It’s not easy to start a successful business. Many fail, even when aspiring entrepreneurs have great ideas and the best of intentions.
One nontraditional retail incubator in Philadelphia — a flea market — is helping vendors leave the nest and set up shop on their own.
When Mark Vevle, the creator of the Franklin Flea, called up his vendors from the market’s successful but brief winter holiday run, he got a surprise.
“I did my outreach to my vendors and it turns out that five of them are going to have to scale back their participation this spring because they’re busy building out stores,” he said.
Vevle started the Franklin Flea after working for a New York operation that tried to set up a now-failed flea market in Philadelphia. The “Brooklyn Flea Philly” closed last year after a run in The Piazza in Northern Liberties.
The road’s been a smoother one for the Franklin Flea market, at least so far. It will open again this weekend inside the old Strawbridge’s building on Market Street — without some of those retailers.
It’s simply the price of success that the market has served as sort of a retail incubator, Vevle said. It’s allowed nascent businesses to test their goods on customers before going the next big, scary step and inking a lease for a bricks-and-mortar store.
Vevle points out that the Franklin Flea doesn’t require any long-term commitment to secure a 10-foot by 10-foot space — just $100 in rent. And the market takes care of drawing crowds of potential shoppers.
In good company
Inside a storefront in Old City, one of the Franklin Flea’s alum vendors is taking a big step.
“We’ve got Vagabond on one side, Jonathan Adler on the other,” said Ashley Peel Pinkham, who called it “amazing” to be opening her new store between such neighboring businesses.
Some display areas are set up inside the tiny storefront on Third Street, but Peel Pinkham still needs to pack merchandise into her new store called Philadelphia Independents.
Peel Pinkham said she never expected she’d have a storefront — this one will sell handmade items by local artists when it opens in May. The South Philly resident started making her own jewelry a few years ago and selling her INDICAN jewelry products at various markets.
“Selling at the Franklin Flea has been crucial to opening this store — figuring out what works, what doesn’t,” she said.
Fellow Franklin Flea vendor Anna Hitchens also got her footing at the market. A first-generation Cambodian-American, Hitchens grew up eating the Cambodian desserts she now makes and sells.
“I have baked cassava and coconut bites. They’re flourless so there’s just coconut milk, cassava — which tapioca is made out of — some sugar and a little bit of salt,” she said.
Hitchens also offers a coconut-infused sticky rice with, jackfruit, plantain and black eyed peas. The whole delicious sticky package is steamed in banana leaves.
She says success at the flea market helped her realize that the mainstream public would buy her wares.
“Doing the Franklin Flea, I think, really opened my eyes to other people who might be interested in our desserts. I think it was a good way to test the market. And I think Franklin Flea has a good mix of people coming to it,” Hitchens said. “The location — right in Center City, next to Market East. A lot of people from the suburbs came in as well.”
Hitchens says that success gave her the confidence to open her own shop. She just signed a lease for a Kolyian storefront in Philly’s Bella Vista neighborhood.
Market alums building on success
Franklin Flea alums “Petit Jardin en Ville” and “Amelie’s Bark Shop” (formerly “Pupcakes”) are opening up shops on Third Street and on East Passyunk, respectively. Franklin Flea vendor “Scout Salvage” recently opened its doors in an Old City bricks-and-mortar location and “Hank’s Hot Sauce” has been picked up by local gourmet fixture Di Bruno Brothers.
In the big picture that’s just a handful of businesses. But, analysts say, it’s impressive given the odds.
“More businesses fail than succeed typically,” said Iola Harper, senior director of The Enterprise Center, a West-Philly based nonprofit that helps educate and support entrepreneurs.
Harper streses that entrepreneurs need to understand how much goes into owning a successful business — your cupcake shop can go belly-up even if your recipes are delicious. But for those who get it, she said, there can be big benefits in opening a bricks-and-mortar store because it can be a tool in total neighborhood revitalization.
“I’m a proponent for growing people from like a Franklin Flea Market, encouraging them, providing the resources that they need so they will ‘grow up’ and move to Girard Avenue or move to 52nd Street or move to Lancaster Avenue,” Harper said.
Another advantage, she said, is that those business owners will hire locally.