News: More Than Just Pigs' Feet

Can the Findlay Market tradition survive retail realties?

Dec 15, 2004 at 2:06 pm
Jon Hughes/

The allure of traditional ways brings many shoppers to Findlay Market, whose merchants are uneasy about such proposed changes as mandatory Sunday hours.

Patricia Klein recently graduated from college, but at Findlay Market she learned something new. "A woman standing next to me told me how to prepare pigs' feet," she says. "She assured me they're good. You don't get that at Kroger."

Klein, a new downtown resident, likes to shop at the market to support local businesses and farmers. But it's more than the produce that attracts her.

"This is a true picture of Cincinnati," she says. "It gives you hope."

Her mother, Cathy Klein, a self-proclaimed suburbanite, used to shop at Findlay Market; she's pleased that her daughter has reintroduced her. Both women are impressed with the personable nature of the merchants and the shoppers.

Sharing recipes can lead to telling stories, and that kind of exchange is exactly what the Findlay Market experience is all about. It's why people go out of their way to make the trip to a place where you can find CDs and jewelry alongside fruits, vegetables, seafood, pigs' feet and specialty foods you can't find anywhere else in the city.

A 'European feel'
You've heard all the hype about Findlay Market — the lease controversy, fury over Sunday hours and everything else that suggests 152 years of history is being sacrificed on the altar of the almighty dollar. But what's all this really about?

Do merchants just want to keep things as they've always been? Is the city trying to submarine the old ways? Does the new management group want to create an urban mall, pushing out the independent business owners?

With so many players, it would seem impossible to find common ground, but everyone agrees on this: Findlay Market is Cincinnati.

The market has always been a center of commerce — social and political, as well as the actual buying and selling of goods. That's why, even though Findlay Market has fallen on hard times, there are so many strong opinions about what ought to happen next.

In any business, the doors stay open only when money comes in. The city, which had long managed the market, realized change was essential, according to Assistant City Manager Rashad Young.

"The city is good at a lot of things, but we are not the best at operating the market," he says. "The management philosophy of government is different."

In an effort to "preserve the integrity, history and memory" of the market, Young says the city turned management over to the new Corporation for Findlay Market (CFM). The group is utilizing strategic partnerships, a board of directors with an impressive array of credentials in business and urban development and best practices used by public markets in other cities in Ohio, the Midwest and beyond to design operations and marketing strategies.

CFM's initial three-year plan aims to ensure success for merchants in the market square — which consists of the market house and the buildings surrounding it — while reducing reliance on city subsidies. The vision is development of a Findlay Market District.

"Our role is to be the business manager for the market because the market itself is looked to as an engine for economic development," says Bob Pickford, executive director of CFM.

Pickford believes the success of Findlay Market will result in job creation and entrepreneurial opportunity. Those in turn will fuel growth and development in the area.

"It's a small business incubator, a source of economic development for the city, and we think that it's potentially a regional draw that's valuable not just to downtown and not just to the city of Cincinnati but the whole metro area and the Tristate region," he says.

CFM is mindful of the less quantifiable but equally important role of the market as public forum and cultural experience, according to Cheryl Eagleson, CFM's marketing coordinator. Entertainment, cooking demonstrations and an expanded Web site are some of the changes she points to as ways to preserve the Findlay Market experience.

"Some of the tools we have in place already will appeal to a different level of shopper, the person who looks for a more urban, almost European feel to the shopping experiences, as opposed to a grocery sort of experience," Eagleson says.

'Every day in America'
Everyone wants to see more shoppers at the market, but how to accomplish that is where the different sides clash. One of the hottest issues is mandatory Sunday hours.

"The need for Sunday hours in order to be more convenient to shoppers, to increase the volume of business done at the market, to make the market more attractive to new businesses is all well and good, but what is translated into, for the merchants, is giving up their Sundays at home or finding employees they can trust to operate their business — and that's just hard stuff," Pickford says.

Until now the market never used such standard business practices as leases. Now CFM wants merchants to sign leases that include things shoppers take for granted elsewhere, such as consistent hours of operation.

The merchants don't like the new ways very much, according to fifth-generation merchant Jeff Gibbs, owner of Gibbs Cheese and Sausage.

"The ones that're still here, we're still making a living because we're the ones that are good at it," he says. "We've survived. We're a bunch of survivors, that's for sure. Which by the very nature of those kinds of people, you don't manage them.

"There's a little fucking civil war going on down here. It comes down to the fact that you got a bunch of really independent-minded beings that're being forced by this situation to deal with rules and regulations they've never had to before."

Pickford is confident CFM's comprehensive approach will breathe new life into the old institution.

"It all works of a piece," he says. "You can't do one thing and expect to succeed. You have to do lots of things. There has to be a comprehensive approach. You're not going to rebuild Findlay Market by just buying a lot of advertising. This is not quantum physics; this is done every day in America by other businesses."

At first glance it appears the formula might work. A new vendor, Bob Hayes of Betina Bath and Body, says he likes the open-air market for its "non-conformist buying experience." He moved into Findlay Market after customers at the Ridge Market dwindled.

Even Gibbs believes his business will continue to thrive, because he looks beyond the end of his counter and understands how his business fits within the Findlay Market experience. That's what Pickford sees, too.

"We're not just selling groceries," Pickford says. "We're selling a true urban experience and a little piece of history and a little piece of culture and a lot of diversity. People come to the market as much for that as the unusual foods."

But selling that experience means change, and Findlay Market is in the midst of a transition.

"You can't go through all of the changes without having some undercurrent of concern and stress," Eagleson says. "But I think the important point is that we have an established direction. Findlay Market's going to be undergoing a change in the merchant base because we've about doubled the size of the facility and one of our key challenges is to bring new businesses into the market that diversify the product line and diversify the merchant base."

After only six months, it's too soon to tell if CFM will succeed. Retaining the inexpensive neighborhood shopping center, nurturing social and cultural exchange and securing an economic base is a tall order, but Pickford is hopeful.

"Findlay Market's woven into the fabric of life in Cincinnati for over a century and a half," he says. "It's very alive and vibrant, and our job is to make it moreso and make it grow." ©