Virginia Commonwealth University

The 17th Street Farmers’ Market: A lesson in loyalty

Posted: October 16th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Portfolio | No Comments »

By Doug Callahan, Veronica Garabelli, Eric Steigleder

Related Links: Market Slideshow | Vendor Profile | Poll

Harvey Fuell sells paper mache figurines at the 17th Street Farmers' Market.

RICHMOND, Va. – At the 17th Street Farmers’ Market, business isn’t exactly booming. But the one thing that seems to combat a slow spell is a loyal customer base.

“There’s people that are generational that come here,” said George Bolos, the manager of the market.

“There’s just the romance and nostalgia of coming to the market for multiple generations to come to buy vegetables,” Bolos said.

Behind the various stands, there is a mix of market rookies and veteran vendors, and those with deeper roots seem to have the advantage.

Myrna Duenas and her husband, Luis Duenas, sell shirts from El Salvador, hand-dyed with indigo by Luis’ three sons. She said they have had their stand at the market for about two months, and are still working on building the business.

“We don’t sell too much,” Myrna Duenas said. “Some people have for years and they have customers they know.”

“It’s the oldest continuous outdoor market in the United States,” Bolos said, “And we’re subject, like anybody else, to the weather. And the weather has taken a definite beating on us.”

The weather is not only causing a slower flow of customers, it’s also affecting Virginia’s crop production. According to the Virginia Farm Bureau’s website, 88 percent of Virginia’s farmland has been hurt by heat and drought as of July 25.

Though developing relationships with regular customers is a proven way to improve business at the market, Harvey Fuell has taken an entirely different approach. He doesn’t care about making money at all. Fuell is an 84-year-old World War II veteran, who sells paper mache figurines at low, negotiable prices. That is, of course, when he chooses to charge anything at all.

“People get at me for selling it so cheap,” Fuell said. “But I’m not trying to make no money. I’ve just been doing it because it’s a hobby.”

And the difficulty of starting to sell at the market has not intimidated people from wanting to be a part of it. Donna Francis, who manages Natures Choice Farms, is a customer who said she might become a vendor.

“When I came here for the first time, last year, there were only three vendors here,” Francis said. “This is a big change. It’s nice to see life here.”

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