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Tensions flare over Boston Public Market’s future

Audrey Yap, co-owner of Noodle Lab, served up a dish at the Boston Public Market.
Audrey Yap, co-owner of Noodle Lab, served up a dish at the Boston Public Market.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

It’s the lunchtime rush at the Boston Public Market, and the lines run long for pastrami sandwiches and Bon Me rice bowls, while customers crowd the Noodle Lab stall for steaming bowls of ramen.

But many visitors shoot past Silverbrook Farm’s display of bagged lettuce and pea tendrils.

“Essentially, it’s become a food court,” Silverbrook farmer Andrew Thornhill laments. “The majority of people are going for the quick grab-and-go stuff.”

In the eight months since the public market opened, it has proven a wildly popular destination, home to dozens of artisans and chefs, with nearly $9 million in sales through March. More than a million guests have visited to sample its eclectic mix of homemade cheeses, New England grown produce, and fresh doughnuts. But there is also tension among vendors with competing visions of what the market should be.

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For some, the problem boils down to two loaded words: “food court.”

The market was conceived as a place where foodies and the downtown lunch crowd can shop side by side, gathering cooking inspiration from local products. Prepared food vendors say that means customers need a place to relax and enjoy some of the food they sell. Right now there are just a smattering of tables and chairs, far from enough to meet demand, especially at lunchtime. But grocers and butchers worry that with more seating, the emporium would lose its character.

“The management is really trying to stick to the vision of keeping this a marketplace,” said Laurie Hepworth, a manager at charcuterie vendor Daniele and editor of Edible South Shore, a food magazine. “It’s interesting to see the pushback from the public.”

And the public wants chairs.

Last week at lunch, Dan Wallace balanced a plate of freshly shucked oysters from Red’s Best, giddily slurping them up from a Styrofoam plate while standing, not a free seat in sight. He and his wife, Mary, stumbled across the market during a day trip to the city from Medway and were thrilled to find themselves in the chaos of the lunchtime rush, although the idea of buying fresh scallops for $26 a pound took them aback.

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Produce was on display at a stand operated by Stillman’s Farm.
Produce was on display at a stand operated by Stillman’s Farm.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

“I would come back for lunch,” he said. “This is great, it just seems like it should be bigger.”

Cheryl Cronin, chief executive at the market since January, said that in the last year it has added a handful of tall tables where customers can stand and eat, and in coming weeks as the weather warms, the market will also place 10 outdoor tables at the entrance along the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway.

Cronin said she does not envision a further increase in seats, but she added that she doesn’t plan to add prepared food vendors either. Currently, a third of the market’s 39 vendors sell groceries, goods, and staples, a third sell prepared food, and a third sell a mix of both. She called it a good balance.

“We’re very clear what we are and what we aren’t,” she said. “And we’re not a food hall, a food court.”

San Francisco’s public market doubled the number of chairs to 90 in a recent redesign, according to its general manager, Jane Connors. And the Oxbow Market in Napa Valley, another year-round public market, recently added seating for 100, setting up a collection of vintage chairs and communal tables.

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“It’s a big thing, especially on rainy days,” Connors said. “You want to make people comfortable so they want to come back.”

For Joe Langham, owner of Beantown Pastrami Co., business is so brisk he is experimenting with ways to speed service and move crowds through his stall faster. But he’s eager to see more places to sit, saying even temporary seating during the lunch rush would offer a creative solution.

“People who go in there want more seats,” he said. “I believe over time they’ll get them.”

Some vendors say the Boston market has come to depend too heavily on a lunch crowd that’s not interested in the venue’s community aspect and doesn’t have time to stop and smell the fresh cut flowers — much less peruse vegetables from local farmers.

At Silverbrook Farm’s stall, employee John Cushing smiled at would-be customers as they whisked past his selection of kale and apples en route to a sandwich. On weekends, he said, people at least stop and to admire or even photograph the blue oyster mushrooms the farm sells by the pound.

“They say, ‘You have the most beautiful mushrooms,’ and walk away,” Cushing said.

The grocers and raw food vendors insist they aren’t struggling — all who started when the market opened remain in business. Thornhill of Silverbrook reported that his stall has been profitable and that eggs have sold particularly well. But those vendors also say they depend on a certain kind of traffic that the market needs to better encourage. That’s particularly true come spring and summer when produce purveyors do the bulk of their business.

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Visitors packed Boston Public Market during lunchtime.
Visitors packed Boston Public Market during lunchtime.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Mark Jaquith, an employee at Stillman Quality Meats, said the lunch crowd isn’t the kind of customer they need. Even if office workers buy a pound of salmon or an expensive steak at midday and return to work, where would they put it?

Jaquith also worries the market will lose its identity as an agricultural center if prepared food stalls aren’t kept in check. Those vendors are permitted to sell food without the local ingredients the other retailers rely on.

“There’s a big difference between grown locally and owned locally,” he said of the merchant mix. “I was hoping for more of a farmers market atmosphere when I took the job.”

Some say a sense of farmers market-style community will take time. Genevieve Stillman, who owns Stillman’s Farm in Central Massachusetts with her husband, Glenn, said some of her best customers from the nearby government center farmers market have yet to visit her at her new public market location. But she said she is an ardent supporter of the market and what it is trying to accomplish.

“We know it takes a while, there’s no instant gratification” in this business, Stillman said. “Buying top quality from someone you know, that’s going to take a while at Boston Public Market. There’s a lot of room for growth.”


Megan Woolhouse can be reached at megan.woolhouse @globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @megwoolhouse.

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