Back at the (new) Calgary Farmer's Market

On Thursday, a few months behind schedule, the Calgary Farmer’s Market finally re-opened its doors at their new location near the corner of Blackfoot Trail and Heritage Drive in Southeast Calgary. It’s been long-planned and long-awaited by many — especially the Monkey, who wanted to go back to the “jumping castle”.

But if you’ve read by blog, you know that the jumping castle is no more, and Mike the Balloon Tycoon is no longer a figure at the market. Many things have changed, actually, all of them affecting the market we once knew and loved. It’s definitely not the same market anymore, and rings more of The Forks in Winnipeg, or Granville Island in Vancouver.

I can’t yet say if it’s a step up or down, but it’s definitely a step forward.

Unlike the old site, which was a 1940’s military warehouse, the new market is an expanded end of an industrial complex, conveniently placed next to a shooting range. We’d seen the plans for the new market many times as the Calgary Farmer’s Market executive advertised the new space in hopes of bringing over as many existing clients as possible. It was likely a necessary thing, since the old market was the only decent market on the west side of town, and the West side folk have to be encouraged to drive into the East beyond visiting IKEA (which, conveniently, isn’t too far away from the new market).

Normally, we went to the market on Saturdays to have breakfast, and do a little shopping (and let Monkey burn off steam in the no-longer-present jumping castle). But today being Good Friday, it was a convenient chance for us to visit on a weekday. Apparently, along with half of the rest of the city…

When we got to the light at 71st Ave SE at 8:45 this morning, all we saw were cars. First thought: they didn’t allow for nearly enough parking. That was something the old site had in spades, thanks to the massive gravel parking lots that were likely leftover from previous warehouses. The new market has only side streets, and a limited lot. I will not be surprised to hear this is the single biggest complaint of the new market’s location.

The cars worried us for two reasons: 1) it meant that, in previous experience, getting in and getting a table so we could get breakfast would be hard, even if 2) we could find a place to park.

Thankfully (in a matter of speaking), we soon realised that a significant proportion of the cars were actually going to The Shooting Zone, the shooting range right next door to the market. (Monkey would later ask what the “bangs” were. She has yet to comprehend the concept of a gun.) There was a sale, and the double-whammy effect was a bit more than I think either organisation had expected.

The market was just opening, and not many people had arrived yet. First impressions being the important ones, we were immediately impressed with the appearance. The ceilings were lower (but not claustrophobic), the stalls spaced well enough to get around easily (especially with strollers), and it looked much more polished than the old market (hence my allusions to both The Forks and Granville Island).

We did a slow clockwise circuit, eventually arriving at the Fratello Analog Cafe stand. The lineup was already formed, and since we knew the Colombians (who ran the excellent Tutti Frutti booth at the old market) had opted not to go to the new market, we needed to find a new favourite coffee place. The Fratello stand is massive and exceedingly well-equipped with well-trained staff.

Well, “well-trained” is a bit subjective, and something I have to apply to nearly every booth at the new market. Simple reality, it was the opening week (as I mentioned, the market actually opened yesterday), and everyone was still learning the ropes. Today was the first official “flood” day, and it was readily apparent that the all-important “flow” was still being learned (and re-learned, in some cases). Every booth we visited had the same problem, and it amazed me the level of indignance some people showed at the slower-than-preferred (by everyone, especially the staff) service. Sometimes, I think pissy people need to be ejected to the back of the line every time until they learn some respect and patience.

Anyway, Fratello want to be to coffee what auteurs are to film. There is nothing but stylistic perfection, right down to even wanting a simple drip coffee. The Colombians, I felt, served a fantastic cup of coffee that was dispensed from a large thermos (frequently seen in many otherwise-fine coffee shops). Fratello thinks this is not an ideal way to get a fresh cup, so each “drip” cup is poured with hot water through freshly-ground coffee directly into the cup. (For the record, this is similar to how I make my coffee, but I steep mine before filtering through a Costa Rican coffee-sock.) For showmanship, it’s very nice. For expediency, it’s extremely slow. One guy next to me was nothing but contained rage about the time to get his coffee, and marched off without even getting a lid. One suggestion to Fratello — recognise that people want coffee, and not necessarily artisan coffee. Buy a thermos or two. You’ll sell more, if only by getting returning regulars. Respect the regulars, and you’ll increase business.

The Food Court area is now more segregated from the rest of the market, and tucked into the corner is where Mike would have gone had he stayed. Instead, they’ve erected a jungle gym for the kids to play around it. It’s not very large, so kid collisions rise almost geometrically to the number of minutes the market’s been open that day. The number of screams seemed to double every ten minutes. But it was empty enough when we got there for Monkey to have a run-around and blow off a bit of steam.

A Ladybug Pastries also opted to not make the transition, which surprised me. Given that they had a three-stall layout in the old market (and most certainly one of the nicest), I fully expected them to move over as well. But our favourite crepes, regardless of the high cost, were not to be found. We instead tried a new(er) place run by the same people who operate L’Epicerie on Macleod Trail just south of downtown. Whereas the folks who run A Ladybug are from Belgium, the proprietors of L’Epicerie are from Brittany. The crepes are decidedly more French. Alex was not a big fan, although I do like the ham and cheese and egg.

The food court area has easily twice as many tables, and many of them are more family-sized, eschewing the massive eight-person round tables that made getting a seat at the old market so difficult. (Note to the Market executive: parents would like to see booster seats. Could you not have brought those over from the old market?) The ceiling is high, there’s a massive glass wall at the south end, and even a double gas fireplace in the centre for those really chilly winter days. It’s more mall-like, yes, but not so finished that it looks totally recumbent.

Many of the old favourites did carry over to the market, and have continued with their work as before. I was happy to see Simply Good Eats, Shef’s Fiery Kitchen, Shanghai Fine Food, Margarita’s and 2 Greek Gals continue to sell breakfast. The Cherry Pit, Innisfail Grower’s Co-op, the various colonies, Wayne’s Bagels, Gull Valley, and Saskatoon Berry Farm also came. TotaliTea and the awesome Silk Road Spices also have continued to be present. You’d have to be blind to miss Simple Simon. Mysteriously absent is the old market’s summertime anchor, Walker’s (they held no less than four stalls and were the place to get fruits and vegetables), and I’m personally miffed to see that Sunworks seemingly has vanished — where the heck am I gonna get my Thanksgiving turkeys, now?

By the time we left, the market was jammed, making it very difficult to get around. I am able to pass this off as opening-day curiousity, and it will eventually slide into regulars. Outside, people were having extreme difficulty finding a place to park, and I imagine The Shooting Zone is going to have more than a little trouble with market-goers using up their valuable members-only parking stalls.

It’s good to the see the market open again. It’s clear that some effort has been placed on making sure there’s a good mix of vendors, and attention has been paid to retain at least some of the old anchors to keep things familiar. I’m curious as to the loss of some of the old vendors, especially the ones I liked and frequented, and I imagine the inclusion of some vendors led to the departure (or non-signing) of others (Hoven Farms out, Silver Sage in; Walker’s gone, replaced with Soutu Farms).

Will it succeed? Of course it will — for the same reasons the old market succeeded: it offered a higher quality of selection and service without the kvitch common to other markets like Crossroads (sorry, Crossroads, but you know what I mean). Will it be a “farmer’s” market? Therein lies the question — that aspect may have permanently changed, now with more emphasis on ready-made items, and less on the raw materials that farmer’s markets have historically been associated with. But it will be appealing to a significant proportion of Calgarians.

As for my family, we will see. In terms of family-friendliness, the Calgary Farmer’s Market is likely to remain high in our books. The tripling of the distance to get to it is a downside, but even the old market was well beyond walking distance. After things settle, we’ll see how they go.

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