Charlie Humme spends his Wednesdays handing out flowers to passersby beneath the wood-slat hood that covers part of Heritage Square.
Not just because he's a nice guy, which he seems to be. And not just because he's a purveyor of pesticide-free herbs at the city's Farmers Market. "I love the idea of making people eat flowers," he says. "This is the best part of my day."
On a recent Wednesday, Humme's two small tables were filled with bunches of shallots and sandwich bags full of Italian parsley, thyme, spearmint and other herbs. He also was selling handmade jewelry, bola ties and a pen set built on a shiny onyx base.
A potential customer walked up and asked Humme to explain the shallots. "It's like an onion on steroids," he said, offering the shopper his freezer bag of flowers. "Here, eat one."
The bag was full of nasturtiums, a flower apparently related to the radish. The flavor is, of course, floral, with a warm finish. If for some reason you had to eat a corsage, this is a flower you wouldn't mind munching.
That customer didn't bite, but apparently many of them do during this latest attempt by Phoenix to establish a regular Farmers Market.
Humme has been coming downtown every Wednesday since mid-February to peddle his herbs at the city-sponsored flora fest. Shoppers stroll past his tables from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Some of them buy. Some of them eat the flora. Humme, proprietor of Fresh Touch Gardens in Peoria, has been growing greenhouse herbs for the past few years and has been selling them at this open-air market for the past two.
About a dozen vendors join Humme every week, selling fresh vegetables and herbs (some farmed organically and most grown locally), eggs, honey, bee pollen, several shades of tortilla chips, salsa and dried flowers. The sun shines, musicians play, escapees from jury duty wander past the tables killing time. The market is located directly south of the Mercado, so parking is plentiful.
Phoenix last tried to manufacture this kind of Seattle-style local color in 1987, when the Phoenix Festival Market tried a short run on Madison Street. Back then, the vendors came on Saturday morning. The customers, for the most part, did not. This time around, they are coming. The prototype for the current market succeeded during a short season last year, and the Phoenix City Council approved funding for an expanded schedule for this spring. The market opened in February and will run through June 26. The best Wednesday of the season so far attracted some 1,500 veggie hunters, says Dee Logan, who manages the Farmers Market. The average attendance has been about 500. The downtown market's modest success prompted some of the vendors to ask for satellite locations. Markets have been operating at Marivue Park (55th Avenue and Osborn) and Roadrunner Park (35th Street and Cactus) on alternating Saturdays since February. The Roadrunner market averages 800 shoppers and has had a high turnout of 3,000.
Jack Black Enterprises, operator of the monthly antique show at the Arizona State Fairgrounds, contracts with the city to run all three markets. This year's budget was $22,000, which covers setup and tear-down costs, and some meager attempts at advertising. Also, the city touts the market in its regular full-page events ad in the morning newspaper. Sometime in May, Logan says, the council will be asked to renew the market's funding for next year. Charlie Humme, who claims to "just barely" break even at the different markets, is all for the idea. Humme and a partner sell herbs to a couple of west-side restaurants and several caterers, but last year's test market was the first retail outlet for his crops. "Last year when I started, I felt really awkward," says Humme. "I didn't like dealing with the public real well. We were just a couple of hayseeds trying to hawk herbs."
Humme's people skills have since improved. When a potential customer bustled past on Wednesday, Humme tried again to give away a tasty flower top. "If you're gonna be a yuppie," Humme said to the shopper, "you've just got to slow down and eat the flowers."
"It's like an onion on steroids," Charlie Humme says.