The City of Mesa has wanted to revive a downtown farmers market for years. The owners of a successful downtown sandwich shop have wanted to create one.
That confluence is now coming together as the Mesa Farmers Market and Flea, which debuts Saturday, Jan. 19, at Pioneer Park in downtown Mesa.
“It’s actually funny,” said Kelsey Strothers, co-organizer of the market with her husband, Jim Bob. “We met with the mayor’s office and some of the people there to say, ‘Hey, we want to put on a farmers’ market.’ And they said, ‘We are literally putting out an RFP for a farmers’ market right now.’”
They’re all hoping that serendipitous moment is the beginning of a successful, long-running weekly community event. Starting this Saturday, the market will run each week at Pioneer Park at 526 E. Main St., near Mesa Drive, from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.
The market will include about 30 booths of local growers, food vendors, artists, home goods, apparel and other craftsmen. But unlike most farmers’ markets that pop up in random parking lots, this one will be in a park setting with family-friendly events and live music.
That should be good news to Mesa residents who flooded city officials with requests for one during its “Imagine Mesa” campaign in 2017.
Jeff Robbins, a Mesa management assistant in the City Manager’s office, said the creation of a farmers’ market to rival those in nearby communities was among the top responses out of 10,000 they received.
“We really took that and ran with that,” Robbins said.
It’s Mesa’s latest attempt at establishing a farmers’ market presence. Previously, a market moved around from places such as near Mesa Amphitheater and the Mesa City Plaza building on Main Street, but it eventually fizzled out. Current city staff don’t even remember the last time the city hosted one.
“I’m not quite sure why they stopped operating, but it’s been a little while,” Robbins said. “The city felt strongly that they wanted to have a farmers’ market presence. So, it put out a request for proposals since that was something we were already passionate about.”
That passion extends to the Strotherses, two Evergreen District residents who own Worth Takeaway at 218 W. Main St. They have turned the sandwich shop, which is about a mile from Pioneer Park, into a huge success in less than three years.
The couple will celebrate the restaurant’s third birthday next month, not long after the Phoenix New Times named it the Best Sandwich Shop in the Valley.
Kelsey said the company’s quick success has been a combination of hard work and luck. “It’s really organic the way it happened,” she said. “We opened in a community that was, no pun intended, really hungry for new things without having to drive to Phoenix or Gilbert.”
The couple has lived in Mesa for eight years and said they wanted to give back to the close-knit downtown community by opening up a market designed for families who weren’t only interested in buying fresh foods but also wanted a place to gather.
“Our goal was to create some fun culture in the area and provide another option for entertainment and dining,” said Kelsey, 32, who grew up in Gilbert and earned a degree in dietetics at ASU.
Kelsey and 41-year-old Jim Bob, a native of Texas, opened up a pop-up Christmas market behind their sandwich shop last year, which sparked their idea for a full-fledged farmers’ market.
“We just thought it would be a great event for people instead of having to drive away from Mesa to go to a farmers’ market,” Kelsey said.
Robbins said the Strotherses’ plan was exactly what the city was looking to establish.
“We did a lot of research in the market – what works, what drives traffic,” Robbins said. “We wanted to create an event with multiple activities. People can go and have an experience at a farmers’ market.”
That includes a fresh and healthy eating experience.
With state requirements calling for Mesa to beef up its fresh food options in the downtown area, the city is hoping to bring the Double Up Food Bucks Arizona program to the market by next year. That program allows recipients to receive $1 in Arizona grown fruits and vegetables for every $1 they spend with their SNAP cards.
The market is also giving the city some regular scheduled entertainment options on the calendar, which they hope will spark more interest in a revived downtown.
“We want a vibrant, active urban lifestyle in downtown Mesa, and that means able to have movability and walkability,” Robbins said. “When you bring the food to downtown, everybody needs the food to live. If you can make that convenient and accessibility and give that option, that creates desirability and movability.”
Pioneer Park’s recent $7.9 million renovation has made the quarter-acre park the perfect place to hold the event, Robbins said. The improvements unveiled in December 2017 included a splash pad with a 15-foot water wall, a treehouse-style playground, basketball courts, new restrooms and a Historic Engine 2355 Steam Locomotive. “It’s really a fantastic location,” Robbins said. “It really checks off a lot of the boxes for the needs. And it’s an attractive environment for people to go.”
In one of the grassy areas, organizers are setting up a small stage for musical acts to entertain shoppers.
Of course, paying the bands is one of the costs to put on the event. The organizers’ private LLC is paying for the majority of the cost to put on the market.
“Essentially, it’s a business for us,” Kelsey said. “We personally felt passionately about operating it as a business and operating it from the standpoint we thought would be the most successful.”
The agreement between the Strotherses and the city calls for a lease of $100 a week to use the park and the electrical boxes on site.
Startup costs for organizers include branding and marketing the event and building a website. There are also costs for tent and canopy rentals, vehicles for moving equipment, storage considerations and the bands that will play the live music. Plus, somebody has to pay for the electricity that they’ll be using each week.
Vendors will pay a small undetermined fee to be a part of the action, but Strothers said the company is investing its own money upfront to get it going.
“We really won’t be paid back at first,” Strothers said. “It will take time.”
The term of the lease is for three years. Initial plans call for it to run year-round, although the city is only expecting the spring and fall seasons for now.
Strothers said organizers will “play it by ear” for the first summer to see if it’s worth opening in the July heat.
The process of approving vendor applications is still ongoing since the group has only three months to prepare for opening day after October’s city approval. Those interested in becoming a vendor can apply on a vendor form at MesaFarmersMarketAndFlea.com.