Boston Public Market: Looks great, makes sense

Locally produced food sold in a smart way

DO YOU REMEMBER the first time you went to Whole Foods and saw the perfect stacks of flawless carrots and oranges?  You might have wondered: grocery store or toy store for the crunchy set?

If Whole Foods is a toy store, the Boston Public Market downtown is Tiffany’s.  It isn’t that cranberry-orange-chocolate-cinnamon jam is so delicious – it is okay – but you know you want to try it.  Your options for beverages: Mother Juice, George Howell coffee, and Taza hot chocolate, with milk, hazelnut, or water as the base. You will see gorgeous earth-toned pasta in adorable shapes; kale in a deep, saturated shade of purple; sausages so quaintly hung that they won’t even offend the vegetarians.  The woman selling smoked fish will tell you it was prepared in small batches.

The Public Market is an upscale indoor farmer’s market turned candy land, with no messy edges, folding tables, or extra crates.  The décor is just right, with smooth concrete floors, grey metal, and light wood panels.  The market fills the first floor of a parking garage, next to the outdoor Haymarket where overstock veggies (from around the globe) are sold at a discount two days per week, not far from Boston City Hall and Faneuil Hall, on the edge of the Greenway.

The Public Market is the result of more than a decade of advocacy by farmers market organizers, restaurant leaders, and real estate professionals. The advocates wanted to support local farmers and food producers by giving them a permanent indoor venue for a year-round farmers market, while also giving the chefs of Boston’s fine restaurants, as well as residents and visitors, a convenient place to buy fresh, local ingredients.  As an outlet for farmers to get their products to market downtown, the Public Market would spread wealth from downtown (the buyers) to the larger region (the sellers). Part of the concept was to create a destination like Seattle’s Pike Place Market – for locals and tourists to taste and purchase the region’s best foods.  The idea also was to make Boston’s downtown more appealing to residents, who would be able to pick up fresh, whole foods to cook for dinner.  A vital downtown should have amenities for residents, workers, and visitors.

The market is run by the nonprofit Boston Public Market Association that is supported by individual and corporate donors, foundations, and the city of Boston. It received seed funding from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The mission of the organization, per the website, “is to provide fresh, healthy food to consumers of all income levels, nourish our community, and educate the public about food sources, nutrition, and preparation.”  The organization also runs two seasonal outdoor farmers markets in the city, and has set up a kitchen for educational programming adjacent to the Public Market.

The Public Market accepts food stamps and participates in the city of Boston’s Bounty Bucks program that supplements food stamps used at farmers markets.  The foods sold at the Public Market are on the expensive end, understandably so as the local farmers and small businesses do not have the economies of scale to minimize production costs. The products are very high quality, fresh, and often organic; in Boston’s strong economy and foodie culture, there are enough willing buyers at the higher price points.  Finding ways to make the Public Market’s products accessible to low-income residents could be a challenge, even with the subsidies.

Boston Public Market 2

The Boston Public Market opened in July, and so far it has had more visitors and sales than its leaders had projected. It is not Seattle’s Pike Place. Pike Place covers nine acres, sells a wider variety of items, and hosts street performers.  Still, the Boston Public Market does stretch the boundaries of downtown Boston’s points of interest.  Since none of the big institutions planned for the Greenway (garden under glass, Boston history museum, center for art and culture, and YMCA) got built, it is nice to have new high-quality institutions grow along the Greenway’s borders.  The massive concrete Government Center Garage nearby is slated to be replaced by residential and office towers that will bring more people to the neighborhood and more customers to the Public Market.  There had been concern that the Public Market would gentrify the block, pushing out Haymarket, but so far the two markets have symbiotically supported each other, creating a food destination.

It looks like the Boston Public Market has a successful business model.  It is easy to imagine branches of the market opening in the Prudential and Coolidge Corner, perhaps because the Public Market is reminiscent of past food markets in those locations.  The Prudential used to house Marche, a European restaurant/food court that felt like a farmers’ market in the form of a Disney stage set.  Coolidge Corner was home to the gourmet food shop Zathmary’s.  Neither Marche nor Zathmary’s became lasting institutions in greater Boston, despite their very successful launches.  The hope is for the Boston Public Market to be a more permanent feature in the city.

It will be interesting to watch how the Public Market does from January through April.  This is not California and the winter months are tough ones for local food in New England.  The canned ginger carrots and cranberry-orange-chocolate-cinnamon jam won’t go bad, though, and hot chocolate is always a perk of wintertime.

Meet the Author

Amy Dain

Public policy research consultant, Dain Research, Newton
Not all public efforts at city building are as successful as Faneuil Hall and Pike Place, and not all farmers markets thrive. The project has involved some risk.  The Public Market is not a large-scale development, though, and Boston’s downtown is already vital. The Public Market is a modest project that is bringing more people out to a quieter corner of the downtown area and making the city and region an even better place to live, work, and visit.  Perhaps the project will grow bigger with time and find creative ways to make fresh, locally-sourced foods accessible to consumers of all income levels.

So, go pick up a cider donut there already!  You get to watch the donuts frying – in small batches.  Do some holiday shopping, and perhaps return for hot cocoa in February.

Amy Dain runs a consulting business in Newton that focuses on public policy research. She can be reached at dainresearch@gmail.com