After successfully bringing crowds last fall to its outdoor market in downtown Moline, Mercado on Fifth now wants to bring aspiring entrepreneurs — and their businesses — out from their homes and to the weekly marketplace.
Approaching its second season beginning June 2, Mercado and its supporters have been working quietly to empower residents in the Floreciente neighborhood and other prospective vendors to achieve the proper certifications they need for selling their homemade specialties at the Mercado.
"That neighborhood has so many famous cooks," said Maria Ontiveros, Mercado's president.
But what so many of those talented cooks lacked was an understanding of how to turn their food dishes into actual businesses. Ontiveros recalled fielding requests from residents wanting to sell their fresh enchiladas, cakes and other family recipes, but without the proper certification she had to tell them no.
To serve and sell food to the public, she said vendors must earn their food handling and food service sanitation certifications "and the test is hard." In fact, of the English-speaking students who take it, only 50 percent pass on the first time. Additionally, health laws require foods be prepared in a commercial kitchen.
So Ontiveros, along with staff from the international development organization Global Communities, has been working behind the scenes to help residents navigate the complicated steps to opening their own food businesses. In fact, Ontiveros teaches the new Food Handler Training course in Spanish now offered at Moline's Black Hawk College, where she also is an English as a Second Language instructor. Before, the food class was only offered in Chicago.
Likewise, Global Communities' advocacy and outreach in the west Moline neighborhood of Floreciente extends to potential entrepreneurs, who the organization and Ontiveros hope will be able to join the Mercado.
"The Mercado has the potential to be a great driver to the neighborhood," said Annisa Wanat, Global Communities' program director. The hope, she said, is that as Quad-Citians get familiar with the Mercado they also will think of patronizing the small businesses that already call Floreciente home.
For nine Friday nights last fall, a grassy lot and a closed-off street section in downtown Moline near the Boys & Girls Club and Community Health Care buildings was transformed into an open-air market with a multi-cultural atmosphere. Vendors sold a variety of products from food, clothing, homemade crafts, soaps, candles, painted furniture, among other items. There also were free activities for the children, live entertainment and other vendors promoting area nonprofits and businesses.
This year, the Mercado will run for five months from June to October — still on Friday nights. However, Ontiveros hopes to expand the hours by recruiting food trucks to set up for the lunch hour on Fridays and on into the evening.
"If the patrons are going to come, we need more food," said Ontiveros, who has been working diligently to expand the entire lineup of vendors.
Mercado was the vision of her grandfather, Bob Ontiveros, the founder of Milan-based Group O, who wanted a farmers market of sorts for the Floreciente neighborhood — where he grew up as part of a first generation Mexican-American family. The market was launched by his West Gateway Partners LLC development company. Although his plans, first envisioned in 2007, were stalled by the recession of 2008 until last year's debut.
Bob Ontiveros also has been an advocate for the neighborhood in many ways, including helping establish the Community Health Care facility there and across the street, The Club teen center of the Boys and Girls Club.
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As she leads the market, Maria Ontiveros, a Bettendorf native now living in Moline, draws on her own experiences of shopping for groceries, prepared foods and gifts at the night-time markets in Thailand, where she lived while teaching English for a year.
"There are a lot of Mercados in Mexico. Every neighborhood has a different market and it goes all day," she said.
The Moline market's first season drew a total of 50 different vendors — 30 to 35 each week, but only 10 selling food, which she hopes to expand. In addition to the Hispanic culture, the vendors also represented African countries of Sierra Leone and Morocco as well as Ecuador in South America. She hopes to recruit more Asian vendors "because that is where the night markets are so huge."
Wanat sees the Mercado as a different kind of business model — an incubator of sorts — for entrepreneurs to grow their small businesses. "The fastest growing segment (of entrepreneurs) in the U.S. are immigrants," she said.
As an organization, she said the Mercado hit some of its own milestones this year, including achieving non-profit status and receiving some grants to expand. With a Global Communities grant, she is purchasing the market's own tents, chairs, tables, barricades and a trailer to hold it all. Last year, it rented and borrowed much of its supplies.
To assist other non-profits, its plans to rent the equipment for other organizations that cannot afford their own equipment.
In addition to Global Communities, numerous other partners had joined in the effort. They include Group O's marketing and IT teams, the city of Moline, Renew Moline, LULAC, the Boys & Girls Club, Quad-Cities Convention & Visitors Bureau, among others. In addition, Western Illinois University has supported the venture in many ways, including providing an intern, Maria "Monse" Magallon Perez, who joined Ontiveros last week on staff.
The city provided a $4,000 Special Events Committee grant and up to $6,000 in security costs to cover having off-duty police officers on site.
In addition, Wanat said the Mercado, the city, Renew Moline and Western Illinois are applying for a grant from U.S. Department of Agriculture that would allow for a feasibility study to explore the possibility of building a permanent market. She added that the partners already know they support the idea of building a commercial kitchen within some kind of structure to give entrepreneurs a place to prepare their foods. She compared it to the commercial kitchen at the Food Hub at Davenport's Freight House.
"It would be a great option for this side of the river," Wanat added.
Ontiveros said possible ideas include construction of a permanent structure that would have garage doors to open as individual storefronts or installing semi-permanent canopies.
"Last year, it was about getting people excited about the Mercado," she added. "This year, we hope to have a few success stories of people who worked hard and got it (the necessary certifications) to vend here."