Neither duct tape nor dumbbells can keep wind from rattling vendors' tents at the Pratt Street Market, knocking down signs and chalkboards for Trisha's Almond Toffee on an otherwise sun-soaked Thursday.

Sara Kendall, a sales lead with Trisha's, holds down the side of the folding tent covering the display as owner Brooke Russ waits on customers, offering them toffee samples and explaining the small candy maker's history. Customers stream through the Transamerica Tower plaza at lunchtime, and few pass up the chance to try the almond toffee. Some quickly become customers; others say they'll be back.

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Farmers' markets are hardly the main source of income for Trisha's Almond Toffee, but they provide something invaluable to the growing business that internet sales can't capture: face time. Vendors like Trisha's tough out inclement weather, outlast competition and put in long hours, all for the chance to shake hands with customers and get their products into new mouths.

For every hour vendors spend at a market, they spend at least that much time preparing.

For Russ, cooking toffee is a full-time job, and that's on top of the time she spends attending markets. Days like this windy Thursday can start at 6 a.m. When she's not selling at markets, you'll likely find her in the kitchen of Our House restaurant in Locust Point, where she rents production space. She single-handedly spends about 40 hours per week cooking toffee for events and online orders.

In the back corner of the kitchen at Our House, Russ works over a six-burner stove, typically tending to six pans at once for 20 minutes at a time. She starts with two sticks of butter per pan and lets them soften before adding sugar and water. As she mixes the ingredients together, she adds blanched almonds and continues to stir. The almond mixture boils and froths, and after 15 minutes or so, the consistency thickens. She melts milk chocolate separately while stirring the toffee.

It's hot in the kitchen, and some of the butter separates from the toffee as Russ pours it from frying pan to baking sheet covered in parchment paper. Once it's cool enough, after about five minutes, she spreads melted chocolate on the hardening toffee and sprinkles it with almond shavings. She peels the toffee — malleable but hard — from the parchment paper and flips it, repeating the chocolating process on the other side.

Once it's fully hardened — about six hours later — she breaks it by hand into small pieces.

It's a process she repeats in the early-morning hours before Our House opens, between the lunch and dinner shifts or late at night — whenever her schedule allows.

Armed with a family recipe, Russ started Trisha's Almond Toffee (named for her husband Jordan's aunt, who created the recipe) in Texas before relocating to Baltimore for Jordan's job with Under Armour two years ago.

"From that point, we started really looking into markets, and that's kind of where we realized there was a lot of untapped potential with this business," she said. "Other than Emporiyum [food marketplace on Pratt Street], farmers' markets is really where we've gained a lot of traction in terms of our business."

Trisha's Almond Toffee does about 15 percent of its business at three markets per week — Crofton on Wednesdays, Pratt Street on Thursdays and Fells Point on Saturdays — and other events. The majority of sales, about 70 percent, come from holiday orders, with the rest from online sales.

Other vendors, like the creperie Little Paris, rely entirely on farmers' markets for income. Owner Gerrit Marks sets up shop at four markets during the week — three in Baltimore and one in Catonsville. Little Paris has operated at the Baltimore Farmers' Market & Bazaar and the 32nd Street Farmers' Market since they started more than 30 years ago.

"We have some staying power. We've weathered economic downturns," Marks said. "At the street level, you really see the ebb and flow of the money."

Part of that longevity, he said, comes from having a niche. No one competes directly with his creperie, though other local bakeries have added a market presence over the years.

"Going back 30-plus years when I was a kid working at the markets, we were the only game in town, basically," Marks said.

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Similarly, Trisha's doesn't have direct competitors selling almond toffee, but Russ does compete with other sweets vendors.

"Everyone is very humble but also very driven to have small business excel here," she said.

Downtown Partnership of Baltimore Inc. spokesman Michael Evitts, whose organization puts on the Pratt Street Market, said the market manager selects vendors with an eye toward offering a variety of foods removing some of the competition. Each participating vendor pays $500 for the season. They receive $100 back at the end of the season if they miss fewer than three markets and follow other attendance rules.

It's not often vendors miss markets. Once, Marks opened his stand after his truck was hit on the way there.

"You've got to make the market happen somehow," he said. "You can't go home and cry."

Most markets require vendors to set up and break down their displays on their own, but the Downtown Partnership provides help to Pratt Street vendors as they arrive before the 11 a.m. opening and as they pack up after 2 p.m. to keep traffic moving through the busy downtown corridor. The setup is simple for Trisha's: a seafoam table cloth beneath crates and chalkboards with descriptions of the toffee and prices. Russ brings two coolers loaded with between 30 and 40 pounds of toffee to each market in one-pound, half-pound and quarter-pound bags sold for $15, $10 and $6, respectively. One small cooler is filled with samples, and the other contains the packaged candy for sale.

There are no guarantees of sales at farmers' markets. Developing a following takes work, especially when customers don't show up or are overwhelmed with options.

"It takes time and muscle," Russ said.

Most visitors stop by Trisha's tent for a sample without making a purchase, but some pull out their wallets when they like what they taste. One customer stops by to tell Russ and Kendall he tried the toffee a few weeks ago but needed time to decide what variety to buy. The almond toffee at the center is the same across the board, but it's coated with five different flavors of chocolate. He settles on the dark chocolate sea salt — a best-seller (half-pound bags of the variety usually sell out within two hours).

"The reason why I think farmers' markets are so important is it is a way to develop a rapport with customers," Russ said. "That's really the word of mouth that expands the business."

The Vegedible, a Howard County-based vegan market vendor, takes a similar approach, using markets as a means of exposure.

Co-owners and siblings Dan and Natalie Frick use customer feedback to decide on what cupcakes, cookies and other baked goods to prepare the night before their Wednesday market in Ellicott City and Saturday market in Glenwood. It usually takes about three hours to prepare for each market.

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"Markets are one of our top selling points," Dan Frick said.

The Vegedible is a side business for the duo — each has another job — but they're considering using the markets as a launchpad for a possible brick-and-mortar location. Some local businesses, such as Ekiben and Blacksauce Kitchen, have done that. Others, like Marks' Little Paris, plan to stick with street vending.

The day doesn't end with the close of each market. For Russ, it means more cooking or packaging at home, sometimes as late as 11 p.m.

Soon, she'll move her production to B-more Kitchen, an incubator for food startups opening on York Road. While the new space will streamline production, it won't cut down on the work that goes into making the toffee something customers come back for week after week.

"No bulk-production candy machine can imitate what we do," Russ said. "Believe me, I've tried to find it."

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