If you've visited a farmers' market in the L.A. area this spring, there's a decent chance Nick Spano may have had a hand in starting it. The 37-year-old entrepreneur is currently running no fewer than six farmers' markets through his City Farm organization, each with its own distinctive personality and objectives.
Nick started his first market about four years ago at a shopping plaza in the Cahuenga Pass where he owns the solar-powered spa and tanning studio Sunlounge. He remembers, "the economy had just taken a dive and there was a real sense of going local that drove me. There was also a need to create community again. Everyone in our business community was discussing ways to bring people together, and when the market idea came up I ran with it." Despite being well received, the Cahuenga market didn't last long, falling prey to bureaucratic bickering and conflict. Nick is philosophical about it, having learned from the experience; "Politics can help you create your vision and also just as easily get in the way. We were eventually forced to move locations. That's how the Yamashiro Farmers' Market came to be -- ironically, through the same government department that forced us to move from the Cahuenga Plaza."
The Yamashiro market has since become quite the hot spot. Held throughout the spring and summer on Thursday evenings, the market is as much a nightlife destination as a food shopping opportunity. A Hollywood Hills landmark, the Yamashiro restaurant's picturesque Japanese gardens and stunning city views have attracted people to the market in droves. Yamashiro's own chefs set up an outdoor grill, and beer and wine are served in the Pagoda. Live music and a clown are on hand to entertain the kiddos as well. There's also produce for sale, although it's not the main attraction at this particular venue. As Nick puts it, "this market is less inspired about the need to support local farmers as it is about the need to have a safe, relaxing, and entertaining space for children and adults to gather and be social."
The rest of City Farm's markets may not be as sexy as the Yamashiro one, but they have ambitious goals of their own, whether it's bringing local produce to large campus environments such as Warner Brothers Studios and Cal State University Long Beach, or to underserved communities with high rates of heart disease, diabetes and obesity. The South Bay Pavilion Farmers' Market in the city of Carson has been a hugely successful example of the latter, and Nick hopes to duplicate the model in other inner city communities such as Compton. His most recently opened market is at Eagle Rock Plaza on Sunday mornings.
My personal favorite has been the Autry Farmers Market in Griffith Park, which takes place year-round on Saturday mornings. The market is set in the parking lot of the Autry National Center in Griffith Park. Its location just across the street from the L.A. Zoo and ample green lawns for frolicking have made the Autry market a popular destination for families with young children, while a mimosa bar and live music make it a lovely place to unwind for everyone else as well. This Saturday, May 18th, the market will feature yoga, arts and crafts, planting and more fun kids' stuff for Jamie Oliver's 2nd Annual Food Revolution Day.
When asked if his experience working in the agricultural business has inspired him to one day operate his own farm, Spano says, "I've learned a lot about the difficulties of regulating farming in the state, and the many hurdles small farmers face each day between all the various departments and all the red tape. For now my main role is to create events that support farmers, and help them continue doing what they love to do."
Thanks to City Farm's creative and community-oriented spin on farmers markets, we can all support local farmers too ... and have a great time doing it.