With new regulations, Saratoga Farmers Market community finds reprieve from pandemic

March 5, 2021 — by Allison Hartley and Kaitlyn Tsai
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Photo by Allison Hartley

Masked and heeding social distance guidelines, customers strolled through the widened aisles of the farmers market on Feb. 6, purchasing everything from fresh fruits and fish to handmade dumplings. 

Despite the gloomy weather, the Saturday Saratoga Farmers Market at a West Valley College parking lot bustled with life on Feb. 13. Music from a live performance drifted over muffled chatter as customers, masked and heeding social distance markings on the ground, milled from stand to stand, purchasing fruits and vegetables, bouquets of flowers and freshly baked breads.

Throughout the pandemic, the farmers market has remained up and running, allowing local farmers and vendors to continue selling everything from fresh produce and fish to homemade nut butters and rotisserie chicken.

To ensure that the market, a hybrid of a grocery store and an outdoor event, complies with public health guidelines, manager Sergio Lacardi said he has been in constant contact with the Santa Clara County Public Health Department. Like at other essential businesses, vendors and customers have to take precautions like wearing masks, cleaning equipment and standing 6 feet apart. 

Because of the market’s outdoor setting, however, Lacardi and the vendors have had to make additional changes. Every week, Lacardi draws social distance markings on the ground, and market vendors have had to “completely redo” their booth setups, he said.

Whereas in the past, customers would walk in and out of booths as they pleased, they must now follow flow patterns. 

Vendors have rearranged their stands to limit capacity or separate customers, preventing them from having to continually count the number of people at their stand. Other sellers have additional space beside their tents for their lines.

Still, even old-timers like Jackie Funk, who has been a regular at the farmers market for 31 years, said the nature of the market remains much the same.

“People are having to wait, and there are lines, but there are still lots of wonderful food and lots of wonderful vendors,” she said. “You just have to make sure you take your time.”

Other safety measures have included a slightly different schedule, with the time slot from 8:30 a.m. to 9 a.m. reserved for seniors. Hot food vendors can only prepare food to-go, and sellers can no longer offer free samples.

“That hurt a lot of the fruit vendors because they would convince people to buy their stuff based on how sweet their samples are,” Lacardi said.

According to Funk, a few customers who are more at-risk or cautious stopped visiting, and Lacardi said a couple of vendors — mainly those in the at-risk group — did too, relying instead on revenue from wholesale. 

Even so, many customers like Amy Chan said they feel comfortable shopping there. She began coming to the market approximately six months ago and noted the customers and sellers seem “self-disciplined” and adhere to guidelines. 

For those who continue to come, visiting the farmers market provides a relatively safe and welcome distraction to pandemic gloom.

 

Mission Fish

Among five others working beneath the three canopies, Julie Moua sat for a moment on a cooler. With a long line of customers to serve, the staff shuffled around, preparing fish, wiping scales and processing sales.

The pandemic brought several upheavals to Moua and her coworkers at Mission Fish. 

“It was very stressful at first because we didn’t know anything about the pandemic,” she said.

Stationed in San Leandro, Mission Fish obtains most of its catch from Half Moon Bay. During slower seasons, however, the business purchases its salmon from the native tribes of British Columbia, of which the founder of Mission Fish, Pat O’Shea, was a member until his death in October 2019.

When the pandemic struck, the tribes halted their salmon shipments for several weeks because of the uncertainty surrounding the spread of the coronavirus. Even now, Moua said she feels slightly uneasy because “we don’t know if it’s gonna change again.”

The sellers have also had to adjust the way they run their stand. Aside from constantly cleaning scales and other equipment, they’ve reorganized their setup so they can only serve three customers at a time, with the rest standing in a line beside — and often extending far ahead of — the booth. 

According to Moua, the new line-up policy initially hurt business.

“Before last year, it was just whoever can get in can get in,” she said. “Now, everything needs to get set up in lines. It’s hard because customers are so used to not having a line that everybody is just like, ‘We have to go through this?’”

As the months passed, however, customers have grown accustomed to the pandemic procedures, and Moua said the business’ profits have only seen minor declines. In fact, the long line occasionally draws in curious new customers.

Despite her initial concerns, Moua said due to the market-implemented regulations and the outdoor setting, she generally feels safe working there. Having volunteered at the stand since age 13 and officially worked since age 16, Moua still looks forward to her weekly visits.

“I love all the people, and I know a lot of them personally now, so every weekend, it’s like visiting friends,” she said. “Everybody is usually really happy about us being here. And if they’re happy about us being here, then I’m happy to come here.”

 

Wise Goat Organics

Wise Goat Organics sells most of its products — vegan kimchi, mushroom hot chocolate mix and other gut-healthy goods — at farmers markets and used to enjoy the market when it was “busy and bustling,” said Anthony Vu, who works at the stand. But once the pandemic hit, business dramatically changed. 

“People were afraid to go out, so it definitely brought business down a little bit,” he said. “That changed about six months ago, when a lot of people started to be more conscious about wearing masks, but it’s still nothing compared to the pre-pandemic days.”

Even with some foot traffic restored, Vu said the restrictions on sampling make it more daunting for new customers to purchase their products. Now, word-of-mouth and regular customers make up a solid base of their sales. 

While he acknowledged the health risks of offering samples at the market, Vu said the opportunity to try products would boost sales for Wise Goat Organics and many other vendors.

Samples or not, Vu said he believes more people should visit the farmers market. Especially during the pandemic, he believes the farmers market is safer than a grocery store and gives people — including he and his wife — a chance to spend time outside.

“We work from home Monday through Friday, nine hours sitting in front of our computer,” Vu said. “Helping the community grab their groceries in an open place like this is definitely a lot safer than going to shop inside a grocery store.”

 

Roli Roti

Buoyant music blared from the Roli Roti food truck in the back corner of the market. There, alongside his fellow grillmasters, Sean Ryan prepared racks of rotisserie chicken, ready to sell to a line of customers.

Ryan said that Roli Roti, a 19-year-old business of six food trucks, has seen steady sales at the markets they visit across the Bay Area. The Saratoga Farmers Market has been one of the more successful ones, bringing in roughly the same level of sales as they did pre-pandemic. 

“People still want to come out and buy chicken, and I still want to sell it and cook it, so it works out really well,” he said. “I’m happy to get outside, pretend nothing’s wrong for a couple hours and carry on with my life.”

In terms of public health guidelines, Ryan said he and his coworkers have to make sure customers line up and maintain social distance. Other regulations, like covering the food, washing hands and wearing masks, have been more than manageable and help Ryan feel safe.

“I’ve been out here every day, and I’m still chugging along,” he said. “I don’t mind the mask either; it keeps the hot grease from splashing in my face.”

The pandemic hasn’t deterred Ryan from deriving joy from his job, which he started almost four years ago. 

“I love coming out to the markets because I get to have a lot of independence and a lot of happy people eating delicious chicken,” he said. “This is our livelihood, so we’re all doing what we need to do to make sure we can keep coming here, and people can keep coming here to get some delicious foods.”