Sunday, July 16, 2006

Farmer's Market Debut!

It has been my dream for years to sell homemade goods at our local farmer's market, but being that this is New York State, the official procedures are very involved and time-consuming. In fact, I didn't even have time to get ready last year before the season was almost over! This year, I vowed that it would be different. So I had my water tested in March, and started contacting the state office for agricultural markets and food safety in April to have my kitchen inspected (the idea was to be ready for the opening of the market in May). SIX WEEKS later, I finally got the inspector to confirm that I did not have a dirt floor and that my fridge was at the right temperature. But once again, the market had begun, and all of the highly-coveted outdoor spaces had already been claimed. So the market manager told me that she would contact me whenever a seasonal vendor couldn't make it on a given Saturday. Well, yesterday was the big day at long last! I am pleased to report that, largely due to the generous support of my friends from school (I sent out an "everybody" e-mail at work last Thursday to let people know that I was going to be selling at the market), I did very well, and I had a great time, too. I even sold cakes to our City Court Judge and to our former mayor and his partner! And though I only had a few days' notice to bake, I sold almost everything that I took with me, but I also learned what I might do differently next time.

My original vision was to make my fortune based on pound cake. I LOVE pound cake, and I have just a scrumptious heirloom recipe that I use. And I am aware of many other profitable businesses that I wanted to model myself after, such as Nonnie's Traditional Southern (as seen on Oprah) and Maridee's Country Cakes (as profiled on the Food Network). The problem is combatting the "Oh, it's just pound cake?" factor. People don't seem to understand that there's that crap you can buy pre-made in the grocery store, and then there's REAL, homemade, decadent pound cake--even though I did give free samples. And they balked a bit at the prices that I set, too. I charged $7 for a large loaf and $12 for the larger bundt. Mind you, Nonnie's charges SIXTY BUCKS for a bundt-sized pound cake (but in a gorgeous, decorative hatbox), and Maridee charges THIRTY for the cake alone. So I thought $12 was very reasonable. After all, real ingredients cost real money, as does hand labor--something the people of semi-rural Plattsburgh just don't seem to appreciate. Also, I learned that people mostly wanted to buy smaller cakes and not the large bundts, unless they have an event coming up. (The only products that I didn't sell were the few big bundt cakes that I took, despite the fact that I assured people that you can easily freeze half for future cravings.) So lesson #1 was to make even more of the half-sized loaves and consider re-pricing them.

The other thing I learned was to MAKE MORE PIE! Like I said, I only had a few days' notice to bake, so I only made a few pies to take (ooh, a rhyme!). I made just two flavors, the beloved Jumbleberry-Peach and Black Cherry Almond Crumble. I usually make cherry pie with canned pie cherries because you can't find them fresh or frozen here. But this time, I thought I'd try using frozen sweet black cherries. Of course, my friend, June, cherry pie connoisseur ne plus ultra, said that she could not in good conscience sanction a sweet cherry pie, as she fervently believes that one may only make cherry pie with sour pie cherries (or it's not tangy enough). Truthfully, I agree with her, but I thought I'd give it a whirl. As Ina would say, how bad could it be? I used some lemon juice in the filling to give it more tang, cut back on the sugar, and added some spices, too. And let me just say that the pies went in the oven looking GORGEOUS! However, they came out like...well...I wanted to cry when I saw them, and NOT out of joy. The sweet cherries had exuded so much juice that the crumbly topping was submerged, and therefore, did not get crispy. Moreover, I wasn't entirely certain that the filling had set or that the bottom crust got done (because you can't see the bottom of those disposable metal pans). And the worst part was that one of the pies got scorched on one side in my wonky oven! To reiterate, I was in tears. I told my roommate that I had made "Blackened Abortion Pie," which is what it looked like, and I declared that I couldn't possibly sell them at the market. What a tragic waste of time and ingredients! But faithful Cyd, another celebrated pie connoisseur, assured me that she would still buy something that looked like that, and to take them to sell anyway. She also advised wrapping the pies in multiple layers of plastic wrap to covereth a multitude of sins. ;-) Tee hee.

So that's what I brazenly did. Of course, I sold the Jumbleberry-Peach pies within the first hour which did not surprise me. They were BEAUTIFUL! I did this rustic-looking lattice top with wide strips...just lovely. Of course, there was some squawking over the pie pricing, too. I charged $12 for a 9-inch pie, but one woman commented on how she buys her pies for $10 at the farmstand that I posted about the other day. And I told her, sure, but they use pre-made frozen crusts and canned filling! (And I'm not sure on this point, but I think their pies are 8-inch, too.) Furthermore, the ingredients alone come to between six and eight dollars for each pie, again, as real ingredients such as expensive fruits cost more. Not to mention the labor! Whoever coined the expression "easy as pie" never made one from scratch! If I charged ten dollars a pie, that may be a profit of only two dollars each. And I don't think I'd put in the effort (during a heat wave, I might add!) to make a homemade pie for two bucks, not to mention spending the money on electricity and propane to bake it, the gas to drive it a half hour to the market, and the stall rental fee for the privilege of selling it to customers! Basically, I'd be making pies for free! But as is my way, I digress...

Meanwhile, back at the market, I was down to just the cherry pies left. At one point, this lady came along to consider buying one of the pies. She had the demeanor of a lawyer, kind of brusk and business-like. She bought a cherry pie (I wisely swapped the scorched one for a nicer one), and then I noticed that she had taken one of my cards. I immediately thought to myself, she is just the sort to call me and say, this is the worst, god-awful pie I have ever had, and I demand my money back, or I'll take you to small claims court! On my way home from the market, I was seriously planning what I was going to do when she called, because I just knew she would. My plan was to give her a refund AND bake her a better pie to apologize. Well (hang in there, this is the big finale to the world's longest story), sure enough, she called last night and left a message while my roommate was online. So Cyd brings me the phone to hear the message, holding it up to my ear as I am washing dishes in the kitchen, and as soon as I hear, "Gina, this is So-and-So, and I bought one of your pies today," I thought, Oh Lord, here we go! I am really going to cry now. But she continues, saying, "...and I just have to tell you that it was THE BEST PIE I HAVE EVER HAD IN MY LIFE, and I sure hope you'll be back at the farmer's market next time so I can buy another one!" LMAO!!! Is that PRICELESS or what?? It just goes to show that the worst homemade pie still is still miles and days better than the best pre-fab pie.

The epilogue is (there's more??), June came down to check on me at the market, and she was eyeing the last cherry pie, and I told her, no, don't buy it, becuse it didn't turn out like I would have hoped, and besides, you prefer sour cherry pie anyway. So she ended up buying a double-dark chocolate buttermilk pound cake (the only large bundt I sold all day). And though she reported that she and her husband loved the cake, now she is going to be mad at me for talking her out of that cherry pie! Anyway, that's the end of my tale, but I couldn't be happier about that phone call than if I had won an Oscar! And the big market lesson #2? BAKE MORE PIE! Maybe it's a sign from the universe and/or a telepathic message from Pascale LeDraoulec? We'll see in another couple of weeks when I return to the market if I'm any further along the learning curve...


Randi said...

What a great story. I baked a really good bing cherry pie a few weeks ago. I was commenting to my MIL how anyone could sell a pie at their farmers market for 7 bucks, because it cost me 4 dollars in cherries alone. My pie was totally overstuffed though. I'm curious, did you bake the pound cakes ahead of time and freeze them?

Joy Bugaloo said...

Randi, your beautiful pie was the reason that I had the nerve to try making one from SWEET cherries! But I guess I should have used the same recipe so my crumble didn't drown. :-(

And yes, of course, I froze many of the pound cakes ahead of time. They freeze (and thaw) beautifully. And then I also strongly recommended to people that they toast or grill the slices before serving. YUM! Of course, one of my concerns about shifting my focus to pie-making is how to make them in advance and keep them fresh for the market. I don't have the space to freeze too many unbaked pies. Any ideas...anyone?

Stunned Donor said...

What a great story. I'd stand firm on price, just because you can buy a pie for $10 somewhere doesn't mean it's a good pie. In fact your prices are cheap considering the amont of labor it takes.

I had a commercial bakery for a while and I sold desserts to restaurants, country clubs and such and never cut corners on pies by using canned filling or frozen pastry and I wholesaled a nine inch pie for $12.

There's really nothing I can think of about producing your pies in advance if you don't have the freezer space. If you had a regular spot at the market you could take orders for pies for the next week and then produce a certain amount of product over what was ordered.

Good luck!

Anonymous said...

Very nice blog, and I enjoyed your story about the farmer's market!

Stand firm on your prices. My sister has a small bakery/cafe in Glenwood Springs, CO. She retails scratch fruit pies with lattice tops for $17, and wholesales for $15. Yes, she's near Aspen and Vail, but she says the richer they are the more they complain. (The caterers don't complain - they know they're getting the best pie around for $15. Plus, I assume they sell each piece for $6 or so.)

KathleenM said...

So glad to find your blog. I made my own farmer's market debut 3 weeks ago, also with pie. I would have priced them too low but for advice from more experienced sellers. our market is only a few weeks old, and the people responsible for starting it are not charging booth fees for the duration of the season so that we can all get our feet wet without breaking the bank! First week, seven 9" peach or blackberry, following week, six 9" peach and added three 5" "eat it now" size. Small sold first, Last week the blackberry and peach mix, with 5 small and 7 large. 2 large blackberry left, but a local restaurant will take what I have leftover. I bake early morning of the day I sell. Best of luck. Your pix are yummy looking.