Creative Somerville Series: Placemaking Through Farmers Markets & Fluff

Local designer and researcher Mia Scharphie is back today with a re-cap of last month’s Creative Somerville Series.

A few weeks ago, the Creative Somerville Series welcomed MaryCat Chaikin, co-founder of Relish, a project management and consulting practice for placemaking through food-based and creative economy initiatives. While Relish itself is still in its infancy, Chaikin, along with her partner Mimi Graney, have been doing their work in the Somerville community for more than a decade. They’ve established several local farmers markets, founded Union Square’s renowned Fluff Festival (a celebration of Marshmallow Fluff, which was invented in Union Square), and were instrumental in transforming the neighborhood through creativity and inventiveness. On a lovely night at Aeronaut Brewing Company, Chaikin (below left) took us back and told the story of how she came to co-found a placemaking consultancy and what it’s like to run one.

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From Food and Science to Farmers Markets

With an undergraduate degree in geology and a strong interest in local food, Chaikin’s early career was a collection of jobs—for restaurants including the acclaimed Craigie Street Bistro (now Craigie on Main) and The Blue Room, in exhibitions and natural history for Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, and eventually through her own catering and personal chef business. The common thread, she said, was an ability to organize and a desire to curate.

She connected with Mimi Graney, who at the time was Founder and Executive Director of Union Square Main Streets, and they began to work together to run the Union Square Farmers Market—a proving ground for Chaikin and Graney to develop their working relationship and their unique approach to placemaking, events and economic development. Chaikin and Graney—who was organizing events like the Fluff Festival at the time—sought out local talent—musicians, school groups and businesses to participate in their events.

Chaikin and Graney were attuned to dynamics of social equity—they developed a token payment system so that farmers market patrons receiving food assistance were not singled out and received matching funds for more purchasing power. They took a proactive approach to their market’s socioeconomic diversity, by marketing its food assistance program through promotional materials that asked, “If you know anyone who can use this service, please help us spread the word.”

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Relish: From Storefront to Consultancy

While Chaikin and Graney worked together on the farmers market, a short-term storefront rental in the neighborhood opened up and Relish (version one) was born. The venture was a seven-month urban agriculture pop-up where the team hosted a retail store and classes in home-based food production including beekeeping, chicken-keeping, gardening, canning, pickling and more. Chaikin said, “We started with no money and ended with a little bit of money … that gave us the confidence to move forward.” Although Chaikin and Graney ultimately decided against the storefront business model, it raised their level of ambition and solidified their vision for Relish.

In the spring of 2014, with the Relish Storefront behind them, Chaikin and Graney decided to team up and form Relish 2.0. The approach: Provide consulting and project management services for placemaking and creative economy initiatives, with a special focus on food. Why food? Chaikin explained, “so many local businesses are are food-oriented, so it’s a great place to start.”

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The Relish Model

Farmer’s markets are still Relish’s bread and butter—Chaikin described them as the “flywheel” of their practice, providing the base income for their business. In addition to the Union Square Farmers Market and the Somerville Winter Farmers Market, Relish helped establish and runs a market at Assembly Row and nearby Watertown’s first farmers market. (Visit Relish’s Somerville farmers markets.)

Relish also provides consultancy services both for clients and to cities in Massachusetts as MassDevelopment’s placemaking “house doctor.” The cities Relish works with are struggling with economic decline and urban disinvestment, and are looking for “their Fluff Festival.” Chaikin loves the process of getting to know each the city, the local players and discovering the city’s unique opportunities and story. “A community’s perceived weakness can actually be their greatest strength,” she said.

Although Relish focuses on urban placemaking, cities are often not Relish’s direct clients. “We see the city as an ally, rarely as a client,” said Chaikin, noting that the municipalities infrequently have the funding for placemaking projects. Instead, Relish is most often hired by nonprofits and developers. This means the “consultant life” involves a lot of time spent looking for and responding to requests for proposals.

The proposal process led to an early lesson learned for Relish. Chaikin showed us a Relish project she loves—“Kite Day Happy Full” is a zigzagging vending machine temporary installation for a vacant site in Kendall Square that dispenses local food. Yet the client, the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority, ultimately didn’t bite on the proposal that Relish had spent months working on. Chaikin says that the experience spurred them to learn to move more quickly on proposals, and also to wait before enlisting their vast network of collaborators, avoiding “burning out all our contacts immediately.”

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Yours truly with MaryCat Chaikin and Mia Scharphie at Aeronaut in July.

It’s All About the Data

Since the range of experiences Relish can ultimately deliver to their clients is so diverse, the team has had to define the value they add in a sophisticated way. Chaikin said, “the level of community involvement and social capital” is the difference between event planning and placemaking.

Chaikin and Graney are always looking at the relationship between urban vibrancy tactics and their larger social and economic impact. They regularly collect data on their markets and have developed survey methods for customers and vendors that reveal the deep impact they have on the community.

The Union Square Farmers Market, for example, plays a pivotal role in the local economy—a study found that it generates $2.5 million dollars in economic impact per season. Chaikin cites data that says that farmers market customers on average spend $1 in surrounding businesses for every $1 they spend at the market—provided there are surrounding businesses to spend money in, of course. This data makes the vital connection between interventions that can seem Fluff-y (pardon the pun) and their role as urban investments. “If you have the data, you have the advantage,” Chaikin said.

When Chaikin looks ahead to the future of Relish, she hopes for longer-term projects and relationships, but their smaller scale projects and tests, and even foibles (like the sponsored chairs that they installed in Union Square that disappeared, “because they were really cool chairs,” she added) have helped them build Relish’s expertise and point of view.

Her advice to both cities and creative placemakers? “The fun of experimentation is the flexibility with trying things on a smaller scale before moving forward.”

The Creative Somerville Series is a series of “fireside chats” with local creatives & entrepreneurs in design, tech, food, social impact and other fields—celebrating the creative and entrepreneurial energy that makes Somerville great. The Creative Somerville Series is not your typical power point and Q&A. Our fireside chats are about getting to hear someone’s story, learning about how they think and create, and sharing ideas in an intimate setting. Co-sponsored by Somerville Local First and the Somerville Beat.

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