Personal relationships draw customers to farmers’ market

BERKELEY, Calif. — On the corner of Milivia and Center on any given Saturday morning, the aromas of sweet apple cider and the sharp scent of cheese hang in the air around the Berkeley Farmers’ Market.

Like any commercial supermarket, the farmers’ market is difficult to navigate because of the hundreds of people all in search for the right ingredient.

Unlike grocery store chains, the Berkeley Farmers’ Market is a platform for selling and purchasing local and sustainable food. However, the main attraction for vendors and customers alike is something much more personal.

Michael Cordero of Hog Island Oysters demonstrates safe techniques for shucking an oyster. By Alexa Girkout

Underneath the white awning next to buckets brimming with ice cold apple cider stands a veteran vendor. He offers both a tangy and sweetened version of his famous cider, which he has been selling at the market for the last 15 years.

Bob Bernstein, who runs Bernie’s Best, values the experience of meeting his customers face-to-face rather than sending his cider to a market. In the midst of selling his cider, Bernstein waves to a frequent customer.  Direct interactions like these keep him returning to the market year after year.

The customer Bernstein greeted has also been coming to the Berkeley Farmers’ Market every week for the past 15 years. His name is Mitchell, and it is a name every vendor at the market knows. As he continues to walk past Bernie’s Best, Mitchell stops to catch up with other vendors, addressing each of them by name.

Mitchell enjoys buying fresh food and being able to ride his bicycle to the market but especially likes, “seeing how things change from season to season.”

At the very end of the market is the Hog Island Oysters booth, where an enthusiastic Michael Cordero holding an oyster knife and wearing a blue protective glove calls to passers-by. As a small audience gathers, he fetches an oyster from a bucket of ice and gives a small informative presentation on how to properly shuck an oyster.

Unlike Bernstein, Cordero and his Hog Island Oysters booth have only held a spot at the market for a year. He originally started out as an invited guest, but was so popular with the customers that when a booth became available at the market, he immediately took it.

After successfully shucking the oyster, Cordero hands the fresh oyster to a customer and proceeds to crack open a couple more for the rest of his audience.

In the midst of offering free samples, he even has time to address Lalime’s sous-chef Amanda Joost by name. Before she leaves, Cordero suggests an oyster for the road, to which she smiles and replies, “as always.”

Although vendors come to the farmers’ market to make profits off their products, the relationships they form with their customers are much more valuable.

A 20-year vendor to the market, Annabelle Lenderink says she “loves seeing the same people year after year.” She has not only developed a close relationship with her current customers, but also anticipates meeting the children of the people she’s grown to know over the years.

Whether it’s long-time vendors like Lenderink and Bernstein or newcomers like Cordero, the importance vendors place on creating personal connections will continue to bring in customers, and their children, to the Berkeley Farmers’ Market.

Contributing writer: Alexa Girkout