When the pandemic closed the door to one segment of customers, two business leaders, in separate efforts, found new ways to reach people.
In World War I and World War II, Americans nationwide were encouraged to plant victory gardens.
Now, during the coronavirus crisis, the victory garden has again served as inspiration — this time for a new concept. Alma Johnson, co-owner of Sarasota Honey Co., founded the Suncoast Victory Market, a virtual farmers market that links vendors in Sarasota and Manatee counties and beyond with customers throughout the area.
Because of the pandemic, many businesses lost the opportunity to sell their products at in-person farmers markets, other events and gift shops. Johnson’s quick thinking and efforts have led to a welcome new opportunity for small growers, dairies and other vendors.
She’s not the only nimble entrepreneur finding solutions to keep agricultural operations, suppliers, restaurants and customers connected. In the Tampa-St. Pete area, Jordan Johnson, founder of the restaurant Naked Farmer, started the Naked Farmer’s Market. The digital market allows customers in the Tampa Bay area to get fresh produce through pickup and delivery options. (Alma Johnson and Jordan Johnson aren't related.)
For Alma Johnson, who sells raw local honey and other items, the Victory Market started when she and other vendors began calling each other and brainstorming how they could still get their products to customers. “There are fruits and veggies and berries just dying on the vine and dying on the plant, and the dairy farmers had to throw away gallons of milk,” she says. “It’s just really sad. That got me thinking — let’s create a database, and let’s all work together as a team.”
‘We’ve stayed nimble through this whole thing, and that’s been the thing that’s made us successful — listening to community about what they need.’ — Jordan Johnson, Naked Farmer
Johnson started making calls. She had vendors email her information about their businesses and the products they offer. She gathered all the information in one spot, streamlining it and creating a digital clearinghouse of sorts where customers could find area vendors.
The concept is simple — customers look through a list of about two dozen vendors and products on the Victory Market section of the Sarasota Honey Co. website (SarasotaHoney.com). They place orders directly with the vendors and pick up items at designated locations in the area. “It’s true social distancing, and you’re supporting the local economy,” says Johnson. “We’ve had really nice success with it. It’s not the type of income we would be seeing with the restaurants and gift shops, but it’s something.”
Johnson is still getting requests from vendors who want to participate. “The cows still need to be milked, the chickens are still laying eggs and the bees are definitely making honey,” she says. “Mother nature does not care about current events for sure.”
Jordan Johnson, meanwhile, was about to launch his new restaurant when the pandemic hit. Instead of opening Naked Farmer for diners in St. Petersburg April 1, he got to work on a new business model — the Naked Farmer’s Market. It was up and running in 72 hours. “Once we realized that this thing is coming and it’s going to change the world as we know it, we decided to postpone the grand opening and make as fast a pivot as possible to be as helpful to the community as possible,” he says.
Johnson realized his mission of increasing people’s access to real food from nearby farms still applied, just in a different way. “Right now, that doesn’t mean cooking and serving people,” he says. “That means leveraging this supply network of local farmers we’ve been working on for the last eight months and getting that food straight to your door, and that’s what we’ve done.”
In about two weeks, Johnson sold over 1,000 farm boxes. “The reception has been super strong from people,” he says. “We believe we will be doing this forever, including when restaurants open and people are able to get back to their lives as normal. This thing is continuing to evolve and so has our company. We’ve stayed nimble through this whole thing, and that’s been the thing that’s made us successful — listening to community about what they need.”
Johnson also hopes the process can be replicated in other places. “The brand has taken on the role of a storyteller and an educator,” he says. “That’s what we believe is really powerful. This is not just about selling vegetables. It’s about setting up a national model other restaurants can use to help their communities.”