An Alabama Success: The Market at Pepper Place
by Executive Director Leigh Sloss-Corra
June 4, 2021
I have the honor and privilege of serving as Executive Director of the Market at Pepper Place, the largest producer-only certified weekly farmers market in Alabama. The Market at Pepper Place operates online and in-person year-round, every Saturday, 7 a.m. - 12 p.m., rain or shine. The Market connects the community to local foods and products, and provides a means to support farmers, makers, and purveyors who call Alabama home. Located in the heart of the Pepper Place Entertainment District, the Market at Pepper Place welcomes over 300,000 visitors each year. It was voted “#1 Market in Alabama” and "4th Best Large Market in the US" by the National Farmland Trust. We’re also proud to be celebrating our 21st anniversary this summer – that’s a big accomplishment!
In a typical year during peak season, we set up over 100 tents and tables for farmers, makers and guests on over two city blocks every Saturday morning. (During COVID, we had to drastically reduce the number of weekly vendors and tents, but those numbers are increasing as things get back to normal.) We offer live music on two stages, kid’s activities, weekly cooking demonstrations, maker talks, book signings and special events. During Women in Food Month in September, we team up with Les Dames d’Escoffier to spotlight the city’s top female chefs and food producers.
This fall, the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) will hold its annual conference in and around Pepper Place, with the Market as the focus. We host four Wellness Days throughout the year to encourage market visitors to eat better and lead happier, healthier lives. To ensure everyone has access to fresh food, we accept SNAP/EBT with matching Double Up Food Bucks. At the end of each market, any unsold produce is collected and donated to local food pantries.
We’ve partnered with the City of Birmingham and Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority to establish the Birmingham Central Market, a weekday farmers market serving downtown residents and transit riders. We’re also working with UAB’s Department of Public Health on the new Live HealthSmart Mobile Grocery, launching this summer, to bring locally grown produce and fresh food to Birmingham neighborhoods that are classified as food deserts.
Visitors from around the region and the world come to the Market at Pepper Place every Saturday and discover the best Alabama has to offer, from strawberries and goat cheese to kombucha and soy candles. We offer opportunities for vendors to improve their marketing and financial skills through presentations at vendor meetings, free workshops and a mentorship program.
Over the years, the Market at Pepper Place has incubated over 60 businesses who started in a tent and then went on to brick and mortar locations or wider distributions. Grocery stores across the state are now stocked with produce grown by many of our market farmers. Mook’s Cheese Straws started in a tent at the market, as did Steel City Pops, which now has over two dozen locations across the southeast.
Friends of the Market is our non-profit arm of the Market at Pepper Place. As a 501(c)3, its purpose is “to educate and assist both the public and farmers about food, origins, growth, farmers' markets, the farm/city connection, and the advantages of direct buying and selling of farm products.” The Market has stayed true to this purpose since its founding in 2000, becoming nationally respected and locally revered. It has been instrumental in transforming a once derelict area of the city into a vibrant, desirable neighborhood with quality residential housing and retail establishments over the last few years. An economic impact study, completed by the University of Alabama College of Business in 2019, shows the Market at Pepper Place contributes $20 million annually to the greater Birmingham economy. When businesses neighboring Pepper Place are included, the combined economic impact on the city is $100 million.
Studies have shown that farmers markets transform communities for the better. Many of the businesses in and around Pepper Place say they might not have come there had it not been for the Market and its positive energy that transformed the area. We hope more city leaders will recognize the critical importance of farmers markets and support them.
Our market has a beautiful website and an online store we launched during COVID-19 that brings in a large amount of traffic. We also offer curbside pick-up that allows shoppers to pre-order produce, prepared food and handmade goods Monday through Friday, with contactless pick-up at the Market Saturday mornings. It’s a terrific service that offers convenience, safety and ease. I use it every week and still shop the in-person market too!
We continue to get great press from local and national publications including, NYTimes, Wall Street Journal, Allrecipes and Garden & Gun. Our weekly newsletter has a devoted following, and our social media keeps growing. Right now, on the various platforms, we have almost 100 thousand followers combined. We published Know Thy Farmer, a book of photo-essays honoring the individuals who’ve made our market possible. You can see an art exhibition of photos from the book at Pepper Place this summer and fall – or order a copy from our website.
Since we began in 2000, everything the Market at Pepper Place has accomplished was possible because of our amazing team, incredible Board of Directors, awesome sponsors and community partners. We’ve also had tremendous help from chefs, writers and food lovers. The heart of our market and our community are our Alabama farmers, to whom we owe so much. Without them, none of us would exist. Our Market has devoted the last 21 years to promoting them and the food they grow.
Over two decades, we’ve nurtured an appealing and welcoming place in downtown Birmingham where Alabama farmers and makers could reach consumers, where rural and urban could connect and a healthy community could bloom – and it worked! Later this year we hope to announce a plan for the Market’s permanent home at Pepper Place. As we look at the future for the Market at Pepper Place, we are filled with optimism. It’s currently berry season and peaches and tomatoes are coming in also. Our farmers have truckloads of produce that market shoppers can’t wait to take home. Smiles all around!