By Frank Sabatini Jr.
It’s a typical Sunday morning along Normal Street.
The scent of char-grilled chicken dusted in fragrant African spices wafts down a central corridor lined with farmers and merchants selling their goods from tents. Within minutes, the aromas of Korean barbecue, handmade tamales and other international foods also begin permeating the air while waves of caffeinated consumers gawk at the offerings.
One stall flaunts shockingly large grapefruits, a hybrid known as oroblanco. Another displays succulent dates. Nearby, a fisherman sells frozen fillets of wild-caught Alaskan salmon, some of which he’s turned into jerky. Fresh berries glisten in the sunlight while gorgeous loaves of French-style breads stacked in wicker baskets flirt seductively with passersby.
In no time at all, the sights and smells of the Hillcrest Farmers Market render even the most conservative eaters and spenders defenseless. Food samples abound. And nearly everyone who visits nibbles and buys.
Held from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. every Sunday, the market has grown steadily and significantly since it was launched 22 years ago by the Hillcrest Business Association (HBA), which still produces the weekly event.
It began with 27 vendors. Yet as of this month, it embodies approximately 172 diversified sellers, thanks to a slate of newcomers who snagged 20 additional vendor slots that were recently approved by the city.
At the core of the lineup are a few dozen certified farmers from San Diego County, the Central Valley and other California regions. Grocery items, hot foods, body products and crafts began entering into the mix about 15 years ago. So did live musicians.
Yet despite the market’s festival atmosphere, which occurs under the towering gaze of the Hillcrest Pride Flag, organizers haven’t lost sight of the event’s original purpose, which is to provide a pipeline of farm-fresh goods to the neighborhood.
“It was an instant success,” Ann Garwood recalls. Garwood is a community activist and longtime board member of HBA who advocated for the market in conjunction with restaurateur and fellow board member, David Cohn, and the late HBA executive director, Warren Simon.
“It was the only farmers market in Uptown at the time, and it gave people a reason to get out on a Sunday morning and socialize — and it still does,” she added.
Shortly before the project materialized in 1997, the HBA hired David Larson to recruit vendors. He had managed farmers markets in Chula Vista and Hawaii, helping the Hillcrest market get off the ground.
His brother, Mark, came on board several years ago as the front-line vendor manager — and he remains equally vigilant in ensuring that fruits, vegetables and livestock originate from either local or California farms.
“There are severe fines if they don’t,” Mark pointed out, citing that 75 percent of the produce sold at the market is grown within San Diego County.
The brothers are also tasked with balancing the tenant lineup, particularly among the farmers since there are only so many varieties of seasonal produce. Redundancies are more easily avoided, they noted, within the categories of hot foods, groceries and arts and crafts.
“Mark and David do a great job at bringing in the right mix of vendors and making sure they make money,” said HBA executive director Benjamin Nicholls, adding that the market’s weekly gross sales average about $120,000 a week.
With an estimated attendance of nearly 10,000 people every Sunday, Nicholls said the market is generally promoted through social media and some print advertising, “although it kind of sells itself.” Also, in the past few weeks, a series of billboard ads went up in North Park and Bankers Hill to coincide with the market’s latest expansion.
Because of its strong, established foundation, Mark Larson said there are vendors who have been tenants since day one. They include Gina’s Tropical Fruit; Farmer Steve, a seller of citrus and avocados; Maldonado’s Flower Farms; and J.R. Rodriguez Organics.
From the latter, family member Michael Clark said the company has stuck around “because it’s one of our top three markets for gross sales in the city.”
Among the crop of new vendors that arrived with unique products in the past month, some may or may not find success on the mass market like Bitchin’ Sauce did after debuting here a decade ago. The company, famous for its almond-based dips, recently relinquished its booth to Maqi Salmon to better manage their busy operations.
Roger Cao and his wife Qin Chen of Stone Monkey are hopeful. They waited three months to finally secure a slot to sell their jarred Chinese mushroom sauce and pickled vegetables. As the public begins discovering their products, they anticipate the high exposure could result in retail opportunities.
Other newbies include Honeymoon Homestead, which sells tangor jelly, breads and handmade laundry soap containing goat milk. Co-owner Sven Merten said he wanted “in” on the market because “it’s one of the best and oldest in San Diego.”
As of late there is also a new caramel apple vendor named Simply Dimples; a producer of small-batch hot sauces called Baby Clydesdale; leather goods by Daluca Leather Works; and more.
Aside from robust attendance and a colorful variety of products, the market has become a social hub for Hillcrest and its surrounding neighborhoods.
“Compared to other farmers markets, people here actually talk to each other in the lines,” noted Ashlie Pesic of Da-Le-Ranch, a purveyor of beef, poultry, game birds and rabbit. Nicholls concurs.
“There’s a genuineness to this market,” he said. It’s a gathering space for the community. And I’m proud that the rainbow flag flies over it and broadcasts everything it stands for to all the people who come.”
The Hillcrest Farmers Market operates on Normal Street between University Avenue and Lincoln Street. Free parking is available in the Department of Motor Vehicles parking lot (3690 Normal St.) and at the San Diego Unified School District lot (located at Washington Street and Campus Avenue). For more information, visit hillcrestfarmersmarket.com.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of ‘Secret San Diego’ (ECW Press) and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.