As I do my shopping the sounds of laughter and friendly conversation fill the air, complemented by the smells of fresh produce, flowers, soaps, baked goods and hot Mediterranean soups. For customers of the Lansing City Market, like myself, it is impossible to miss the familial atmosphere created by the kind and talkative vendors, each hoping you will ask for a sample, or for an explanation of how they make their goods. The vendors are rightfully proud of their products, virtually all of which have easily traceable histories, unlike most food lining supermarket shelves. I have become a regular shopper, and learned the names and stories behind each of the vendors who readily welcome their customers into the Market family. The shopping experience is decidedly different than one at a large grocery store. Buying products from the people who actually make or grow them is a rare event in today’s corporation heavy, centralized economy.
Lansing City Market is located a ten or fifteen minute drive from campus, yet few students venture there to experience the best in local food, home supplies, floral, jewelry, and more. A few Saturdays each month, local musicians (usually singer-songwriters) perform in the Market and add to the already unique shopping atmosphere. Soon the Lansing Community College radio station will be sponsoring free concerts on Fridays. About 50 percent of the vendors are farmers or growers who can answer any questions you might have about their ingredients, production process or food philosophy. Other vendors sell value-added products like cheese, honey and syrup, or hot-prepared food, art, nursery or garden products.
The Lansing City Market was established in 1909, and has been in its current building since 1938. It is owned by the City of Lansing and managed by the Lansing Entertainment and Public Facilities Authority, an organization of about forty administrators who manage local sporting arenas, theaters and other facilities. John Hooper is the Lansing City Market Manager. “Our Market has been sort of a business incubator,” he said. Vendors often start there, build a following, save up money, then buy their own commercial space for their burgeoning business. “We have an excellent and diverse group of entrepreneurs here,” Hooper said.
Interested in selling goods at the Market? “We probably have the cheapest rent in America,” Hooper said. Depending on the square footage, vendors pay about $75 per month for their space. In order to get in, prospective vendors must give a presentation to a Market Jury consisting of Hooper and two or three other vendors who decide whether or not they are right for the space. “There is a great movement in this country toward farmers’ markets and buying local,” Hooper said.
That may be true. Even though venues like the Market are still struggling, people seem to be waking up to the fact that while processed food is convenient, eating it may be doing more harm to our bodies and lifestyles than good. Organic foods are becoming more common in large grocery stores, and stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s are springing up all over the country. These foods are not generally local, but in the face of infinite diet-influenced chronic health problems and rising health care costs, Americans are starting to take an interest in how their foods are produced and how they might affect their bodies. Books like Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser, and The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan have been bestsellers, educating Americans on their food systems and encouraging them to buy more local and whole foods.
Groundbreaking on a project to give the Market a face lift took place April 25. The simple structure they are building will feature a geo-thermal heating system that will use underground water as heat instead of gas or electric heat. “The upfront costs are expensive, but you save on energy and ecological costs in the long run,” Hooper said. The new Market is expected to be open to the public in the fall. The new Market will be located on the Lansing River Trail on city park land, a few hundred yards southwest of where the current structure sits. The current structure will be demolished and will be replaced with mixed zoning, including housing, retail, and office space. With its new facility, the Lansing City Market will most likely draw in even more customers, exposing more people to the great local businesses the market has to offer. Meet just a few of them.
The Fresh Lake Whitefish Company- Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan
“We have the freshest fish available in this area,” said Carla Ebener, who owns the Fresh Lake White Fish Company with her husband Mark Ebener. They have been making the five-hour drive from Sault Ste. Marie to the Lansing City Market for two seasons now, and have been vendors in the Meridian Township Farmers’ Market for two seasons, and in the Flint Farmers’ Market for three seasons. The fish are all Great Lakes wild caught freshwater fish, which the Ebeners buy wholesale directly from fishermen. To ensure freshness that’s hard to find in a grocery store or restaurant, they pick up their fish on Friday afternoon and drive downstate to sell on Saturdays. Most restaurants and grocery stores sell fish that are farmed in fisheries and travel across the country for days or weeks before ending up on a plate. The Ebeners’ fish lived free, and presumably more sanitary lives in the wild and the Ebeners many loyal customers agree that the difference in taste is noticeable. Featured products include: whitefish, lake trout, yellow perch, smoked fish, smelt, whitefish sausage, salmon, whitefish dip.
Why do they make the long trip downstate? Carla says she just loves the atmosphere of the Lansing City Market. “The farmers’ market is a wonderful place to be. It is a community in and of itself. We tried to sell to restaurants. Most restaurants just sell ocean whitefish,” Ebener said. “We have been very successful here and have many loyal customers.” Their company also takes many orders through email. If any customers wish to make a special order, they can let them know in the middle of the week, and by the weekend it will be with the regular shipment. They do much of their business through email and phone orders.
The Fresh Lake Whitefish Company
320 West Spruce Street
Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan 49783
Seif Foods Mediterranean Cuisine and Bakery
This is Magda Seif’s eighth year serving fresh, hot, homemade Mediterranean and Middle Eastern food at the Lansing City Market. Seif, who also teaches culinary arts in the Lansing Community College hospitality and business management program, makes all the food at Seif Foods including danishes, soups, wraps, baba ghanoush (like an eggplant hummus), baklava, Greek spinach pie a
nd many other baked goods. Her menu also offers gluten-free, fat-free, sugar-free and dairy-free options.
Born in Alexandria, Egypt, Seif has lived in the U.S. for 22 years. “The vendors are like a family,” she said. She also has many loyal customers who visit her regularly to satisfy their taste buds and sometimes their special dietary restrictions. Seif Food offers many free samples so when visiting, customers should be ready to try some hummus, baklava and soup. Many customers are impressed with the wide variety of tastes Seif regularly creates and sells at her bakery. She is a bit apprehensive about the new facility opening in the fall. “I’m comfortable here,” Seif said. “I’m not sure if it will be better or worse.” She said she will miss the current building dearly. “Seeing this place demolished will break my heart,” she said. “If you don’t have a history, you don’t have a future.”
East Lansing Food Co-op
The East Lansing Food Co-op (ELFCO) has been a vendor at the Market since November 2007. ELFCO is also planning on opening up a coffee stand at the Market soon.
Priscilla Holmes is the fun, light-hearted woman who runs the Co-op outlet store. Her dedication to all-natural food is one that she has had since she was young. As a child, she was raised on a farm that used organic techniques, an experience that inspired her to go into the work she is in today. ELFCO features mostly local foods, organic foods, as well as gluten-free foods, lactose-free foods, eco-foods and foods produced using sustainable processes. The term “eco-foods” essentially describes foods grown using organic practices, but aren’t necessarily certified organic. Achieving that certification requires a tedious process, and the certification’s worth is in debate amongst some food producers.
“I bring what people ask me to bring,” Holmes said. Her products completely fill her allotted space, but most everything is there by request. If customers want something specific, Priscilla orders it for them, and within a few days it is there. The store has all kinds of ingredients the gourmet chef looks for like herbs, spices, cereals, pastas, dairy products, breads, condiments, vegetables, fruits, lentils, and dips. “We’ve done very well here,” Holmes said.
Alice Harris is a friendly, easy-going, woman with an endearing Southern accent and a dynamite menu. Harris has been at the Market for four years and boasts all-natural Michigan products, most of which she and her husband personally prepare.
She has many baked goods, including her husband’s famous Jamaican meat patties, which are tasty meat and spices wrapped inside bread. She also has many varieties of coffee, all roasted by Coffee Barrel in Okemos, Michigan. Her beef comes from Heffron Farms in Belding, Michigan, her buffalo from TMZ Farms in Pinckney, Michigan, and her frozen vegetables are locally grown. She makes her own sausage, chicken, and turkey sausage. She has many herbs and spices to choose from, all of which she blends herself. She also has excellent BBQ sauce.
Harris is at the Market every day, lives in the area, and looks forward to the new building opening up. “I have high expectations that it will be a success,” she said. “To make it a success, the neighborhood people have to get involved.”
Hills Home Cured Cheese
“Turophilia” is the technical term for “the love of cheese,” and the Hills have it in the best way. The Hills have artisan-made domestic cheeses. This means their cheeses are hand-crafted in small batches, not processed in large factories and warehouses. They feature some local cheeses from Zingerman’s and Grass Fields, and cheeses from around the world- especially England and Wisconsin. The Hills have been curing and aging cheese to sell in the Lansing City Market since 1961. Ruth and Glen R. Hills, with Randi Richards’ help, represent the third of four generations of Hills serving at the Market.
Their cheeses are of extremely high quality, of ages ranging up to 12 years, and a lot of their varieties have won awards. The Pleasant Ridge Gouda, made by a family in Wisconsin, won the American Cheese Society’s Best in Show. None of their cheeses have any added vegetable oils like store-bought cheeses do, which makes them generally lower in fat. “We are community-oriented cheese people,” said Randi Richards, who has been working for the Hills for two years.
They are constantly giving out free samples which invariably lead to sales because many customers find their cheeses incredibly delicious. “I love to see people try cheeses. They get weak in the knees and fall in love with them,” Richards said. I know I did and went home with a healthy share of Marike Gouda- aged 12 months on pine planks in Wisconsin.
Saverine Creek Heirlooms
This is owner Debbie Groat’s first year as a vendor at the Lansing City Market. She sells her own hand-crafted, rare-seed jewelry. She specializes in heirloom seeds, which are strains passed down through families and peoples like the Hopi Indians. These strains of beans and corn are no longer commercially grown, so they are difficult to find. Groat buys hers through Seed Savers Exchange, a special organization in Iowa that enables members to trade rare seeds. “People make a commitment to keep these strains alive,” she said. She and her husband buy the seeds and use certified organic techniques to grow them on their land north of Standish, Michigan. She has 26 varieties of beans and 8-9 corn varieties, including Oaxacan Green Dent, a strain over 1,000 years old. Each of her necklaces and bracelets has a story behind it, and she tells the stories well. Her Mandan Red Corn is a strain once enjoyed by Lewis and Clark, who ate it with the now-extinct Mandan Indians.
Groat sells her hand-crafted jewelry in stores in Connecticut, Michigan and South Carolina. She goes to art and craft fairs as well. She even goes to schools with her jewelry and educates the students about the histories behind the strains of seeds. She is at the Lansing City Market on Saturdays only, and her website is http://www.saverinecreek.com/.
The Lansing City Market is located at the corner of Shiawassee and Cedar Streets in downtown Lansing. It is open Tuesday, Thursday, Friday 9:00am to 6:00pm, and Saturday 8:00am to 5:00pm. To find out more about vendors, events, and sales, visit the Market’s website at www.lansingcitymarket.com.