NEW JERSEY — As New Jersey moves into new phases of reopening after the COVID-19 lockdown, farmers markets are adapting to our new socially distanced “normal.”  

In towns across the state, market managers have implemented new business practices to keep both vendors and customers safe. Designated as essential businesses early in the pandemic, some expanded their footprint to create more space between booths or set up online ordering systems with contactless pickup.

Now, with restrictions lifting, rules for shopping in-person are being written as the tents fill with seasonal summer produce.

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Rob Reese, who relaunched the West Orange Farmers Market with his wife Stacey Reese last year, said they worked hard to make it a special destination.

“Our vision was to create a community gathering place,” he said. They held events like Carnival Day, which included games, live music and space for neighbors to chat over plates of food.

This year, Reese said, they were knee-deep in planning when the pandemic started. They realized that to keep shoppers, vendors and volunteers safe, they would need to get creative.

“We came up with his crazy idea,” he said. “Let’s not cancel it, let’s not postpone it, let’s turn it into a drive-through.”

Leaning on their professional skills (she works in marketing and graphic design and he’s in IT management) they created a high-tech, low-touch system where vendors prompted by texts placed pre-purchased goods into popped trunks as customers drove through the market. In two hours, Reese said, he typically saw 100 cars come through the loop.

“Technology was helping our vendors reduce waste, increase their overall profit margins and ensure that the products that are in demand by our customers are available and getting into the hands of those customers,” he said.

After seven weeks, West Orange opened for walk-up shopping, so the Reeses pivoted again. They moved to a hybrid with both contactless pickup and in-person purchasing.

There’s also live music, this year set up in a corner to allow for social distancing. 

“It added some nice ambiance to the market while people were shopping,” Reese said. “Most important, it brought back a sense of normalcy. It’s something we did last year and it’s something that sets us apart from other markets. We’ll continue to do it in the safest way possible.”

Getting Creative

Since handing out samples, typically a great way to introduce products, is not possible this year, local makers have also had to get creative. Susan Dolinko of Save the Crumbs bakes gourmet treats for both people and pets. 

Before the West Orange Farmers Market opened to foot traffic, Dolinko cheered and rang a cow bell each time one of her customers rolled through to pick up her handmade cookies. At the Little Falls Farmers Market, she hands out small pre-packed bags of her artisanal bites for people to try at home.

New Challenges, New Opportunities

The Metuchen Farmers Market, one of the first to go online due to the pandemic, also now operates a hybrid with drive-through pickup for the first half and three hours of in-person shopping.

Nelson Li, market manager at Metuchen for the past nine years, said there are some challenges with the new model.

“Not surprisingly, shopper counts are down relative to previous years,” Li said. “We simply appreciate that we are able to hold any kind of market this crazy year.”

But as in West Orange, there’s an upside to the technology.

“I think the online market was a good opportunity for vendors to showcase items that shoppers might overlook in a regular walk-up market because they'd be frozen in coolers, like cutlets, pot pies, tortellini, fish filets and such,” Li said.

And if shoppers need a mask, they can buy one for $2.

Metuchen also moved to a larger location with more room for distancing, which came with additional costs, including renting a portable toilet.

The Montclair Farmers Market also doubled in size, annexing a second parking lot near the NJ Transit Church Street Station. There are also additional workers to help direct traffic flow.

The whole shopping experience is touchless. Customers walk in a socially distanced line, point to what they want to buy, and the vendors bag it up for them before they pay, preferably cashless.

New Normal

Kurt Brondo has shopped at the Montclair market almost every week for the past three years.

“Everyone wears a mask and the lines move quickly. It really doesn’t take any longer than it ever has,” Brondo said. “The bigger farms like Vacchiano do a good job of helping you find what you need as you walk through. It’s better than the supermarket because only the farmers are touching your food.”

In Maplewood, shoppers select their own goods, but the market is cordoned off to limit foot traffic.

Craig Fredrickson, who has worked the Stony Hill Farms tents for the past 11 years, said business is up not only in Maplewood but at all the markets where they sell. He said he thinks customers like being outside and want to eat more fresh, healthy food because of the pandemic.

“People are comfortable here,” Fredrickson said. “They really appreciate what the farmers market has to offer.”

While farmers markets adhere to state guidelines regarding COVID-19, they also follow rules established by health departments in the towns where they do business, so practices may vary from place to place. Check local market websites and Facebook pages for the latest information.

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More on NJ Flavor:

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New Jersey Date Night: Restaurants with Great Outdoor Dining

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