By Rita J. Egan
As the warm weather arrives, many people look forward to picking up fresh vegetables, fruit spreads, honey and more at local farmers markets. This year though the COVID-19 pandemic has altered the way many business owners and customers go about selling and buying.
Jennifer Ross, founder of HeartBeet Farms, knew this year she would need to do things differently. Known for selling vegetables out of a food truck at the Stony Brook Village Center and the Smith Haven Mall, Ross decided to organize a new type of outdoor market.
On May 21, lovers of fresh, local goods found a drive-through farmers market in the southwest corner of the mall parking lot by Bahama Breeze Island Grille. Ross said she thought it would give customers the chance to shop from the convenience of their cars and also provide a safe environment for both them and vendors.
The first night was a big success with scores of cars lining up throughout the evening to purchase items such as vegetables, local honey, pizza-making kits, popcorn, organic coffee and more.
Ross said Ann Schultz, the director of marketing and business development at Smith Haven Mall for the Simon Property Group, told her about a drive-through farmers market that was set up at a Florida Simon mall. She reached out to a few product owners to get their feedback, and she said it was positive so “I said, you know what, let’s give it a try.”
All vendor fees from the outside market will be donated to local charities, she said, and the nonprofit they donate to will change each month. For the first month, the money will go to Long Island Harvest, which at the end of the May 21 market, in addition to checks, received leftover food from many vendors. Ross said the farmers market will look at all nonprofits that may need help, not only food-related ones.
“That was key to me because nonprofits are struggling in all categories,” she explained.
Ross said as Long Island businesses begin to reopen, HeartBeet Farms will be able to set up a traditional walk-through farmers market at the mall. The parking lot is one that usually only fills up during Christmastime, she added, so there shouldn’t be an issue with parking.
Until then, the drive-through market offers prepaid options for those who may not have the time to wait. Items that need to be chilled are kept in coolers until customers pick them up, she said.
Upon entry last Thursday customers received a flyer detailing what the more than a dozen vendors who were participating had to offer. Ross said in the future the participants will be adding more information to the handouts, and there will also be more vendors setting up booths. Ross said for the first night she wanted to make sure there was enough room for everyone before saying yes to all who were interested. Participants are only asked to commit to a month and not the whole season, she added, as Ross is aware of the difficult economic times many are facing during the pandemic and the possibility of getting ill.
“I don’t want to take their money and then something happens and they can’t be there, and they need their money,” she said.
Ross said she feels the drive though farmers market will help even the mall as the weekly drive-through will bring renewed attention to it. “It will bring business to a mall that is suffering right now,” she said.
Helping out at the farmers market were Ross’ daughters Anna and Abby Morrongiello who founded the nonprofit Don8tions with twin brothers Joshua and Zach Young and friend Meena Tommasino-Storz. The group sells products, such as at the Chocolate & Honey, a holiday concession stand in the Smith Haven Malland, then use their earnings to buy soup for those who attend The Children’s Community Head Start Birth-to-Five Program in Port Jefferson Station. To supplement the soup, the students also provide bread donated by Premier Pastry to the head start families.
Ross and the twins’ mother Michelle Young said the teenagers purchased PopInsanity popcorn wholesale to sell at the farmers market and will donate all profits to their soup drive. While Anna, Abby and Meena worked at other booths for vendors who were unable to work with the public May 21, the Youngs sold the popcorn. Michelle said she even got in a car to drive around to experience everything firsthand, adding that the farmers market came at a good time because since COVID-19 hit, the teens were worried they wouldn’t be able to raise money for the families they have grown to care about. “They’re hard workers,” said Michelle. “I’m always really proud of them because there are a lot of teenagers who would be like I’m not doing that.”
Zachary and Josh, who are completing eighth grade at P.J. Gelinas Junior High School in Setauket, both enjoyed the drive-through farmers market. “It was actually pretty good to get out of the house,” Zachary said. “There were a lot of people helping out, and it was a little bit of returning to normalcy while being safe at the same time.”
Josh agreed. “I thought it was interesting because I never have done anything like that before, with all the cars,” he said. “It was nice to finally meet new people and somewhat interact.”
For years, HeartBeet Farms operated out of Bethel Hobbs Community Farm in Centereach where Ross leased land, but she said now she is currently growing produce at the Smithtown Historical Society. Starting a garden is something Ross encourages everyone to do, and she said it’s an ideal time to do so not only for health reasons but also to lessen trips to the grocery store.
“In general, you just have to do your best to keep your body healthy, and one of the ingredients in that is vegetables,” she said, adding that local, organic and sustainable foods are better.
Ross also said gardening has other health benefits. “It’s a great stress reliever. The main reason is putting your hands in the soil and being connected. It’s the greatest thing.”
The drive-through farmers market will be held every Thursday from 4 to 7 p.m., rain or shine, in the Smith Haven Mall southwest parking lot (off Middle Country Road) near Bahama Breeze restaurant through the fall. Pre-ordering is available but not required. For more information, call 516-343-6247 or visit www.heartbeetfarms.com/farmers-market.
Vendors scheduled for May 28
Pecks of Maine — locally made fruit spreads including strawberry rhubarb, dark sweet cherry and many more
Jason’s Healthy, Gluten-Free Meals — dinners to go including chicken franchese with basmati rice and broccoli plus dressings and glazes
Rustic Roots — sustainable vegetables, milk, eggs, cheese, meat, seafood
My Favorite Hummus — 8 oz. classic hummus and Salsa Salta tortilla chips
Sansone Market — pizza kit: sauce, dough ball, shredded mozzarella and pizza cutter
Long Island Microgreens — broccoli, superfood salad mix, speckled pea, leek, mustard microgreens and North Fork Potato Chips
Nina’s Fresh Batch — sweet & salty, chocolate chip and five spice oatmeal cookies; pistachio golden raisin, pecan dried cherry and three nut ginger granola
BeeWitched Bee — local honey, infused honey, elderberry syrup, maple syrup, honey sticks
Pixie Soaps & Suds — cold-processed soaps, body scrubs and more
Popinsanity — classic caramel, sweet & salty, chocolate drizzle, and cookies & cream popcorn
Horman’s Best — classic bread & butter sweet, half sour whole, kosher dill, honey mustard pickles and more
Tend Coffee — organic blends, single origin coffee, Kind Leaf tea and more
Jericho Cider Mill — half gallon apple cider, donute bites and small apple crumb pies
HeartBeet Farms Farm to Table Soups, Salsa and Sauce — farm to table potato leek soup, Margherita sauce, tomato tomatillo salsa and Carroll’s Kitchen tortilla chips
New! Le Fusion — homemade spring rolls, vegan and vegetarian
New! The Ferm — fermented farm goods including Kombucha and sauerkraut
New! The Simple Cookie — cookie ingredients in a jar
All photos by Rita J. Egan