Living microgreens from Quantum Microgreens, acquired through Market Box
Throughout most of the county, weekly farmers markets were initially shut down on March 13, while the first rounds of covid-19 restrictions were put in place. Though many of the markets have re-opened in April, they’ve done so at reduced capacity, which means a handful of farmer stands.
Which means they’ve opened without non-farmer stands. Anyone who frequents farmers markets knows there’s a cottage industry of small — often extremely small — vendors that produce and sell small batch and artisan foods. Local sauce makers, for example, such as Majestic Hummus and Bitchin' Sauce. Or home kitchen pasta makers, Home Pasta Company.
A vegan grilled cheese sandwich made with Prager Bros bread and Double Batch Almond Cheese, via Market Box
For such local food producers, farmers markets represent the best, if not only way to bring their products to market. Just like some restaurants we’ve seen get their start serving food at a weekly market stands, food producers can parlay the low start-up costs to sell at a market, and grow over time into a more traditional business.
It turns out one group of food producers didn’t waste any time finding an alternative outlet for their goods. After learning the markets had closed on March 13, Jessica Davis, the founder of fermented food specialist Edible Alchemy, couldn’t sleep. By 6 am on March 14, she’d reached out to fellow market vendor Amanda Waterman, of Double Batch Almond Cheese, with an idea. And by March 15, Market Box was making its first deliveries.
A chocolate dipped, plant based alfajor (Argentinian sandwich cookie) from Alfa Alfajores, via Market Box
It turns out, says Davis, “You can get a lot done when you’re working 22 hours a day!”
Davis and Waterman quickly set up a website to collect online orders, established ultra-sanitary processes for local pick-up and delivery, and reached out to fellow market vendors to offer an alternative way to distribute their products.
Six weeks later, Market Box represents nearly 50 vendors, and delivers as far away as Los Angeles.
Market Boxes go out twice a week: Sunday and Thursday, with the cut-off time for orders 6:59 pm the night before. Despite a $15 fee, Davis tells me the majority of orders opt for delivery, many to customers who have completely quarantined themselves at home due to compromised immunity, or other vulnerabilities to coronavirus. Those packing and delivering boxes do so wearing gloves, masks, and hairnets.
A sampling of products available for delivery from Market Box on their Facebook page
I made the decision to pick up my order, and found it to be the most diligent socially distant pick-up I’ve made since the pandemic began. First, it required driving to El Cajon.
That’s where Davis opened a co-packing commercial kitchen last May. Called Vegan Kitchen Collective, it’s where she, Waterman, and other small food producers prepare their goods. It carries all of the permits necessary for Market Box to operate.
I pulled up to the industrial suite (1100 N Magnolia Avenue, Suite D) to find a short line forming outside, spread apart by Xes marked on the ground in blue tape. Once it was my turn to enter the suite, I stood on another X, while a gloved and masked man on the other side of the room unloaded my items, one by one, onto a table, so I could see everything was there. Once confirmed, he left the room, and I walked over to load the products into a bag I brought with me.
Of the dozens of vendors featured, a key anchor is JR Organics farm, which means customers may stock up on produce when ordering a Market Box. I picked up an order of microgreens from Quantum Microgreens: the living greens (including micro broccoli, arugula, pea shoots, and more) in a shallow container continue to grow on my countertop until I cut them for dinner.
I picked up a loaf of sliced bread from North County bakery Prager Bros., which I’ve been using to make grilled cheese sandwiches with some of that Double Batch vegan cheese (grated pepper jack). It doesn’t melt as quickly as actual cheese, but I can promise you this: it tastes a lot more like cheese than it does like almonds.
It probably bears mentioning that every one of these vendors is entirely plant-based, so don’t expect any dairy or meat products. But those hardly seem necessary when there are so many vegetables, breads, tortillas, dips, sauces, sauerkrauts, coffees, teas, and juices. I managed to get a can of Modern Times cold brew coffee, and bottle of Cascaraa probiotic tea.
And don’t forget the desserts. The chocolate dipped vegan cookie from Alfa Alfajores, with a dash of sea salt and the tang of orange zest, is something I’ll definitely go looking for once the farmers markets are back in full force. Though, even when that happens, Davis suggests Market Box might just stick around for good.