The most popular parties are those that seem the most difficult to get into. The line out the door, the person looking at your ID, and the check to ensure that you’re on the list – these are the hallmarks of an exclusive event. Which is why I was surprised and pleased to see these all happening at the DC Grey Farmers Market two weeks ago. Which is not actually to say the DC Grey Market is exclusionary – quite the opposite. You see, the key word in that sentence is “seems.” The DC Grey Market was actually a lovely mix of scenesters who were unabashedly excited about the concept and a celebration of all food handmade and non-industrial.
All of the seeming secrecy derives from the DC Grey Market’s odd position of being outside of the bounds of traditional legality. Grey markets live in an area between the “white market” – above ground, licensed food vendors – and the “black market” that trades in prohibited items. The grey market services those food providers who are not yet far enough in their business to be officially licensed. Even though it’s far less sexy than a party-atmosphere in a trendy bar, school bake sales and lemonade stands are part of the “grey market” in the grander sense as well.
Although lemonade stands may teach kids valuable lessons, the official D.C. Grey Market event actually fosters real entrepreneurs. Washington, D.C. and Montgomery County, Maryland have extremely specific food safety rules (Prince George’s County and Virginia probably do as well, I just don’t know them). They require all food meant to be sold to the public to be made in kitchens meeting strict regulations, which can be very expensive and difficult to meet. While these rules are designed to keep the public safe, they are also very challenging for someone just starting a business. Having enough capital to rent kitchen space without knowing if the public is interested in your product is a big financial risk. The Grey Market allows these small business owners to launch without taking on that burden.
The solution to this issue conveniently solves the legality problem while creating that exclusive atmosphere. Basically, to participate in the DC Grey Market, you have to be part of their club. Thankfully, they accept everyone. You just have to sign a waiver saying that you won’t sue anyone and pay a small donation on a sliding scale of $2-5. You could sign up online or at the door. Super simple. Showing your ID was needed because the event was after all, in a bar.
After completing this easy-as-pie process, I had access to a grand variety of cookery. Gimme Dem Cupcakes served up bite-size, moist cupcakes that I wouldn’t have ever guessed were vegan if I hadn’t seen their sign. Betsy’s Bites had teeny, tiny pies that were mouthfuls of deliciousness. There was even a meat auction! And although I didn’t buy anything from them, Mezcla Food’s Cuban sandwiches looked delectable. I just was too full of pastries to try them!
Much to my surprise, I found half of Ecolocity – the Transition Towns, local food group I volunteer with – there as well. Larry, our founder, was at the door checking people in and selling Potomacs, our local currency. The maker of Energy Crunch Bars, who had come to a couple of meetings, was awesomely donating all of her profits from the day to Ecolocity. She also had hand-drawn labels that managed to make peak oil look cute, wrapped around excellent, crumbly granola bars. Zachari, with whom I had put on youth gardening workshops , was selling lacto-fermented goods (chutneys, pickles, sauerkraut) through her outfit, ThePickle. Katherine and Anna, who run reuse company A World Without Waste, were manning a booth for Dessert Station, their new venture with baked goods named after Metro Stops. (My friends are so clever!) And then, although she’s not a part of Ecolocity, I spotted my college classmate Bradley spooning out gumbo. It was a virtual reunion of “people Shannon knows from advocacy.”
Too full to eat more, but still wandering around, I started to think about how the Grey Market could be of use to me personally. Chris would eventually like to have a restaurant, but it’s a huge financial risk. Although we’ve talked about him starting off by creating sauces and other items to sell at the Farmers’ Market, even that involves a considerable investment. If there are more grey Market events, they could offer him a great opportunity to test the waters. For that selfish reason alone, I hope they continue.
The D.C. Grey Market serves as an important stepping-stone for small businesses, allowing for low-risk, low-investment start-ups. Despite that goal, I’m very glad that the organizers decided not to focus on that aspect. Too often, these types of events take on a sheen of “this is important” and forget the point that “this is fun!” D.C. Grey Market has thankfully managed to find the right balance of both.