The Mallow Bar

Nikki Lewis makes homemade caramel at The Mallow Bar, a brick and mortar company that began as a stall at the Baltimore Farmers Market. (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore Sun / March 26, 2012)

For her debut at the Baltimore Farmers' Market, vendor Eula McDowell brought what she figured was more than enough black-eyed pea, lentil and navy bean soup to last through the day — and sold out in two hours.

"I was really proud of myself," McDowell said about her early market success with Savory Bean Soups. "At first I was satisfied with just being at the farmers' market, but customers told me they wanted to see me throughout the week."

McDowell listened. Her market fare has now grown into The Big Bean Theory, a full-time operation she opened last November at Owings Mills Mall.

McDowell is one of three Baltimore Farmers' Market vendors who have recently spun their market success into fixed locations. Fans of Roland Park Rustic Gourmet's Indian cuisine don't have to wait until Sunday for their pakora fix. Radhika Sule's food found a permanent home last summer at the Verandah, a retail and lunch spot on the Avenue in Hampden. And Nikki Lewis' marshmallow treats are now served at the Mallow Bar, a dessert cafe she opened last month in Rosedale.

For startup business, "farmers' markets are perfect for getting your product in front of people and for getting name recognition," said Virgina Schwarzenbach of the North American Farmers' Direct Marketing Association. "It's actually a viable part of a business expansion plan."

But these vendors aren't leaving the market behind. They will be in their usual spots Sunday morning, when the Baltimore Farmers' Market begins its 36th season, the 28th at its location under the Jones Falls Expressway. Some 3,000 to 5,000 people are expected to drop by to inspect the early spring offerings from Maryland farmers and reacquaint themselves with their favorite vendors of savory and sweet prepared foods.

Along the oval, a market-goer will play the part, willingly and often unwittingly, of business adviser, test-market volunteer and marketing consultant.

McDowell started midseason at the farmers' market, in August 2009, just as soup weather was settling in. But when she returned the following spring, she found customers in no mood for hot soup.

"I've quit my job, but now soup's not selling," McDowell said. "But I can make salads, quiches, dressings and teas."

Even some of her soups, McDowell said, grew out of suggestions from her market regulars. "Customers told me they wanted a creamy squash soup for Thanksgiving. I think of the pot as my canvas, and that inspired me to come up with a yellow split pea with butternut squash." That soup is now on permanent rotation.

Annual fees for the 39-week market season range from $1,000 to $5,000, depending on the stall's size, location and the products being sold. Vendors have different reasons for expanding to bricks-and-mortar establishments. Both Sule and Lewis found themselves needing permanent kitchen space to supply the increased demand for their products. Sule's specialty is healthy versions of Indian-inspired food, such as samosas. She debuted her Roland Park Rustic Gourmet at the downtown farmers' market in 2009, eventually adding other markets to her schedule and quickly outgrowing her rental kitchen.

"It started to get complicated," Sule said. "I figured if I could find a small enough outlet that would support itself and make my farmers' market business easier, I'd take it."

Rule found the space she wanted in Hampden, a colorful clapboard rowhouse that she uses as a commissary and a retail and lunch operation she calls the Verandah.

Rule said the Verandah, which opened last August, is supporting itself, which is all it needs it to do.

"If I don't like doing something, I will stop. I'm happy if the sales at Verandah cover the operating costs. My husband said if I wanted to make money that I should be building aircraft and weapons, not selling food on the street."

Market-goers aren't the only ones who notice long lines at the Zeke's Coffee stall, the first stop for hundreds of sleepy-eyed customers. Prospective wholesale buyers notice them, too.

Zeke's Coffee owner Thomas Rhodes said that his coffee roaster's presence at the Baltimore Farmers' Market has fueled his Lauraville company's wholesale operations.

He's never been on a sales call — potential buyers, including the operators of restaurants and retail stores, come to him.

"They see the lines at our stall. Then they taste the coffee and see that it's really good," Rhodes said. "The market has made us what we are today, no doubt about it," said the Lauraville resident. Even without the secondary business generated from the market, he said, the early hours and stall fees would be worth his investment of time and energy.