Emory Farmers Market, Start:ME give microbusinesses a place to thrive

By Kelundra Smith | Emory Report | Oct. 20, 2021

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With 20 vendors selling everything from produce to baked goods, the Emory Farmers Market supports local growers and reduces energy use caused by food transportation.

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On a breezy afternoon, long lines spill out from McDonough Plaza. The smell of fresh food wafts through the air, tempting the palates of passersby. The Emory Farmers Market is in full swing, offering everyone the chance to taste dishes from Cuba to Syria — all while supporting local businesses.

Emory Farmers Market is a program co-managed by the Office of Sustainability Initiatives and Emory Dining. In 2008, they started the market as an effort to provide the Emory community with the chance to buy local food. This aligns with the component of the Emory Sustainability Vision and Strategic Plan to achieve the university’s goal of purchasing 75% locally or sustainably grown foods by 2025.

“Emory’s sustainability initiatives are holistic and require us to navigate what is needed to address the climate crisis, pandemic and racial inequities simultaneously,” says Taylor Spicer, the Emory Farmers Market co-manager and assistant director of the Office of Sustainability Initiatives. “Sustainability solutions, therefore, have to be intersectional, informed by history, informed by place and shaped by current challenges and opportunities. We strive to do this through the Emory Farmers Market.”

Today, Emory Dining has made it possible for students to use their “Dooley Dollars” to make purchases. With 20 vendors selling everything from honey and produce to baked goods, the market addresses the goals of supporting local growers and reducing energy use caused by food transportation.

Support for local entrepreneurs

Some of the food vendors at the Emory Farmers Market developed in the Start:ME Accelerator, a program in the Goizueta Business School’s Roberto C. Goizueta Business & Society Institute, serving local businesses with five or fewer employees. In the three-month program, business owners gain hands-on business education, such as how to craft an actionable business plan; access to a supportive network of entrepreneurs; and funds to help grow their businesses.

Since its founding in 2013, Start:ME has served more than 300 microbusinesses, which have created more than 500 jobs and generated more than $11 million in annual revenue.

“It’s so amazing to not only meet but watch these entrepreneurs grow personally and professionally while completing the Start:ME program,” says Alina Bills, the Start:ME program manager. “These entrepreneurs are providing for themselves, for their families, and for the needs of their local community; and it’s an honor to support them throughout their journey.”

Start:ME grew out of professor Peter W. Roberts’ work on microbusiness development and how to “make markets work for more people in more places.” He wanted to recognize and close the knowledge, network and capital gaps facing microbusinesses run by people in underserved communities. To that end, the program is now focused on three different communities in Metro Atlanta: Clarkston, East Lake and South Atlanta. 

“When we launched the Start:ME program, we knew that cultivating market connections is critical to the success of entrepreneurs,” says Roberts, who teaches organization and management and is also the academic director of Transparent Trade Coffee and Grounds for Empowerment. “Connecting our alumni to Emory Farmers Market is another way that we forge connections to potential customers.”

‘Unbelievably beneficial’

Josh Westover reimagined his company, Bake-N-Jam, with the help of Start:ME. This particular day at Emory Farmers Market, he wears a green t-shirt with the words “biscuits & gravy” on the front. On the menu he has a variety of fresh breads, cinnamon rolls, bagel sandwiches and sweet and savory scones.

After several years as a baker at some of Atlanta’s most lauded restaurants, including Empire State South and Eugene Kitchen, the COVID-19 pandemic left him grappling with uncertainty. With restaurants shut down and his passion for baking still strong, he had to figure out a way to continue to support his wife and two children.

"Without Start:ME and being in the program, I would not be nearly as far as I am,” says Westover. “The thing that helped me the most was the push to really know who our ideal customer base is and really fleshing out our vision and mission. Those were things we had thoughts about, but never really wrote it down. There was also an additional outpouring of support with Goizueta and Start:ME, placing bulk orders and advertising for us on social media without being asked. It has been unbelievably beneficial.”

Start:ME also offered Khadijah Muhammad an opportunity to try something new. She already has a successful baking business called Kay’s Cookies, but after her father Habeeb passed she wanted to find a way to honor him. In 2018 she started Habeeb’s Gourmet Sauces, which currently includes honey mustard, lemon pepper and hot wing sauces as well as spicy and mild versions of the farmers market favorite, honey braised sauce.

She prides herself on using natural ingredients and grows the ginger and garlic for the sauces herself. Her goals are to expand the line to include salad dressings and to see her sauces on the shelves at local stores.

“The networking has been so valuable,” Muhammad says of the Start:ME program. “After you’re done with the program, there are a lot of alumni activities. The program mentors and other business owners have been great about connecting us with resources, which is even more beneficial than getting the grant.”

Student-led Sustainable Food Fair

In addition to Emory Farmers Market, the community can also engage with local vendors at the upcoming Sustainable Food Fair on Oct. 26 from 11 a.m.-1:30 p.m. in Asbury Circle.

At this annual event, students in the one-credit Sustainable Food Fair course, co-taught by Spicer and faculty member Simona Muratore, educate their peers on sustainable and just food production. They also invite some of the Start:ME businesses, campus and community restaurants, farmers, food advocates and student groups to participate in the fair.

“Both the Emory Farmers Market and the Start:ME program seek to connect the Emory community and our collective resources to local farmers, entrepreneurs, small business owners and artisans we can support and with whom we can build relationships,” says Spicer.