On a recent weekend, Robert A. Francescon straddled a table at Farmers Market favorite Jamaicaway and joyously feasted on a meal of chicken, greens, beans and rice.
A world traveler and self-taught expert on ethnic cuisine, Francescon knows his farmers' markets, noting, “They’re the lifeblood of cities.” In fact, the long-time west Nashville resident has visited numerous markets, including those in Ecuador, Costa Rica, Jamaica, The Netherlands and Thailand.
“I went to the grand opening of the farmers market in Kampala, Uganda, years ago,” Francescon said. “The mayor was there and the people were so excited.”
As should be Nashvillians about their downtown market. With the facility’s Market House finally assuming a radically new look and presentation — after years of talking, planning, merchant space shifting, media chattering and eateries coming and going — Francescon decided to check it out.
“I came in the winter and it was a mess,” he said. “So I came back today and it’s getting there. I’m excited about the potential. It’s clean, there is enough food variety and the people here are down to earth.”
If you haven’t visited the Farmers Market’s Market House (which is sandwiched between the downtown civic facility’s two vendor sheds) during the past year or so, brace yourself with a sturdy pitchfork.
The massive space is now highlighted by indoor trees, contemporary tables and chairs, improved lighting, a new color scheme and a more open central core. Though some venerable standbys remain — including Swett’s, Oriental Express and The Original Nooley’s — there are various newcomers. These include B&C Market BBQ, Fleur de Lis Flavors (featuring original New Orleans snowballs), Nashville Coffee & Co. and Swagruha Indian Restaurant. Some tenants have moved. Jamaicaway Restaurant, which once anchored the Market House’s mid-section, now shines in the northwest corner. El Burrito Mexicano (previously sited across from Jamaicaway) is in the process or re-opening in the House’s northeast quadrant.
The radical overhaul of the Market House infrastructure, the seeds of which began in 2004, is now about “99 percent complete,” according to Jeff Themm, Farmers Market general manager. Now what’s left is the adding of some new merchant spaces.
“People love the changes,” said Themm, whom Metro hired in 2005 to oversee the market’s re-invention. “I love listening in on shoppers’ conversations and hearing their reaction. We also get a lot of e-mails with people thanking us for the changes we have made. But really, it’s the shoppers and great vendors who have made this all a success, and not just a good idea.”
That good idea has not come without cost. To improve the two farm sheds and the Market House, Metro Nashville and the state of Tennessee have contributed about $2.2 million. Tenants have invested their own funds to build out their spaces. McFarlin Huitt Panvini, Inc., handled design work, while Knestrick Contractor, Inc., supervised the build-out.
“The biggest challenge has been to change the product mix in the farm sheds,” Themm said. “There were few farmers and they were difficult for the customers to identify. In the summer of 2007, we asked several re-sellers to give up some spaces for farmers and they refused to move. So we actually had to go to court to evict them so we could acquire spaces for farmers.”
On some days the past year or so — given all the changes and uncertainty — the Market House seemed more like a mausoleum. Some merchants grumbled, while others left.
And then in April, Marne Duke, the market’s hard-working and heart-invested marketing director, departed as a full-timer (but remains for special projects).
Undeterred, Themm forges ahead with his vision.
“Urban farmers' markets expose the farmers to the city and the city to the farm,” he said. “It is a valuable connection that has almost disappeared. I have toured with children and their parents that don’t know what produce really looks like. We have lost a generation to fast food, and many people don’t know how to prepare food from the raw state. This can change with the Farmers Market leading the charge to make fruits and vegetables more available to everyone and to encourage people to eat healthier.”
A social progressive and native of New York’s Long Island, Themm sometimes bikes to work from his Hillsboro Village home. He embraces the market’s ethnic diversity of both vendors and customers.
“Our whole market welcomes community interaction,” Themm said. “All the choices help bring a variety of people down here to enjoy the sights and sounds of the market. You might find someone from Brentwood shopping next to someone from Iraq, and asking how they might prepare, say, eggplant. Our love of our own culture’s foods and the desire to share those tastes helps bring people together. This market was the original ethnic market, before all the shops opened on Nolensville Road. And we want to continue to welcome everyone.”
That mindset is seen with the merchants’ employees. Compared to the rank-and-file at many corporate fast food chains, these folks are radically polite and friendly. They seemed honored to serve.
“I love dealing with children, tourists and city folks,” said Marcella Jackson, who works at Fleur de Lis Flavors. “It’s fun and fascinating.”
Work remains. Themm said he’s working to secure a bakery, a local restaurant (for wine options) and a specialty foods shop. Another Asian cuisine option is possible. If all goes as planned, the Market House will be “finished” by early 2010.
Mark West works downtown and once visited the Market House frequently. But when full-scale work began, he stopped.
“Anybody can put together a food court with a Sbarro and a Subway,” said West, who recently made his return visit to the market and noted it’s “moving in the right direction.”
West feels the Market House and the farm sheds have the potential to be a “showplace” for Nashville’s ethnic diversity. He said the market can be a civic institution that lures all types of citizens for fun and cultural exchange.
“The mark of any great city,” West said, “is its public spaces.”
No doubt, the Farmers Market is contributing to Nashville’s greatness.
Nashville Farmers Market
900 Rosa Parks Blvd.
8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday-Sunday