The hype over Western supermarkets of the 1990s started fading for Czechs sometime in the early noughties. As healthy eating became more of a priority for some Czech city dwellers, small organic food shops began cropping up in most cities. Organic was all the rage. Yet, many of the products sold in organic food shops were not locally grown, leaving a gap on the market for small and medium Czech farmers to fill.
“In 2009, I came up with the project “Find your famer”, and the whole discussion about farmers’ markets took off, and we could build on that. It was also good that it was before the elections, and some political parties used this as a PR opportunity as well. It was good for us, without that, it wouldn’t have been as big and wouldn’t have started so quickly,” says František Němec, owner of a medium-sized milk farm in the Vysočina region who now has three shops in Prague.
The rebirth of an almost extinct tradition of outdoor farmers’ markets sparked a lot of interest not only among local farmers, but also from potential future customers. Daniel Mourek from the Partnerství foundation was also active in the early stages of developing farmers’markets in Prague:
“In January 2010 we presented the idea of farmers’ markets because we have been developing this idea with Project for Public Spaces New York. And at that point, in 2010, the first markets were opened. Now Prague has over thirty markets.”
As Prague’s squares began to bloom with weekend markets, attracting thousands of customers hungry for local produce and a communal outdoor atmosphere, another trend started gaining strength in the Czech capital. Instead of relying on the neighborhood markets twice or three times a week for fresh local products, customers could now buy farmers’ produce from a regular store. Although, compared to the usual shopping experience in the Czech capital, there is nothing regular about them. These shops sell only products that come from smaller Czech farms, vineyards, beekeepers and other producers that put great emphasis on the natural chemical-free ingredients of their products:
“We are different from supermarkets because we give customers quality service not only in the products we sell but the fact that we take the time and effort to talk to them, we show them our products, we read them the label, we give them a piece to taste. Sometimes we need to persuade people to sample something, because many of them still think that if they have a taste they have to buy it, but it’s not true, so we’re teaching them, ” says Alena Slováková who has been managing the Ježkův statek shop in Vinohrady since this March. Ježkův statek is one of the relative newcomers onto the market. There are currently more than ten such shops in different parts of Prague and in a number of other Czech cities, and more are coming.
Most of these farmer shops have the feel of an old-fashioned corner shop where you are greeted with a smile, offered help and advice, and are remembered from one visit to the next. They also have longer opening hours, which is a nice change from many specialty stores and even some supermarkets around Prague. A customer in one of the shops I visited told me why she comes here:
“For me it is really important to support local products and local producers. To me it means that I really get something that comes from the countryside. And many people do have a problem with the prices, because they are a bit higher, but I really don’t care about it because I go there once a week. But then I really enjoy the meal I buy. At the markets, some people are not the real producers. For me, it’s even better to go to the shop where I really know the farmer, the producer. I’m really happy this came to the Czech Republic.”
František Němec opened one of the first farmer shops in Prague back in 2010, driven both by the success he had at farmers’ markets and the need to develop his milk farm:
“The main reason was the cost of distribution. I originally thought that the 1000 liters of milk a day that I am able to produce, I can sell in the Vysočina area, and make just family-size packages of yoghurt. I would have low manpower and distribution costs, and it would be for a good price. But customers preferred to have flavored yoghurts, have more expensive glass packaging, and so on. As a result, my overhead and transportation costs grew. So since I had such a wide range of products, I started taking them to Brno and Prague.”
But not all of the farmer shops went from market to store. Alena Slováková and David Vortel decided to open Ježkův statek to bring home-grown food to Prague after getting encouragement from friends. But Alena said the original plan had not been to sell goods from Vortel’s own small farm near Jindřichův Hradec.
“In the beginning it was meant to be just a store. We spent about half a year, going around Vysocina and Morava. We would find a producer or visit a market, then we would go to visit them and see how they did things. It was really about selecting products that not only looked good, but tasted as they should, and contained what they were supposed to.
“We basically combined forces – ours and the producers who can’t move around. These are small farmers, producers, growers who have no other option than to sell directly from where they are. It’s not worth it for them to load a truck and go to Prague. So we decided that if we help them like this, we would get their products to Prague, and we would be the only ones to have them on offer. It would be a mutually beneficial venture.”
But having entered into an already booming market of farmer shops, the Ježkův statek team soon realized they had to distinguish themselves not just from supermarkets and organic shops, but also from stores similar to theirs.
“Once we opened the shop, we realized that it’s just not enough. We’re still the same as the other shops. So we thought that we could start providing our own products. We decided we would use only fresh fruit and vegetables that we would grow or buy from the nearby farmers we know. So we started making jams, apple sauces, plus things that you don’t have here, like Krokanty, which is just sugar with nuts, and then our own Muesli. It became popular so quickly, that we’re not making it fast enough.”
Now in the summer months, and because Ježkův statek is open only briefly, Alena and her partner decided to actually go in the opposite direction to shops like that of Mr. Němec, and are selling their products at farmers markets almost every day of the week, in order to advertise their shop.
The franchise Český Grunt, which was started by two businessmen, now has 14 stores around the country, with six locations in Prague. Jiří Malík, one of the founders, is convinced that their success is due in most part to being in the right place at the right time:
“It is of course a combination of good business sense and some know-how but the main thing is that we found a product that just wasn’t on the market before. When we started out in 2010, people were just beginning to look for quality produce, not just low prices. So we really went for something that wasn’t here before.”
“I understand that it’s necessary to attract a large spectrum of customers, and we’re just not able to do that. The farmer shops have their place and some people will always go there. But most people here look at the price and not at the quality.”
Yet many are still optimistic about the future growth of this sector. I asked Vojtěch Kotecký, the program director at the environmental organization Hnutí Duha, what he thinks will increase the customer base for farmer shops:
“Consumer attitudes are already changing in this country and we see that customers go to farmers’ shops because they want quality rather than cheap food. They are scared by many scandals that broke out over food supermarkets in the last several years. And they want good, quality, healthy food rather than what’s increasingly sold in supermarkets.
“And the other factor that will probably play against supermarkets is the end of cheap feul. The success of supermarkets has been based on cheap petrol, because economically it made sense to import food from the other side of Europe to the Czech Republic and sell it for low price. With the end of cheap petrol the economics of import and export of food will change. It will make more sense for shoppers, in terms of price, to buy local food rather than imported.”
I went to check if the goods in these shops are markedly more expensive than elsewhere, as some claim. And it turned out, it is not always true already today. Onions from Italy that I found at a supermarket cost 34 crowns a kilo, while at a nearby farmer shop Czech onions were 27.
It does seem that there is very good potential for the growth of farmer goods shop not only in Prague, but in other cities around the Czech Republic. Daniel Mourek is already thinking of how to build on this momentum:
“Maybe taking one step forward would be to have some kind of a food court, because since the 1930s Prague has had these market halls – like the one in Smichov from 1935, the Vionhrady market hall from around the same time – wonderful buildings that are serving now as supermarkets or as libraries. I think it’s time to give back the meaning to these buildings and open there not only farmers markets, but mix it with quality restaurants, small food courts. I think it would be highly successful.”
The episode featured today was first broadcast on August 15, 2012.
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