Thank You, Chris Broadbent: How the Kalamazoo Farmers Market went from good to great

Editors note: This is a guest post by Matt Lechel, a former PFC Natural Grocery and Deli board member and current promoter of better ways to bicycle through Kalamazoo. We appreciate Matt's willingness to share this post with Second Wave readers. 

In light of another Kalamazoo Farmers Market season wrapping up, the fourth such season where the PFC Natural Grocery and Deli acted as operator of the market, here are a couple of thank yous.

Ultimately I think PFC Natural Grocery and Deli deserves a lot of credit for being an institution well equipped to support and grow the Kalamazoo Farmers Market.

Kalamazoo Farmers Market (KFM) itself has always been a good local market.

At the Monday, Dec. 6th meeting of the Kalamazoo City Commission (where Chris was honored for his service at the market), we heard City Commissioner Anderson cite his experience of 35 years of attending good Kalamazoo Farmers Markets.

That has certainly been my observation as well.

Our market has always been good. Which makes what has happened there the past 4 years all the more remarkable.

Mayor Hopewell deserves credit for having a vision “even while the market was already good” to explore turning what was already good into something world-class. That took vision, so thanks to Mayor Hopewell.

After the PFC Natural Grocery and Deli began operating the market and hired Chris Broadbent to serve as market manager, Chris had a vision. Chris literally built a diorama of the market. What I didn’t understand at the time is Chris was re-envisioning a market that was already pretty damn good and figuring out how to make it even better.

Chris has always had a strong support team, from Chris Dilley the manager of the PFC, to an array of talented market staffers. Still, I think he deserves a lot of credit for the changes at the market, which saw marked successes via placemaking and outreach efforts such as:

• Hosting some of Kalamazoo’s first and most consistent bike valet’s to promote and encourage riding.

• Creating a goal for a zero waste event and implementing composting and recycling on site.

• Improving SNAP benefits at the market, ultimately providing a venue for more than $500,000 in market spending by low-income community members.

• Introducing the innovative Double Up Food Bucks program at the market. 

• Hosting multiple live music acts at nearly every market (can’t say enough about how this created an atmosphere where families stayed and hung out).

• Creating and collaborating on a host of market day activities and demonstrations, especially for kids. 

• Added picnic tables, for people to sit and hang out for a while (duh).

• I almost forgot night markets! A new Kalamazoo tradition. Every single one was a fantastic evening, borderline magical.

What resulted was one of Kalamazoo’s marque family friendly events, which just happened to be centered around and focused on local food and small businesses. 

Each and every Saturday Kalamazoo Farmers Market (which is open 30 straight weeks from May to November) sees massive crowds, many of whom now hang out in addition to buying local foods and wares. 

Kalamazoo’s growing number of food trucks are usually on hand to provide breakfast and lunch. It’s quite a scene, drawing more than 10,000 people on peak Saturdays in the summer.

And beyond all that, what I think Chris did and had a vision for from the beginning, was find ways to say yes to small businesses, especially farmers.

Consider this: Chris took over an already successful market which hosted 65 vendors weekly. By the end of Chris’s tenure four years later the market was hosting more than double that number of vendors. That’s twice as many farmers, small businesses, artisans, retailers, and start-ups. 

From my perspective Kalamazoo Farmers Market is one of, if not the best, small business engines in town. Many local businesses that started at or earned their chops at Kalamazoo Farmers Market have now gone on to start brick and mortar businesses in town, many of whom are on the Kalamazoo Mall right now (and others places like Park Trades Building). 

Not saying Kalamazoo Farmers Market made that happen, I am saying KFM is an unbelievably vibrant resource for small businesses in Kalamazoo. The proof is in the pudding (seriously, try the bread pudding, from the quiche vendor).

Chris had a vision to find space in the market that we all thought was full. Chris had a vision to say yes to small business, especially farmers. He didn’t just find a few extra spaces, he grew the market exponentially. 

Chris and the PFC created a new signage program to designate Retailer, Grower, Producer, and Artisan. Besides providing clarity, one thing this did is made it clear that there was space at the market for everyone, all types of businesses. If you were a start-up and you wanted a shot to sell your wares, Kalamazoo Farmers Market was going to try to make space for you.

And it’s those courageous start-up businesses that now number 100+ consistently every week that make the market such an appealing place to hang out.

What Kalamazoo has in the Kalamazoo Farmers Market is a community treasure. It’s also got nearly the best farmers market in the State of Michigan (sorry but Eastern Market is still the standard), and among the best in the nation.

I truly think we have a world-class farmers market in Kalamazoo.

While Chris is leaving Kalamazoo Farmers Market, he and the PFC have found an amazing replacement in Gaby Gerkin, who looks to continue the growth of KFM in her new role as market manager.

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that Chris primarily transformed the market by taking space previously reserved solely for automobiles and turning it into a space for people and small businesses.

That’s a major lesson we should learn from his vision. You can imagine, initially, the idea to remove car parking was met with controversy, yet four years later it’s almost universally praised. When we think beyond car parking, our community is better off.

And so I would like to say, thank you, Chris Broadbent, for a magnificent run as Kalamazoo Farmers Market Manager. Good luck in whatever you do next. Kalamazoo let’s continue to steward and protect and support this remarkable community institution, Kalamazoo Farmers Market.

Photos courtesy Matt Lechel and Kalamazoo Farmers Market.

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