food market

Shaping a virtual food market

With foot traffic off the table, finding ways to tap into local community from afar has become vital.

By Tom Nightingale

Heading down to a local food market is a pastime of choice for many people. The wide variety of produce on offer, coupled with that in-person interaction and the knowledge that you’re contributing to small business and the community, holds an undeniable allure.

In Toronto, as Canada’s largest urban metropolitan centre, consumers and vendors have typically been spoiled for choice.

But, as with so much in Canadian foodservice and beyond, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the game.

Though the type and scale of traditional in-person food market may return once the dust has settled and COVID-19 has subsided, with events largely off the table for over 14 months now, market operators have had to get creative to maintain their offerings and help vendors stay connected with communities.

Toronto Market Company has been creating a curated food market experience since 2014. It had an expansive summer of markets on the horizon last year before developments in the spring torpedoed those plans.

“Before COVID-19, it was all about foot traffic – having a beautiful day and people walking by our locations in dense areas and high-traffic locations,” Toronto Market co-founder Melissa Zuker tells RestoBiz. “We were heavily focused in the downtown financial district where we’ve always been, so even if farmers’ markets were deemed essential during COVID-19, there was just no traffic.”

In the different world that has been created by the pandemic, the Market shifted its operations online, like so many businesses have had to do. As always, the Market has focused on creating an experience that helps local businesses meet their customers.

“It seemed like a good fit to pivot online and help create avenues for a lot of these local small businesses that were having challenges,” explains Zuker. “A lot of them really rely on these summer markets and events to sell their products.”

“A whole new business”

Now, Zuker reflects, “it’s like having a whole new business.”

Toronto Market has pivoted its model to create a well-curated and contactless virtual market experience that allows consumers to find the same local favourites they used to meet in downtown Toronto. “We think of it as a one-stop shop,” says Zuker.

The Market is now an online weekly market working in tandem with well over 100 local small businesses. The website is designed to feel like a virtual form of the process of wandering through a market and selecting whatever piques your interest. Customers order by the end of Sunday night and can either pick up from the Market’s headquarters in downtown Toronto or let the Market pack and distribute the products across the GTA, delivering on Thursdays and Fridays of the following week.

The end result is a replication of the in-person food market experience, as consumers are able to get a variety of products from multiple local small businesses in one shipment. Truly, the selection on offer is impressive.

“There’s certainly a lot of learning as we go,” acknowledges Zuker. “We’re still learning a lot. These days, we have so much more output. The model is entirely different but it’s been really successful. We’ve had a great response from the community and people who want to support local or who just love discovering new things. I think it’s just such a convenient offering for people and for businesses.”

The Market had never been online selling product to this extend before, but the shift is a direct result of the time we live in. And Zuker expects it to be a primary focus moving forward, however the pandemic progresses.

“This is the future,” she says. “Maybe by next year we’ll have some in-person stuff back but online is certainly here to stay and the reach is a lot bigger than just people stumbling upon the market.” Ideally, of course, a combination of the two would be the long-term solution.

Supporting small business

For Toronto Market Company, it’s always been about supporting small business and local community as much as providing consumers with a wide and convenient selection. “Our mission has always been creating avenues for small businesses to showcase their goods and connect with consumers,” explains Zuker.

In 2014, the Market began launching pop-up markets in downtown Toronto, curating them to provide a platform for local food purveyors, artisans, bakers, and restaurants.

“We’ve done a range of things including summer food markets in the downtown core that run every day or every week showcasing a bunch of the best restaurants, and we’ve also done more low-key farmers’ market-type summer markets featuring some smaller businesses and up-and-coming noteworthy businesses,” Zuker expands.

That has continued – thrived, in fact – with the shift to online. The Market has continued working with its extensive selection of long-term partners, and has also begun to work with more vendors, which Zuker describes as “extremely exciting.” She adds that the Market focuses on taking on vendors who have interesting and unique products to offer that translate well to being shipped across the GTA.

“We’re really selective about who we work with, we try to curate it so we don’t have too many competing similar groups,” Zuker notes.

For businesses, the benefits of working with an established market that has both the online following and the scalability to operate digitally are clear.

“I think having that exposure on top of sales is really beneficial for vendors,” says Zuker. When the Market works with a business, it does all the back-end work for them – marketing and promoting their offerings, taking orders, packing and delivering the goods, and the customer service that comes with it.  

“It’s pretty seamless and, on a per-business basis, it’s simple, concludes Zuker. “It’s really about offering a place to discover local business and exciting products. We look for people and businesses that have a great story. A lot of our vendors have pivoted in what they do and sell and we can also help with that. We want to support as many small local businesses as we can during this really challenging time.”

Visit Toronto Market Company at https://www.torontomarketco.com/ or on Twitter, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

For information on how to become a vendor, visit https://www.torontomarketco.com/become-a-vendor.

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