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West Side Market vendors embrace changes while still remaining true to what makes them special

3News goes behind-the-scenes with vendors at the nearly 110 year-old Cleveland institution.

CLEVELAND — Hurt by years of neglect and by some vendors’ resistance to shopping trends, the city-owned West Side Market has struggled in recent years. But it’s on the verge of substantial change affecting both vendors and customers.

Cleveland’s new mayor, Justin Bibb, and Cleveland City Council are proposing changes — including more flexible leases, rent caps and alcohol sales — aimed at reinventing the market, particularly the produce arcade, which has many empty stands.

Needed infrastructure improvements are finally taking shape, and hundreds of apartment units are being built around the market, which will deliver a new generation of customers.

3News recently spent time with several longtime vendors. They said they welcome the changes and the opportunity to connect with new customers. The one thing that won’t change, they said, is their commitment to customer services and the legacy that shapes their work. 

You can view a longer version of our story in the video player below:

“My parents had all of us working at the market,” said Minnie Zarefoss, who runs Jim’s Meats with her husband Mark. “There were seven children. My parents are from Ukraine and they taught us a young age how to work. Mark worked across the way from me at another stand. He was seventeen and I was twelve. So, we have been working hard in the market for a long time.”

The work of vendors at the market is shaped by decades of experience and guided by the legacy of the family-owned stands that still anchor the historic venue.

“My mom opened up the stand in 1971,” said Irene Dever, who owns Irene Dever Dairy. “I was nine or 10 when I first started to come down here. We used to have an opening under the counter. I used to sleep under there, then my mom would wake me up. I’d be her cooler girl.”

The hours are backbreaking but rewarding.

“We work 12 to 18 hours a day,” Vera's Bakery owner Beth Bowman said. “The people are what draw me here everyday. I love my neighbors, and I mean the stands around me. There is repertoire and the customer conversations.”

The size of a train station, with a large refrigerated basement, tile vaulted ceiling and clock tower, the West Side Market is among the biggest real markets in the country. But vendors say the building is not what makes the shopping special.

“It’s really about people, livelihood and community and family,” Bowman said.

Don Whitaker, owner of D.W. Whitaker Meats, describes his fellow vendors as a family. He adds the customer service is what separates vendors from grocery chains.

“We get along and we fight,” he said. “We have that. Customers are part of that. We’ve been waiting on same people for 30 years and they order the same thing for 30 years. Dealing with the owner, there is value to that. Joe Heinen is not going to wait on you, you know.”

Minnie Zarefoss was among the first vendors to embrace social media. She offers daily updates on Facebook and online cooking demonstrations. Her social media, combined with delivery options, helps her sell out frequently.

“I’m trying to get these good meats into homes and try to teach people to cook with ‘At Home with Minnie’ on Facebook,” she said. “As well as making people sit down together for family meals.”

Younger customers are inspiring a different mix of market vendors.

“We grow our own moringa and we grow our own chia,” said Francisco Estrada, owner of Nature Uncut. “We cold press them and turn it into oils."

He said he’s quickly built up a base of customers looking for new and health-conscious food products.

“I don’t think meat guys are going to take a hit,” Estrada said. We just need to innovate.”

Several vendors said they have been impressed with the city’s attention and with Jessica Trivisonno, the city hall official assigned to manage the market.

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