reason she continues to participate.
“The farmers are a really tight-knit group of people. I love it, and it’s been built over time now,” she says. “If you’re not coming to the Tower Grove Farmers Market Saturday morning, you’re missing out on one of the city’s greatest treasures.”
Davis has been growing cut flowers for 30 years, previously on a farm two hours from the city of St. Louis. Looking to reduce her commute to the market and her carbon footprint, she relocated to an urban farm on an acre in nearby Dutchtown.
“You can’t beat being two miles from your farmers market on a Saturday morning,” Davis shares with a smile.
Dan Johanning, owner of Crisp Rip, is a more recent addition to the market, selling breakfast burritos and mac ‘n’ cheese. An alum of nearby Local Harvest Grocery, he hopes to evolve Crisp Rip into a brick-and-mortar café. So far, Crisp Rip has been selling out most market days, and he plans to use the opportunity to grow slowly and ensure the quality of food and service is still there. The space to grow responsibly paired with the community of customers, farmers and artisans is what makes Tower Grove Farmers Market an ideal venue for Crisp Rip.
“Everybody is super supportive, even when we’re sold out. People will walk by and they’re like, ‘That’s good for you, bad for us. We wanted a burrito, but we’re super happy for you,’” Johanning says.
“St. Louis is just a town that wants to support their local makers, their local chefs, their local restaurants, beer, everything,” says Johanning. “We’re a very tight-knit community, so I think that’s a big part of it, and Tower Grove Park being central to that atmosphere – it really helps bring everybody together.”
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