Monday, November 2, 2009

Reinventing the Indianapolis City Market, Part II – Tenant Analysis.

Out of concern of the length of the previous post, I have taken what was going to be the second half of the analysis and divided it in half again. This part will evaluate the tenant composition of the City Market, both current and hypothetical, as well as some successful food vendors who have consciously chosen to locate elsewhere.

How the Market’s Interior and Exterior Shapes the Retail Mix

The design and programming nuances mentioned in Part I have clearly shaped the overall character of the retail at the City Market, so it is worthwhile to examine the tenants at least briefly in greater detail. I need to tread gingerly here, because I hate ever to be critical of entrepreneurs who are clearly laboring valiantly in the Market to keep their businesses afloat amidst adverse conditions. I also know that tenants routinely come and go, so the retail composition could change dramatically just a few months after writing this article. But, even after accounting for the configuration of the interior that would seem to deter anything but fast food vendors, the mix at the moment still seems undistinguished. Your average mall typically has a diversity of cuisines with little overlap: Mexican, Italian, Chinese, Greek/Mediterranean, Japanese, health foods, desserts. If a mall food court has a single vacancy, a burger joint isn’t likely to open if there’s already one twenty feet away. But this doesn’t stop several of the tenants at the City Market from providing nearly identical menus. While I’m glad there are Greek, Middle Eastern, Mexican, and Italian vendors, does any venue necessarily need three places to buy a BLT or a grilled chicken sandwich? This, of course, is a cruel and dismissive judgment on my part, but I can’t help but think that the relative lack of variety only reinforces the notion that the City Market is little more than a diluted food court. Ouch.

Perhaps one needs to look at macro-level demand, and maybe the sad truth is that Indianapolis just lacks a sufficiently demographic that might crave the assortment of fresh produce and local crafts one might find in Philadelphia. But again, I’m not convinced. In order to diversify the offerings, the City Market hosts a farmer’s market from May to October, every Wednesday from 9:30 to 1:30. If weather permits, the management usually hosts live music on the stage on these farmer’s market days, while closing off the abutting block of Market Street to host the stalls. David Lehman, co-owner of Earth Drops handcrafted soaps, says the farmer’s markets are generally popular enough to justify his weekly 60-mile trip from Bloomington, though he suspects the crowds do not trickle to the interior of the City Market to any great degree. All the energy is on the street, with very little crowd presence on the west-end plaza near the live music, the benches, and a few buy/sell kiosks. Lehman is among the 35 or so regular participants in the farmer’s market, but he says he would never start a full-time year-round lease because rental rates are far too high in relation to the meager foot traffic; he can’t imagine how anyone would be able to make money inside there.

Farm Fresh Delivery, an Indianapolis-based online provider of organic local produce that delivers directly to private residences in Indy and Cincinnati, essentially operates as a farmer’s market on wheels with no bricks-and-mortar retail outlet. The company routinely buys from many of the vendors at the Wednesday farmer’s market downtown. Michelle Medows, head of operations at Farm Fresh Delivery, says that while most of the local farmers report the same success as Lehman and Earth Drops with their booths on the street outside City Market, none feel confident enough about the opportunities within the building’s vast brick walls. Frequent shifts in management have left the tenants with little consistency in terms of theme or operations. Medows observes that many of the farmers would love the publicity of a centralized, high-profile venue to sell their goods, but they are trapped in an economic nether region. They are either too small to afford to lease the space, and a long-term commitment amidst the Market’s many setbacks and renovations is simply too risky, or they are large and established enough to afford their own storefront.

Thus, the most successful fresh produce vendors in the area often steer clear of the market altogether. Among the most well-known in the region is Trader’s Point Creamery, an organic dairy farm that relies exclusively on grass-fed cows and has a national distribution for its products, as well as its own farm tours, a full upscale restaurant and dairy bar, and even a successful winter farmers’ market (a time when farmer’s markets are typically at their leanest in the Midwest).

The premises of Trader’s Point Creamery are one of the most popular destinations in a corner of Indianapolis known as Trader’s Point and largely populated by estates, country homes and small private farms. Deborah Duchman, administrator at the Creamery, says that, while the client base downtown is probably right for their eco-conscious products, the fact that they use no preservatives means their goods are highly perishable, so an office worker could not buy milk or yogurt without refrigerating it almost immediately after purchase. At this point, Duchman does not believe downtown Indianapolis can claim a large enough residential population of people who could buy and carry them immediately home; thus, the Creamery has chosen not to locate at City Market and is running an imminently successful operation in the rural northeast of Marion County.

Further proof that Indianapolis residents do share a demand for high-caliber, natural produce is in the supremely popular Goose the Market. Co-owners Christopher and Mollie Eley, upon returning to Indianapolis after living in Chicago, recognized that Indianapolis was lacking a thriving urban gourmet market. While they took a perceived risk in determining that the city’s denizens would support such a concept, their gamble paid off: aside from the celebrated free-range meats, the market provides seasonal produce, artisan breads, cheese, gelato, herbs and spices, dry goods, and wines, nearly all of which come from Indiana farms. They also offer a refined selection of prepared sandwiches, one of which was recently listed first in Bon Appetit magazine’s list of Hot 10 Sandwich Shops.

Clearly the Eleys guessed correctly that they could find buyers for their products, but they catered to this niche market through another chancy venture: opening their store in a brand-new two-story commercial building in the very recently revitalized neighborhood of Fall Creek Place. Mentioned before in a previous blog post, Fall Creek Place is the result of a collaboration between civic leaders and federal grants to assemble parcels in an almost completely abandoned neighborhood and rebuild approximating the original vernacular architecture to renew a large swath of uptown Indianapolis. The project, completed in the past ten years, concentrated on single and multifamily residential units, while developers waited a few years for the neighborhood to show consistent popularity before attempting commercial and mixed use. Goose the Market is among the first tenants in this commercial development in the heart of Fall Creek Place. They did not even consider locating in the City Market.

An interview with Mollie Eley revealed that their intention had always been to locate in an up-and-coming urban neighborhood. They chose Fall Creek Place partly because of its convenient midpoint between the fashionable downtown and the affluent northern suburbs; much of their patronage comes from passers-by zipping up Delaware Street on their way home from work. Eley defines the customers as falling into two categories: one seeking a quick meal (the food court contingent) and the other seeking weekly shopping for fine meats and vegetables (the fresh produce continent). The downtown population supports it as well, particularly yuppies, gays, and DINKs (dual-income no kids) while the local community in Fall Creek Place, many with high disposable incomes, help contribute to the high lunchtime business. City Market never struck her as sufficiently vibrant; a good market should appear crowded, just as Goose is during its peak sales times. Seating is limited at the Goose; leasable floor space is filled with goods, targeting patrons who are on the go. The Eleys are also choosy and don’t intend to cut corners to provide a cheap meal; much of their produce is expensive because it targets buyers who demand high quality. Conversely, though one can easily get a tasty lunch at the City Market, very few of the offerings would attract epicures.

One final point that more than one interviewee has mentioned are the troubling hours to the City Market: Monday to Friday from 6 am to 6 pm, Saturday from 10 am to 4 pm, and closed on Sundays. Eley noted that such early closing hours preclude many office workers from even considering the Market as place to pick up quick meals or fresh produce after work; her establishment would lose a significant portion of its business if she didn’t stay open until 8 pm on weekdays. The fact that City Market vendors are encouraged to remain open all afternoon when the lunchtime rush typically ends by 1:30 is a management strategy that dooms its tenants to non-profitability. A mid-afternoon closing time coupled with an early evening re-opening would allow the various businesses to target their operations during specific peaks. Weekend hours also deserve a reassessment; with their current limitations they offer little chance of expanding the Market’s association beyond a weekday lunch place. A great public market should enjoy a huge sales volume on Saturday mornings, since that’s when most farmers markets take place as an accommodation to the busy farmers. Despite its comparative success, the farmers market in downtown Indy has not forged a Saturday operation, probably because the adjacent market has no real identity on weekends. In fact, many of the vendors simply refuse to open on Saturdays despite the posted hours; they cannot justify the expense when foot traffic is non-existent. Clearly the City Market is stuck between a rock and a hard place in terms of its hours of operation: undoubtedly some of the vendors would like to open later and work Saturdays, but only if they could enjoy a reasonably consistent customer presence. And if City Market management strictly enforced its hours of operation on Saturday, it would most likely force some tenants out of business. After all, how can the fresh goods compete when they have a thriving grocery store down the street at Lockerbie that stays open until 2 am!

Fortunately, in spite of all these sundry hardships, one vendor has clearly identified a successful business model and has been able to succeed over the years, through the mild ups and severe downs, amidst renovations and expansions, as well the puddles of water currently collecting on the floor because of those leaky pipes. Constantino’s Market Place, a family-run business since 1911, returned to the City Market after the 2007 renovation, for the first time since the late 1970s. It comes closer than anything else in the building to achieving the sort of appeal the market as a whole strives for.

It’s a novel idea: putting the vast majority of its items on display, as well as a significant number of products in reach for the customer to touch and smell.

This multi-sensate presentation is ubiquitous in Reading Terminal Market but virtually unheard of in the Indianapolis City Market, with its emphasis on prepared meals. A great agora should be a feast for the senses, where the traffic caused by the interplay of customers and vendors expands the opportunities for surveying and sampling the sounds and smells that compete for individual attention, which in turn slows the pace down to create more traffic. It’s a system of mutual benefit. While some of the kitchens in City Market are visible to the customer, a number of the retailers sell their goods already packaged or fully cooked and resting under a heat lamp, further lumping the experience with that of mall food courts. Constantino’s comes the closest to replicating the look and feel of a real City Market, and most online reviewers who have even bothered to write critiques of the City Market mention Constantino’s first.

Alas, even in this case, clouds loom on the horizon. Breaking news just days ago (well after I began this analysis) revealed that the City Market is serving Constantino’s with an eviction notice for being 13 months behind on the rent. Constantino’s defends itself that there is more to the situation that is being reported, though the rep at the long-running establishment failed to elaborate. Clearly the courtroom will allow both sides to testify, but it’s hard not to feel a pang of sympathy for the City Market’s most photogenic vendor. It occupies the single largest booth in the historic building and has been in business for almost a century, so for it to engage in such sloppy tenant behavior undeniably arouses suspicion. Then again, perhaps Constantino’s has remained successful in the wake of other fresh food vendors in the market precisely because it has been delinquent on rent. A similar fresh, unprepared foods purveyor, Moody’s Butcher Shop, also signed a lease at the City Market after the 2007 renovation and left within a year; Moody’s still runs successful retail outlets in three suburban Indianapolis locations. Regardless, one would hope that a struggling retail center such would see eviction as an absolute last resort. If City Market managed its premises like a mall, perhaps they would recognize that Constantino’s is their equivalent to an anchor tenant, the one with the largest floor space, most varied merchandise, and the vendor that comes closest to capturing the essence of a fresh foods market. Department stores—the anchor tenants in most malls—typically pay little to no rent because they are such a critical component. Obviously the management cannot replicate this strategy here without confronting the objections of the other tenants, but it may need to recognize that some tenants are more high-profile than others; hostile relations can only weaken the market’s image as a whole.

From an outsider’s perspective, it is impossible to judge if recouping Constantino’s rent will put much of a dent in the City Market’s deficit, or if Constantino’s would have succeeded if it honored its lease. Either way, this eviction is further indication that the City Market is in serious trouble. It is also suing a florist, and it announced in August that it was signing no new leases until the mayor’s office made a decision on the future of the Market. The City recently decided to stop covering utility costs, leaving the remaining retailers completely in the dark as to what will happen. The entire facility is floundering, and the prospects of a complete closure seem increasingly likely.

Part III will conclude this study with my own recommendations based on these observations on how to give the City Market a complete face lift, making this venerable old building a viable institution once again. Stay tuned in the next day or two.


CorrND said...

I really, really don't want to bad mouth Constantino's, because they took a chance on the market and they're not really doing anything WRONG (except not paying rent), but I think they get a bit of undeserved kudos for their presence in City Market.

Much as I want a true fresh market to exist, Constantino's is basically the meat, cheese and produce sections of a chain grocery store in a different format and an inconvenient location. Literally: much of their produce is EXACTLY the same thing you can get two blocks away at O'Malias.

I'd be curious to know the reason that customers shop there. I bet a majority would say something about feeling a sense of responsibility to help such a place survive (that's my honest answer for why I go there), not that they necessarily think Constantino's is offering a novel/convenient product for Indy.

I do have to give them credit for one thing: Constantino's has a solid cheese counter. O'Malias can't match them there, and while you'll find more exotic, really high-end cheeses at the Goose, Constantino's provides a larger selection of high quality cheeses than you'll find at a typical grocery store.

City Market could use a stand that consistently sells, EVERY DAY, locally/regionally grown produce. That is a market that really isn't catered to in downtown Indy.

AmericanDirt said...

Interesting insight. I'm sure if I scrutinized more I would have noticed that about Constantino's. Even if their merchandise could use some inspiration, they at least understand the basic spirit of a market in their presentation.

Blogger said...

Get daily ideas and guides for earning $1,000s per day ONLINE for FREE.