A light May drizzle is falling in the dusty parking lot outside the construction site. Everyone who’s attending this walk-through can see the dark clouds on the horizon and knows a heavier rain is about to fall; it’s only a matter of time. So all of us hope we can get through the guided hard-hat tour (we should probably be wearing hard hats, right?) and on to the awaiting buffet of vendors down Corrine Drive at Palmer’s Garden & Goods.
This is a press preview of what will be East End Market, the vision of local developer John Rife. The site is the former Living Faith Christian Church at 3201 Corrine Drive, on the eastern side of the Audubon Park Garden District. The plan is to house roughly a dozen merchants, a restaurant, and a variety of spaces to encourage new entrepreneurship. It will be a community learning center, a food hub for the quality-conscious, and an event spot for gatherings and special occasions. It will transcend what we think of as a market and bring together a new scene – or rather, the existing scene yearning for a home – where food and innovation form the heart of a neighborhood.
That’s the idea, anyway. And it was supposed to happen last year. Permitting and construction delays, which are admittedly normal to opening anything of such a magnitude, have pushed the schedule back several times. It’s just the kind of thing that gives those of us who’ve followed this project for over a year a little hesitancy. Right now it’s just a hollowed-out two-story building and a lot of hope and imagination. It’s a little like the clouds. We know it’s coming. Are we ready for it?
John Rife grew up on Kraft Singles. Despite having been born into what can generally be agreed upon as a life of privilege, fancy cheese was not something that he was exposed to. “Until I had great cheese, I didn’t realize how awesome cheese was,” he says. “I [wondered], why the heck do people have cheese for dessert?”
Rife’s father, John Rife Jr., has been a developer in this area for more than 30 years with Rife-Miller Inc. He’s had a part in designing and leasing projects around the city, county and state. While Rife did eventually work with his father, that wasn’t the field he started in. Rife received his undergrad degree in biology with a focus on environmental systems, though he specifies that this education was “not green.” He followed that up with seminary school, which he left to move to Australia and perform missionary work in Asia and the Pacific. In these endeavors, he says he realized he could be more useful by returning home and working to raise capital for worthy causes.
Rife teamed up with his father at this point. He worked on developing new projects, most notably shepherding many of the “outparcels” at Millenia – outlying buildings like the AT&T store, DSW Designer Shoe Warehouse and the Shoppes at Millenia.
“After Millenia, I was sort of wondering what I was going to do next,” he says. Add to that post-project letdown the rumblings of the world we all felt: “When the economy slowed down, it gave me some time to look at things I was interested in,” he says. “My wife and I took a trip around the country and did a website called FindingAmerica.tv.” The vlog, created over the bulk of 2007, consists of more than 80 posts and follows the couple from Florida to Southern California, up the left coast and back across to New York. But the education it provided was more than sightseeing. “We were reading Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma [at that time, the new manifesto for the “eating local” campaign]; we were listening to stories on NPR; we were, for the first time, seeing huge tracts of soybean and corn fields and going, ‘Huh, there’s something intellectually wrong with the way we do food.’”
Shortly after the trip, Kamrin, Rife’s wife, became pregnant with their first child, which furthered his desire to start eating more selectively. “I mean, I’ve been eating this way for 30 years, but we were about to introduce someone to eating.” Then he did a film on the term “locavore” for his master’s degree in film from UCF and “that was the end of that … I knew too much to go back to eating the way I used to eat.”
Rife cares enough about food that he now teaches a course on Urban Agriculture for the Rollins College master’s in Planning in Civic Urbanism program. (Full disclosure: This author was a student in his class, but he has already received his A-minus.)
John and Kamrin decided to try to eat an all-local Thanksgiving dinner. After realizing the challenges of driving around to all the different farms and growers for every ingredient, they thought it would be a lot easier if the growers came to them. Around this time is when Rife first contacted Gabby Othon Lothrop.
Lothrop, at this point, was running the new Audubon Park Community Market in front of Stardust Video and Coffee. “[John] called me out of the blue one day and said, ‘You don’t know me, but I want to put on this festival in Winter Park and I need help running the farmer’s market side of it.’” This became the Winter Park Harvest Festival, and was also the start of a partnership focused on food and community.
Lothrop also has a deep commitment to food. “It’s always been really important to me,” says the Panamanian native; her grandfather was a cattle rancher. “In college, I had really strong opinions about where food fell into social and political issues.” Through Lothrop, the Rifes met Lothrop’s neighbor Emily Rankin, founder of the Audubon Park Community Market. Rankin had gone through a cross-country journey similar to Rife’s where she learned a lot about the possibilities for food production. “I wandered off to Portland and saw all these great things and said, ‘Hey, we can do that.’”
“I came back and just wanted to activate what I had seen as far as thriving markets and thriving food systems,” Rankin says. This led her to create Local Roots, a farm-to-restaurant distribution system. “There’s all these restaurants that want food and all these farmers that have food. … I bought a 14-foot box truck and just spent the last year driving it around and picking up food and delivering it to restaurants.”
How does John Rife’s history with cheese figure in to all of this? “We want to get people in contact with where their food comes from and introduce them to food they may not have experienced,” says Rife. “So when you have someone that’s a geek about cheese and they give you a cheese plate … it’s exciting and fascinating and great-tasting. When you know where it comes from … that whole narrative makes it more than a commodity.
“That’s probably a big part of what drives me, getting away from a commodified economy and getting to a place where products have durability and authenticity.”
Here is where the conversations started happening. “We met up … after the second Harvest Festival and just sat around discussing what was missing in Central Florida and where we fit into it,” says Lothrop. “That’s where East End came from.”
Trying to define East End isn’t easy. While not without parallels around the country (e.g., Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, South Carolina’s Charleston City Market or the Melrose Market in Seattle), it’s not exactly a business model from a template. “I’d say the closest thing to coming up with a sort of one-word [description] would be a food and community hub,” says Rife tentatively.
It’s a vision shared by his wife, who is also the market’s chief financial officer. “I see East End Market as the new food destination in Central Florida,” she writes in an email interview. “I see us becoming a place where people come for a sense of community and a deeper connection to food.”
Customers will enter through a 3,000-square-foot market garden designed and maintained by local edible landscapers My Yard Farm. The first floor will open into a 3,500-square-foot hall, beginning with a market run by Local Roots on one side and Skyebird vegetarian juice bar and experimental kitchen on the other. A few other vendors have committed, while some slots are still open as of this writing, but the hall will feature selections from local food producers like Olde Hearth Bread Company, Houndstooth Sauce Company and Fatto in Casa Italian specialties.
Anchoring the downstairs is Txokos Basque Kitchen. The name is taken from the underground food culture that popped up in the Basque region of Spain during the Franco regime. Most excitingly, Txokos is being helmed by Henry and Michele Salgado, the husband-and-wife team who created the Spanish River Grill in New Smyrna Beach. Txokos will have a changing menu that utilizes the fresh ingredients available from the other vendors in the market.
Past the market hall will be a large, rentable commercial kitchen. The kitchen will meet all USDA guidelines for food preparation, thereby allowing local start-ups to rent the space without having to invest in expensive equipment before knowing whether their product will catch on. This hints at one of the other important functions of East End: shepherding new businesses.
“We are certainly doing our best to foster the incubation of ideas and the incubation of businesses,” says Rife. This extends, beyond the technology, to guiding the vendors coming into the market, helping them get all of their paperwork and publicity done, and quoting an “occupancy cost” that bundles in power and utilities, which saves the merchants from contracting each of these services individually. “We’re giving people the opportunity to rent a reasonable amount of space. Even if you go across the street, you’re renting 1,000 square feet, not 200.”
The contracts also include what Rife calls “quality of life” language. “There is a much stronger sense of community between the merchants than in a typical shopping center, and this language encourages us to play as a team and focus on creating a thriving market experience for the patrons.”
“I think I’m most excited that we are helping incubate small, local businesses that make Central Florida a better place to live,” says Kamrin, who comes at this whole endeavor from a business background.
The businesses are excited about this prospect, too. “I am definitely an incubator business from the ground up,” says Tonda Corrente, owner of La Femme du Fromage. “I work every single day just to promote what I’ve got, which I’ve always done, and now to promote the four walls I’ll have [at East End].”
“We’re more of an established business than some of the others,” says Shannon Talty, owner of the Olde Hearth Bread Company. “But the coolest part of this, to me, is allowing people who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to to have a retail space.”
Upstairs becomes primarily about the community. Cuisiniers Catered Cuisine & Events will have an office, and the building’s office will also act as the mailing address for organizations like Slow Food Orlando and local foodie magazine Edible Orlando. “How great would it be,” asks Lothrop, “to have a lot of start-ups in an environment where … you’re running into people and you’re bouncing ideas off of each other?”
Most of the space will be reserved as a rentable event hall with a demonstration kitchen. Classes will be offered on everything from gutting fish to baking, with cameras and large flat-screen monitors used to accommodate larger classes; the space could also be used for parties or private events.
Rife and Lothrop are also business partners on a project called A Local Folkus, which handles the Harvest Festival, farm-to-table dinners and more. “If East End is our community hub, A Local Folkus is our community outreach part of that,” says Rife.
“The first time we walked through the building, we were like, ‘This would be a beautiful event space,’” says Lothrop, who has been an event planner by trade. “The market on its own is a really great project for us, but we really wanted to build a giant sandbox … for a lot of the things we wanted to see growing in the community.”
All of this is about more than just the ideals. It’s the business. “East End lets us put more bait in the water,” says Rife. “Maybe it’s going to be a challenge, but our job is to entice more people in.”
As you turn onto Virginia Avenue from Mills on your way into the Audubon Park Garden District, you see construction going on across the street. This is the long-awaited Mills Park, a mixed-use space featuring some trendy retail and restaurants. The largest parcel, which is clearly visible to anyone heading toward East End from this direction, is a 24,000-square-foot Fresh Market. Founded in North Carolina, the chain bills itself as “[y]our neighborhood organic food market and premium-quality local produce store.”
To the East End crew, this is not a problem. Neither is the Trader Joe’s going in on 17-92 near Winter Park Village, nor Eat More Produce, already well-established a few blocks south on 17-92. Neither is the Homegrown Local Food Co-operative over in Ivanhoe Village. Neither is the Fresh 24 produce market that opened this past year on Corrine Drive in the same plaza as Redlight Redlight.
“We are firm believers that a rising tide lifts all boats,” writes Kamrin. “The more people that come in contact with the Good Food movement, be it from the corporate grocery side or the local food entrepreneur side, the better.”
Emily Rankin is even more progressive toward capitalism in general. “East End is a beautiful example that collaboration makes you stronger than competition,” says Rankin, who is also the co-founder of the local business group Ourlando. “I bet Blue Bird [Bake Shop, just down the road from East End] is going to do better because East End is going in, because more people are going to be coming here to shop.”
Rankin also isn’t worried that Audubon Park isn’t exactly on everybody’s map. “People drive all over town for crap,” she says. “They’ll drive somewhere for something good.”
Corrente agrees that there are benefits to being more of the local little guy than a big chain. “Community is excited about new venture, and I feel like they’re more excited by ventures that start small and grow to something big,” says the cheese lady. “Everybody feels like they’ve got their hands in the pot. … There’s a sense of ownership.”
Construction delays, while expected in any development, have pushed the opening back from last winter to this fall, with rumors and near-starts all along the way. While this might have put some in the public on edge, the vendors are still raring to go. “To be opening in the summer would have been the slow season,” says Talty. “In October, things should be humming.” Currently, East End Market has an opening date set for Oct. 25, with some soft opening events planned.
Rife has his own source of confidence in the project. Right now, all of the capital outlay has come from a construction loan from Rife’s father. “I would not have been able to convince a guy who’s been involved with real estate for 35 years in Orlando to loan me money if this didn’t have legs, if there wasn’t a degree of realism to what we’re doing,” he says. “I wouldn’t have entered this all willy-nilly, like, ‘I think there’s a market.’ I know there’s a market.”
And Rife definitely has the most to lose here. He is the only person currently on the hook for this loan. “If we succeed, it’s because of the team,” he says. “If the Titanic goes down, I’ll be the captain that rides the boat to the bottom.”
“It’s all about voting with your dollars,” says Rankin. “We can teach people that when they spend, they’re voting … and get them to be conscious of where they’re putting their money.”
Walking around during the guided tour, we media representatives have to exert our imaginations to envision what’s coming. Jamie McFadden of Cuisiniers Catering, Jennifer Crotty of 99 Market, Txokos chef Henry Salgado, Rife, Lothrop and more point out where their spaces will be fleshed out. Wall coverings, floor materials and fixture finishes that have yet to be installed, but that look elegant next to each other, are displayed.
It gets easier to picture it all when we get to the vendors tasting at Palmer’s. While enjoying a particularly tasty wine-and-cheese pairing, the image of surrounding myself in this lifestyle is electric. I feel as ready to see this happen as any of the organizers; like many of the others here, I’ve worked toward goals of food sustainability for years. So is it finally happening? Is it viable? Should we see East End Market as a tangible expression of the local interest that led to the creation of the Audubon Park Community Market and the Homegrown Co-op, or does the recent shake-up in which Homegrown got a whole new board of directors suggest that interest still hasn’t manifested in a commercial way?
On June 14, Rife and Lothrop posted a teaser video on East End’s Facebook page that featured them talking about the Audubon Park Community Market on Monday night and asking, “But if you miss Monday night, then what?” The whole time, they are standing in front of a bustling East End Market, with people milling about in front of the new vendor counters, brought into being with the magic of CGI. The two feign surprise at finding this beautiful imaginary market open, and begin talking in shocked tones about the possibility of a permanent farmer’s market.
“Maybe Orlando’s not ready,” says Rife.
Lothrop smiles. “Maybe Orlando is very hungry.”