Aspen Saturday Market branches out
July 3, 2009
ASPEN – The Aspen Saturday Market might have started out as a place to fuel people with fresh produce, but after 12 years it has evolved into one of the most attended events in town and a venue for locals to become successful entrepreneurs.Over the last two years, the market has generated between $1.3 million and $1.5 million in sales each year, according Kathy Strickland, the manager of the event. It also draws between 2,000 and 2,500 people to downtown Aspen every Saturday.For the past seven years, the market has served as a place for dozens of start-up businesses to thrive, giving locals a chance to hone their skills as artists and make a living doing it.”Our goal was to be an incubator for businesses,” said Andrew Kole, a member of the Commercial Core and Lodging Commission (CCLC), which oversees the market. The CCLC changed course for the event in 2002 when artisans were allowed to set up shop in the outdoor market, which stretches 1 1/2 blocks along Hopkins Avenue and Hunter Street.At the time, about 30 people applied to be vendors at the market.”We had so many applications that we said ‘fine, we’ll make it bigger,'” Kole said.What was once a place to buy fresh produce from 14 Colorado farmers became a booming one-stop shop for jewelry, paintings, pottery, clothing and other wares – all created by Roaring Fork Valley residents. And today’s Aspen Saturday Market has become something of a launching pad for local entrepreneurs.Now, the market is heavy on artists and light on fresh food – there are 16 booths that fall under the produce category and 37 for artisans.”The idea was to help starving artists gain recognition,” Strickland said. “But it’s not a crafts show.”Maintaining the quality of the products offered always has been a top priority for market organizers, managers and participants. In addition to the CCLC, a farmers’ group and vendors who sit on a panel decide who’s in and who’s out each year. Every vendor has to reapply for a spot for the next summer, Strickland said. About four new vendors are added each year.The mix of vendors is routinely a subject of debate – some say that there is too much jewelry, despite the limit placed on those specific vendors in recent years. Others feel there should be more food and less art. Like all things Aspen, the Saturday market was controversial from its inception in 1998. Downtown business owners were afraid that the market would cut into their bottom lines; others feared it would become a flea market.”Not everyone wanted a market in Aspen … they thought it would discolor the flavor of Aspen,” said Jack D’Orio, a Paonia farmer who approached city officials and helped push the market through. “They didn’t want sleazy farmers up here and I would say 75 percent were against us coming in.”Numerous public hearings were held and Mitch Haas, who worked in the city’s community development department and was responsible for taking it through the approval process, felt he was vilianized.”We still laugh about that now … they said I was ruining town,” Haas recalled.Former Aspen mayor John Bennett, who led the push for a zoning change to establish the market, said he remembers the debate being extremely heated at times.”I remember becoming testy when a business owner off the mall made the statement that we didn’t need a bunch of farmers on our version of Rodeo Drive … I rose up in my chair and lectured him about this being a community event with organically grown produce and then said ‘furthermore, around here we still pronounce it ‘Row-dee-o Drive,'” Bennett recalled.As a former business owner in Aspen, Bennett said he understood proprietors’ concerns but the market’s success over the long term has benefited both the outdoor vendors and downtown business as a whole.
Dozens of local entrepreneurs say the exposure they’ve gotten from the market has launched their careers as business owners. What was once a hobby has become a sole source of income for them.That’s been the case for Brigi MacTavish, a former ski instructor who has sold her line of ladies pajamas and lounge wear to more than 100 retail stores around the country and Canada. She is currently working on a deal with a major department store and about to launch production overseas.She came to the market in 2003 and for two summers, she used the venue for market research. “I wanted to see if there was a market for my product,” MacTavish said. “I’ve always been appreciative of that platform.”Harmony Scott, who designs her own jewelry, now has a permanent store on the Hyman Avenue Mall. She got started at the market in 2003 and had a store in Carbondale at the time.”I think the Saturday market was the single biggest launch for me,” she said. “Sometimes people aren’t just going to walk through my door but the market sends traffic to my store and it’s a wonderful way to get the word out.”Scott was at the market for three years before she moved production of her jewelry to Bali; a requirement to be at the market is that vendors produce their wares locally.She noted that she never sold less than $3,500 in jewelry a day at the market. Scott was at the market on a recent Saturday in the Aspen Chamber Resort Association booth, which allows chamber members to get exposure by setting up on a weekly rotation.Scott acknowledged that she thinks there are too many jewelry booths at the market and too much competition between them. She also noted that she closes her Hyman Avenue Mall store when the market is held because there isn’t enough foot traffic during the day on that side of town.Becky Bourke, another jeweler who was set up a few spots away from the ACRA booth, said making jewelry was a hobby of hers for 11 years. That was until six years ago when she came to the market. Now her jewelry is in 20 stores around the country.She once held down multiple jobs, but said her jewelry business has grown ten-fold. “It’s my livelihood,” Bourke said.Alleghany Meadows, a Carbondale-based potter, was one of the first artisans to set up at the market. He brought in his Airstream trailer the next year.When he first came to the market, Meadows had a studio in Carbondale. Now, he owns the Harvey/Meadows Gallery at the base of Highlands with his business partner, Sam Harvey.”I think [the market] is a phenomenal incubator for business and it’s good for the community,” he said. “It allows me to make contact with customers and build relationships.”That’s precisely how Seth Sachson was able to build the Aspen Animal Shelter into what it is today. Sachson and the shelter had a small sliver of grass in Conner Park next to City Hall when he first appeared at the market in 1998. He met local philanthropist Cheryl Wyly at the market and she ended up donating millions of dollars to build the shelter at the Aspen Airport Business Center.”The Saturday market built the animal shelter,” he said. “It has played an integral role in the past, present and future of the shelter.”Set up under a tent a few feet from where he started, Sachson said at least one dog is adopted each Saturday. He also sells pet accessories, which helps fund the shelter operation.”It’s great public relations and it’s nice to get the dogs out, plus people learn about the facility and we can promote our events,” he said. Shirley Tipton, who on a recent Saturday was at the nonprofit booth promoting Pitkin County’s efforts to fight noxious weeds, also makes eco-leather fashion accessories with her three daughters. She is at the market every other week, rotating with another vendor.June 21 – the first market of the summer – was Tipton’s debut appearance. Within a few hours, she had sold her products to a woman who owns two retail shops in Minnesota and another person who lives in New Zealand. Both customers were in town for the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen.Tipton said she hopes to launch her business, Aspen Leather Workshop, out of the market and make it a permanent income stream.Jeff White, owner of Aspen Kettle Corn, says the market provides him with supplemental income. He’s also a 3rd-grade teacher at Aspen Elementary. He started at the market in 2003 with a fellow teacher and sales have skyrocketed ever since.”The whole reason that I can live in Aspen is because of the Saturday market,” he said. “I’m very grateful to be here.”
Bringing in the kettle corn booth was a controversial move for the CCLC, which voted 3 to 2 to allow it. Some market organizers didn’t want prepared food and thought it would take away from the market’s flavor.”The better part of valor and judgment won out,” Kole said, adding White is considered one of the most successful vendors partly because he draws people to the market just for his kettle corn.Strickland said for 11 years the market didn’t have hot, prepared food. But after surveying visitors and vendors, organizers decided to try it this year.”People want to walk around with food so we saw the need for light fare,” she said. “The purpose is to get people to stay longer.”Prepared food appears to be a hit for market patrons – a new stand with locally produced bratwurst at Conner Park had several people waiting for a taste on a recent Saturday afternoon.Some vendors and patrons think there’s room for more food – both prepared and farm fresh.Colorado State Senator and Snowmass resident Gail Schwartz visited the Aspen market last month. She said she’d like to see more farmers with more produce.”We can eat better than anyone in the country,” she said of Colorado farms, particularly those in District 5, which she represents. “We are regaining our appreciation of local produce.”Guy Borden, who owns Borden Farm in Delta, said having too many produce vendors wouldn’t work economically for the small farmers who come to Aspen every week.”You have to make a certain amount of money for it to be worth it,” he said, adding farmers typically need to make at least $1,000 in sales a day. “Some people drop out because they can’t hang on.”Borden, who sells produce at markets all over Colorado, said the Aspen market provides some exclusivity and as a result, the vendors are set up for success.Beyond the fresh ingredients and handcrafted wares, the Saturday market serves as a special gathering place for locals and tourists.”It is the social event of Saturday mornings,” said Aspen resident Ron Erickson. Bennett said the original idea was to limit the market to only fresh food. But the evolution seems to have been a favorable thing, Bennett said.”At least in the beginning, it was an urban experiment,” Bennett said, adding he and his wife can’t get out of the market in less than an hour and a half because they run into old friends. “It’s great for the community-building aspect because it gives neighbors a chance to meet and talk.”D’Orio, who worked with Bennett to form the market, said he’s participated in a lot of farmers markets over the years and none of them hold a candle to the Aspen Saturday Market.”I’m pretty pleased with the market,” he said. “It’s probably the best one on the Western Slope.”Kole took that thought one step further.”I bet we are the best market per block in the state,” he said. “I give it a solid A-plus.”firstname.lastname@example.org