Before the Bethesda Central Farm Market opens at 9 a.m. on Sundays, vendor and pizza-maker Josh Anson does some shopping of his own. As the other sellers set up their stalls, Anson makes the rounds, joking and high-fiving with them while bartering his soon-to-be-made pizzas for ingredients he’ll use as toppings.
“Could I grab some kale, and do you have sweet potatoes today?” Anson asks Lucas Brownback one morning in June. Brownback, a manager at Spiral Path Farm in Loysville, Pennsylvania, hands over the produce and orders a “Sir Porkalot” pizza, a pie with pepperoni and sausage. Anson’s mother, Jaci, will deliver the pizza to Brownback when it’s ready.
The camaraderie and familial atmosphere that permeates the market begins long before customers arrive, and it’s a tone set by the founders that continues today. Food marketing experts Mitch Berliner and Ann Brody Cove started Bethesda Central Farm Market in 2008—in the parking lot on Elm Street behind the restaurant Jaleo—with 18 vendors. When the market outgrew that space in about two years, Elm Street between Wisconsin and Woodmont avenues was closed to traffic to accommodate double the number of farmers and artisans. In 2012, the market moved to the Bethesda Elementary School parking lot, where it now has about 60 vendors and attracts a couple thousand people most Sundays.
Over time, three other Central Farm Markets have opened—one at Pike & Rose in North Bethesda, another that’s now in Falls Church, Virginia, and a third, in 2018, at Westfield Montgomery mall in Bethesda. Cove stopped working with the Bethesda market in 2013. Berliner’s wife, Debbie Moser, a food and marketing guru herself, now co-runs the four markets with her husband.
The Bethesda market, the largest in terms of turnout and vendors, sprouts from the school parking lot Sunday mornings like wildflowers in a field. Color, character and wafting scents rise from the empty asphalt. The market soon fills with conversation, live music, barking dogs and excited (or crying) children. And it has become more than a place to buy fresh local food; it’s a year-round community gathering spot.
“We’ve got customers who’ve been with us since the market opened,” says Catherine Webb of Springfield Farm in Sparks, Maryland. “One couple were dating, then they got a dog, and now they have two kids.”
Bethesda Magazine spent a day at the Bethesda Central Farm Market, joining the vendors near the crack of dawn before the market opened and leaving after the last truck weaved its way out of the parking lot.