Riverhead’s indoor farmers market, which has moved around among a few different vacant East Main Street stores since its inception in 2014, may be moving for the last time.
East End Food Institute, which took over operation of the popular winter market in November 2019, is moving the market to an iconic space with deep roots in local agriculture. The farmers market will open Nov. 27 — Small Business Saturday — at the former site of Homeside Florist and Greenhouses on Main Road in Riverhead which closed on Dec. 31, 2018.
The sprawling greenhouse operation on the four-acre property, owned and operated by Ernie Olsen and his family since 1954, dated back to before the Great Depression.
“It’s so exciting to be able to repurpose this fabulous space in a way that’s consistent with its history,” East End Food Institute Executive Director Kate Fullam said at the site Friday afternoon.
The 5,000-square-foot building, which Fullam called “a nice blank slate,” will provide space for 45 vendors in the retail market, the same number as in the past, Fullam said, though the vendors stalls will be arranged in aisles, rather than around the perimeter. The space will also provide the market’s vendors with storage space as well as the opportunity for permanent set-up during the winter season, so growers and other vendors won’t have to “be schlepping their stuff all over the place,” Fullam said. There’s also great access for vendors’ vehicles and plenty of parking for them as well as their customers, she said.
There will be a greater emphasis on vendors who sell farm products and local seafood than in the past, Fullam said.
East End Food Institute took on the farmers market downtown in 2019, which almost didn’t open that fall, she said. “We signed the lease, took on the insurance. My board was really excited about it,” she said.
“When the pandemic hit we pivoted towards a virtual market so we could do home delivery and helped a lot of local vendors that way,” she said. “But I think the biggest way that we accomplished our mission during that time was engaging the network and helping people to problem-solve and work together where needed and that’s where a I saw resiliency within the local food system really come into play,” Fullam said.
The food institute was collaborating with local food pantries. “We were also hearing from fishermen and farmers that because restaurants were closed, they were having a hard time selling their products,” Fullam said. “So we go some temporary grant funding to produce meals that would supplement the food pantry with local sea food, with ingredients from local farms. We kept our staff employed and employed local restaurant workers that were out of work and kept the economic engine running in the local food system” she said.
The retail farmers market, which will run in the off-season, is just one piece of East End Food Institute’s work to fulfill its mission of supporting promoting and advocating for the farmers, vintners, fishermen, and other food producers and providers on the East End.
Fullam is brimming with excitement and ideas. Among them, she envisions testing a midweek wholesale market during the summer season, “where restaurant chefs can come to see, taste, and talk.
The nonprofit, based at the Stony Brook University Southampton campus, has a number of functions aimed at supporting food systems on the East End, from processing local produce to create locally sourced food products, supplying several East End school districts, including Riverhead, to providing incubator space that allows local chefs to create products using local produce.
The population boom on the East End during the pandemic created new needs. “Our food production program has exponentially gown, over the past few years,” Fullam said. “It started out with me in the kitchen making tomato jam and pickles for our first two clients. Now we have a team of eight to 10 people in the kitchen each day,’ she said.
And the organization’s long-term plans include a 7,500-square-foot processing and production facility and incubator to be built perpendicular to the existing building. It will be similar to what the food institute currently has in Southampton, but “designed with a better flow to help more local producers,” Fullam said.
The organization signed a three-year lease with owners who bought the site from Homeside Florist and Greenhouses, Mattituck builders Paul Pawlowski and Kenneth Ballato.
Pawlowski said in a phone interview Wednesday the East End Food Institute’s plan is “really a perfect use for the site.” He said he’s excited about it. Fullam, he said, “has great energy.”
Fullam said she’s been talking with town officials about the group’s short-term and long-term plans for the site. They’ve been very supportive, she said. She’s also been working with Assemblyman Fred Thiele and the L.I. Farm Bureau.
East End Food Institute sees the site as a “growing food hub,” Fullam said.
“I’m hoping this location will connect local businesses from the East End to points west,” she said.
The functions filled by the institute will always need to be provided by a nonprofit organization with public support, Fullam said. It just doesn’t work in a for-profit context, because it can’t generate the revenue needed to be profitable, she said. “What we’re doing really doesn’t make good business sense,” she said. “It has to be subsidized by grants and donations. Hopefully the community sees the need and then supports it,” she said.
“If people want to see a vibrant local food system, they need to be supporting organizations like ours to bring projects like this forward,” Fullam said. “Then it creates a nice foundation for agriculture and food business to thrive because if the infrastructure doesn’t exist, they can’t,” she said.
“This can be an important next step for food systems resiliency,” Fullam said.
The farmers market will be open Saturdays from Nov. 27 through April 30, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. It will be accepting Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits and is working with the Field and Fork Network to offer SNAP-eligible shoppers a $1-to-$1 match through its Double Up Food Bucks program to encourage the purchase of healthy, locally grown fruits and vegetables.
Correction: This article has been updated to correct the start date of the farmers market, which will launch Saturday, Nov. 27, not Nov. 30 as first reported. It has also been amended to reflect that Assemblyman Fred Thiele has been working to assist East End Food Institute.
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