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Baked goods make the first impression at the Dutch Country Farmers Market in Laurel, as the automatic doors slide open and unleash a sweetly scented storm of Stoltzfus Bakery's whoopie pies, fruit breads, muffins, cakes and dumplings.

Inside, smiles and laughs ensue during exchanges between customers and vendors, while others eat their treats at nearby tables across from the bakery, overlooking the continual flow of cars in the already-packed parking lot. While the market follows a set schedule for being open on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, extended hours of operation are underway for the Easter holiday on March 27.

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Customers circle around the market to visit the store's 12 vendors – from Sammie's Produce and Yoder's BBQ to JR's Candies and Bulk Foods – also lining up at the Beiler's Meats counter, where owner Sam Beiler greets old faces.

"We have the friendly atmosphere and employees are a big part of that," Beiler said, one of the founding members of the market. "Some people come in and just talk. They might buy a little something, but it's an experience."

Kids home from school, and some adults home from work, might not have ventured out into the Laurel streets lightly dusted with snow, but the weather Monday was just right for Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot to do some holiday shopping.

The Dutch Country Farmers Market began with a small space inside a Burtonsville shopping center in 1987, Beiler said, with only a few vendors selling baked goods and produce. Word-of-mouth spread praise of the market throughout the community and customers grew, until the shopping center was demolished roughly 22 years later.

Although Beiler characterized the former location as "out of the way," he said customers were loyal to the vendors and remained so when it moved to the Laurel location on Route 198 about six years ago.

"This is an area where people can just stop in. It's exciting," Beiler said. "Without customers, we wouldn't be here. You get to know people in a lot of different ways. It's a part of life."

Unlike grocery stores, Beiler said the market's vendors consist of individual owners.

"I have the meat counter, so I concentrate on this," he said. "We don't run each other's business. This is my living here. The grocery stores have a lot more employees working for the owner."

Vendor fees contribute to the lease payment, Beiler said.

"It's more modern than it used to be," Beiler said. "It takes some training, but we do hire a lot of local girls."

During off hours, Beiler said the work doesn't stop, as vendors prepare their fresh foods for the coming week. Vendors remain "behind-the-scenes" Mondays and Tuesdays, he said, and unload deliveries on Wednesdays.

Shopping at the market for the second time, Germantown resident Youlander Greene said the vendors provide an "overwhelming" amount of choices.

"I prefer it instead of the grocery store for certain items," Greene said. "I like that I can get stuff that actually tastes good and not too commercialized."

On St. Patrick's Day, Ashton resident Robert Foard said he purchased some fresh cabbage, corned beef and potatoes in celebration of the holiday, donning his recently dyed green beard, eyebrows and hair.

Between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m., canopies cover the grassy nook along 378 Main St., where Laurel Farmers Market vendors' display tables are filled with freshly grown fruits and vegetables and handcrafted jewelry. Informational booths of businesses are also set up, ranging from Sunflower Wellness and Massage to Kitchen Saver Custom Cabinet Renewal.

The market's atmosphere contributes to his St. Paddy's spirit, he said, highlighting the differences from a typical grocery store.

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"People have different personalities," Foard said, as he posed for photos with other customers. "This place is friendlier and there are more families."

His wife, Lois, said they've been coming to the market at least once every week since its opening in Burtonsville, enjoying its delicious foods and the welcoming company.

"And if you want to learn about [the Dutch country] lifestyle, they're willing to share with you how they live," she said. "It's educational."

One of the Foard's favorite spots at the market is Lantz Restaurant, where shoppers can order, eat or take home freshly cooked meals and snacks. Looking over the menu options, which include breakfast, lunch and dinner, a tall glass case also entices customers with shelves of hand-dipped ice cream, Jell-O and pies.

The first face a customer sees at Lantz restaurant belongs to its cashier, 20-year-old Danielle Dawson, whose sociable demeanor attracts customers of all ages.

Slowly, steadily, the Laurel area is being transformed into a global grocery village. Along with a rich array of eateries featuring international flavors, the local landscape is now a destination for more exotic supermarkets whose shelves brim with hard-to-find items gleaned from farmers' fields in Central and South America, Europe, Africa and Asia. Wealthier newcomers bled into a Laurel mosaic with immigrants who are less wealthy, creating what Brendle calls a "hybrid diversity," something he

"I love the friendliness of everybody and the openness with any kinds of questions I might ask people," Dawson said. "I'll ask people if they could go back to the age of 20 knowing what they know now, what would they tell themselves. It's really interesting to hear the friendly responses from people, how they react and the wisdom they impart."

Dawson said she's been an employee of the restaurant for four and a half years, filling the pages of a small blue journal with advice from customers.

"There are just a lot of good things," she said, flipping through the pages. "One thing that's really awesome is to take every moment seriously and treat it as a gift from God. I think a lot of us forget that there's a greater purpose to life than living for ourselves."

When asked about potential expansion following new leasing space next door, Beiler said vendors are content with their current set up. While thoughts of furniture and craft sales have crossed their minds, Beiler said it wouldn't be wise to do so since the previous tenant's furniture store went out of business.

"We decided that this farmer's market in Laurel will stick with food," Beiler added. "We could always use more space, but we're a three-day market and we're limited on how much we want to pay."

After nearly six years at its Laurel location, Beiler said the Dutch Country Farmers Market is better than ever, serving customers throughout Howard, Prince George's, Anne Arundel and Montgomery counties.

"It's more spread out here," Beiler said. "Laurel is getting built up with the renovating and new restaurants and stores. Laurel is becoming more on the map than it used to be. When we started, we had a 20-year lease. After that, we really don't have a plan, but we hope to stay in the area."

Easter hours at the Dutch Country Farmers Market are Wednesday, March 23, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Thursday, March 24, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.; closed on Good Friday, March 25; and Saturday, March 26, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.

For more information, go to www.laureldutchmarket.com.

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