For Baltimore food entrepreneurs, farmers' markets serve as launching pad for permanent shops

Nikhil "Nick" Yesupriya remembers exactly what he ate the first time he visited Blacksauce Kitchen at the Baltimore Farmers' Market and Bazaar: braised pear on a biscuit with the sage on top.

"That just blew me away," he said.

Still in college at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, Yesupriya would return to his dorm to tell his friend Steve Chu about what he tasted. Seeing the power of two guys with a barbecue pit changed the way he thought about food, he said.

Blacksauce would ultimately spark inspiration for Chu and Yesupriya to team up with another college friend, Ephrem Abebe, and take their Asian comfort cuisine to the Fells Point Farmers' Market under the brand Ekiben. Now, Blacksauce and Ekiben have grown beyond their farmers' market roots to open brick-and-mortar shops.

Baltimore's farmers' markets, many of which are reopening for the season, have provided springboards for a number of shops and restaurants. Market stands have their advantages, but entrepreneurs that have taken the leap to a permanent storefront say brick-and-mortar shops provide more stability, give them space to build stronger brands and allow them to experiment in the kitchen.

Ekiben celebrated its first year in business at its Eastern Avenue storefront in March. And Blacksauce began opening its doors in Remington once a week in January. Other shops recently born from farmers' markets include Center Cut Doughnuts in Hampden and Blk // Sugar (pronounced "black sugar") in R. House food hall.

"We knew that it was possible to start small because of Blacksauce," Yesupriya said. "We knew we just had to go out there and do our thing, just grind a little bit and just be true to ourselves and do it like small and locally, and then we could get big. And we only knew that because of Blacksauce and other market vendors."

With a low cost of entry and an instant connection to customers, farmers' markets are a natural starting point for many small businesses, said Amy Crone, executive director of the Maryland Farmers Market Association.

"This is definitely a trend, and it's kind of a historical function of farmers markets in the sense that they're often business incubators," Crone said. "You very quickly figure out what your personal strengths are in your business as well as what your product strengths are."

Not all vendors aim to scale their business, she said, but it is a natural progression.

Blk // Sugar owner Krystal Mack said she wasn't ready to open a brick-and-mortar shop when the developers behind R. House approached her about bringing her baked goods to the food hall. She got her start selling her KarmaPop popsicles and pies on her PieCycle, a dessert-carting tricycle, at markets and pop-up events. Despite some growing pains, opening the stall that she shares with Little Baby's Ice Cream at R. House has helped her establish an identity.

"This is my time to share with people who I am because for the longest time I was just the chick on the tricycle with the pie, and I didn't really have a true, you know, identity," she said. "It's like the tricycle was my identity. And now this space has allowed me or afforded me the opportunity to have a true concept and brand that was true to myself."

About 2.3 million customers shopped at farmers' markets statewide in 2016, Crone said. And the followings that vendors build at farmers' markets can help generate early support in their new locations. Center Cut Doughnuts owner Josh Kowitz operated at the Hampden Farmers' Market for two seasons before opening his shop in January. He said market customers have followed him there.

Starting at a market taught him not to be shy about selling his food.

"People ... would walk by and then just be like, 'Oh, these are really pretty,'" he said. "And I was like, 'Well, you should put them in your mouth and try them.' Sometimes they would."

The former credit analyst said he never intended to make a living from doughnuts, but he took on the shop as a full-time gig this year.

Although Kowitz is focusing on his store now, he said he plans to continue to operate at farmers' markets in the future (though probably not in Hampden — he doesn't want to compete with himself).

Blacksauce Kitchen relies on two markets a week and catering jobs in addition to Thursdays at its permanent shop. Owner Damian Mosley and his team spent more than a year cooking out of the Remington building before opening to the public.

"We just for years have played all away games and we just wanted to play some home games," he said. "When we moved into our new building, it had a storefront in there so it made sense."

A line stretched down the counter during the lunch rush last Thursday, when it was clear the shop had amassed a following. Customers were greeted by name, and Mosley waved to them from the kitchen.

Hampden residents Ben and Natalie Johnson, both 32, stopped in for lunch. Ben was wearing a Blacksauce Kitchen T-shirt with the phrase "biscuithead" on the front. They said they have been coming to Blacksauce Kitchen's stand at the market beneath the Jones Falls Expressway for at least five years.

"They're really just charming and pleasant," Natalie Johnson said. "Damian knows so many people ... he remembers the customers, so it's good food and it's not just like, 'Here's your biscuit, have a nice day.'"

Blacksauce Kitchen is typically her last stop during weekly trips to the Sunday market, and she brings home biscuit sandwiches.

"I literally come home and say, 'I have biscuits,' and that's how I wake [Ben] up Sunday morning," she said.

Blacksauce catered the Johnsons' wedding in 2015, and they said their guests still talk about the menu, which included fried chicken, roasted Brussels sprouts, pork loin and heirloom grits.

Alex Viana, 32, another loyal customer, said he discovered Blacksauce when the company catered a friend's wedding last summer.

"It got to the point where I had to choose between being able to dance and eating more," he said. He chose the food.

Now, he makes the drive from his Federal Hill office for a "standing Thursday meeting" at the Remington shop.

Plenty of others come to the shop on its one open day a week, but Mosley is evaluating how much revenue it brings in and how consistent business is.

"It's really hard to imagine trading, swapping out catering where you know a year in advance that you have 'X' amount of weddings and you maybe collect a 50-percent deposit on them," he said. "Trading that out for a model where we're waiting for people to come in the door? I don't know. I don't know that we're going to do that."

While Blacksauce is evaluating whether to take on more work from the storefront, Ekiben is preparing for growth by adding more markets to its schedule. On top of its home at the Fells Point Farmers' Market, Ekiben will join the Baltimore Farmers' Market and Bazaar, the Harbor Market at McKeldin Square and the Rotunda Farmers' Market in Hampden.

The Maryland Farmers Market Association estimates farmers' markets throughout the state generated $51 million in sales last year — an average of $148,000 per market.

But markets come with their own challenges, and they're a better fit for certain types of food.

"The heat is tough," Kowitz said, particularly for doughnuts. "They would sit in the heat and the icing would melt."

For year-round markets like Waverly, the opposite is true.

"We have not missed a farmers' market since we started doing it. If we missed it, it was because the entire market closed for a snow storm or something," Mosley said. "When it's 22 degrees, the number of times that people say, 'Thank you for being here' — it blows me away."

Until Kowitz joins another market, he's focusing on expanding his offerings at the shop, adding savory pastries like knishes and doughnut-wrapped hotdogs. He's also launched doughnut delivery.

Mack, on the other hand, is scaling back her market involvement to focus on her shop in R. House, where she spends 12 to 15 hours daily. It's a different pace than her PieCycle days, but ultimately she sees Blk // Sugar growing into a lifestyle brand that goes beyond food.

"I do that compare and contrast every day of like, what did I really love about being on the tricycle, and what did I really want from the storefront? And I think I'm almost there," Mack said. "I think I'm almost at that midpoint of being fully satisfied with where I'm going. And it's only four months in."

smeehan@baltsun.com

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