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St. John’s Farmers' Market vendor selection rankles Flavours of India entrepreneurs

Harsha Deshpande operates Flavours of India with help from her husband, Akhil.
Harsha Deshpande operates Flavours of India with help from her husband, Akhil. - Contributed

Entrepreneurs say the market lineup is too static

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. —

A metro couple who operate an Indian food business say it's time the St. Johns' Farmers Market shakes up its vendors list to allow newcomers a fair chance. 

Harsha and Akhil Deshpande, owners of Flavours of India, were turned down for a spot at the market this year because it already has two vendors who sell similar food. 

“Having a co-operative business is fine to have their own policies, but since they have taken huge public money, they are supposed to look after new businesses more than keeping their old ones,” Akhil said.

The couple, who prepare authentic East Indian food, contacted St. John’s city council and were told the market is independent and sets its own vendor policies.

But the Deshpandes say it’s unfair that there’s no new opportunities for emerging businesses at the market, which tapped into taxpayer funding from the city, and from the provincial and federal governments, in order to set up the new Freshwater Road complex, a renovated former Metrobus depot, which it leases from the city. The City of St. John’s contributed $2 million through its capital budget to the market, close to $1.17 million came from the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency and $490,000 from the  provincial government.

The city in a statement said  it does not have any involvement in the selection of vendors – please refer your questions to the St. John’s Farmer’s Market directly. 

The couple have been in business a year and attend as many events as they can, including the St. John’s Regatta, the St. John's Night Market and events out of town such as the market in Brigus and the Brigus Blueberry Festival. They were busy over the summer with all those events. 

But it's a spot at the St John's Farmers' Market that would give them the most exposure and allow them to expand their food business, the couple say. 

“We would get the customer base, their exposure and there (at the farmers' market) people would get to know us,” Akhil said, adding that if they do well, they could perhaps move on and let someone else in. 

“Our point is they were mandated for something,” said Akhil, who insists the farmers' market should go back to being an incubator for new business, which was included in its request for proposals associated with the new location.

That mandate said the market "aims to be a key pillar of local food security, to serve as an incubator for new local businesses, to support the cooperative movement, and to provide a space for the community to gather and connect," Akhil noted.

“They are not following that. They are keeping all the old vendors and blocking all the new vendors," he said.

“They don’t want to say to their vendors ‘Move out.’ They are saying they are saturated and they don’t want to take any more. (The existing vendors) are basically forever now. … If (the market) had not taken public money, yeah, they could do whatever they want.” 

Other events can be hit and miss, the couple say. They prepare the food at rental commercial kitchens in St. John’s and metro, and bring it to events, and it’s hard to judge how much they need so there’s no wastage, they said.

A spot at the farmers' market and access to facilities such as a stall with a fridge would be a big help, Akhil said.

The couple had a space at the international bazaar that operated on Wednesday nights but has been discontinued. That market was operated by a separate organizer, who rented space from the non-profit St. John’s Farmers' Market and was not as well attended as hoped, Akhil said.

The farmers’ market staff who happened to be on site on those occasions didn’t seem friendly, the couple say.

“They didn’t welcome us,” said Harsha. 

Their business is run by Harsha, but Akhil helps out. He has a full-time job and she has a part-time job. Their two sons also help. The family has a passion for sharing the authentic food.  

“She is the lead and I support in the background,” Akhil said. 

Similar vendors

St. John’s Farmers’ Market executive director Pam Anstey. - SaltWire File Photo
St. John’s Farmers’ Market executive director Pam Anstey. - SaltWire File Photo

In an email, St. John's Farmers' Market executive director Pam Anstey said she explained to the Deshpandes that the market currently has two food vendors who sell a similar product and is unable to accept another vendor in that role.

“This sort of situation is not uncommon. We do have vendors who would like to be here, but sell products that are very similar to other existing vendors, and as such we are not able to accept them, either,” Anstey said.

“Typically, most farmers’ markets do not rotate vendors at all. They simply rent established and permanent booths to vendors until their space is full. After that, new vendors wishing to be part of such a market must wait until an existing vendor chooses to leave, creating an opening.”

Anstey said the St. John’s Farmers' Market is  based on a more blended model, with a combination of anchor (permanent and ongoing) vendors and rotating vendors, which provides diversity for customers and the public, while ensuring that customers can also find their favourites every week.  

“We work hard to be an incubator of small business for entrepreneurs in this city and currently support more than 150 small businesses with vendors from almost 20 countries. At the same time, we must also maintain a balance of product offerings at the market,” Anstey said. “This means that sometimes we may not be able to accept people who may have a product offering that closely resembles a vendor that is already here. On other occasions, it may simply be that we have as many vendors as we can reasonably accommodate and are simply unable to add more.” 

She said Flavours of India is welcome to check back next year when the farmers' market opens vendor applications for 2020.    

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