amid growing debate, west side market's new manager makes customer outreach a priority

An urban public market is nothing if not a relationship business, believes Amanda Dempsey, manager of the West Side Market.
With an estimated one million people visiting the venerable yellow brick markethouse in 2013 alone, the nature of that bond might seem obvious. Still, if there's anything Dempsey has gleaned over her first full year as decision-maker for Cleveland's well-loved public market, it is the importance of reaffirming the connection between the century-old icon and the city that embraces it.
While the market is a cornerstone of the historic Ohio City neighborhood, it attracts shoppers from 16 Northeast Ohio counties plus curious tourists who have seen it featured on the Travel Channel or Food Network. What's good for the market is undoubtedly good for Cleveland, Dempsey knows, but popularity shouldn't mean losing touch with the devoted customers who have made the space into a place of pilgrimage. 
Staying in touch
No doubt the market's ethnically diverse assemblage of 100 vendors has an established rapport with their clientele, notes Dempsey, 34. What's been missing is a broader response to customer concerns from those running the day-to-day operations.
The problem reached viral proportions in April via a blog post decrying the market's lack of locally produced foods, also touching on questionable produce that goes rotten hours after bringing it home, according to the author. The post was shared like a cold through Facebook, and its criticism was not lost on Dempsey and her staff.
"We hear from the vendors and the community at large, but we want to hear from those who use the market on a regular basis," she says.
Since Dempsey's tenure began 12 months ago, efforts to interact with customers electronically and in person have been ramped up. In May, the market organized a pair of focus groups culled from customers who shared their concerns on Facebook. A customer-focused e-newsletter, meanwhile, reaches about 5,000 subscribers.
The market also has been updating old customer survey information in preparation for a series of new questionnaires to be administered both on site and online. In planning the recent marketing push, Dempsey's team pulled data from a 2010 survey, having to go back to the mid-90s to find anything relevant prior to the 2010 assessment.
"The idea is to extend the opportunity to ask people questions," says Dempsey. "We're building a wider network to reach more customers."
The market's influence on Cleveland tourism must be considered as well, says Dempsey. Tourism can be a sensitive word for regulars scrambling for parking spaces on weekends, but that doesn't mean the economic impact of out-of-towners should be ignored.
"Tourists are customers, too," says Dempsey. "We have people who drive well over an hour to shop here. We want to build new relationships with them."
Responding to concerns will be a priority moving forth, says the market manager. The West Side Market has had an ongoing secret shopping program to identify and remove bad veggies and other substandard foodstuffs. Dempsey plans to bolster the program with comment cards available on the floor, allowing for easy feedback from visitors.

Efforts also are underway to beef up the availability of in-demand items such as pasture-raised meats, locally grown produce and other regionally procured items. The market now offers a guide, Eating Local at the Market, that shares which stands currently carry local foods.   
"We're working with vendors to add to their product lines," says Dempsey. "Not everyone's going to carry locally raised grass-fed beef, but we know customers want more of that kind of product."
Takes one to know one
Dempsey maintains that she has both the professional and personal background to understand customer needs. Her previous position was market district director for the neighborhood development group Ohio City Inc. (OCI), which has a contract with the city to promote the facility.
Through OCI, Dempsey helped organize the market's centennial celebration in 2013, spending three years all told getting to know vendors and city stakeholders. "I had those relationships coming in, so I was able to hit the ground running," she says.
Dempsey also was a loyal customer of the market in her civilian life. After graduating from the University of Cincinnati in 2003, she moved to Ohio City, lured by a walkable neighborhood with a beautiful gem of a public market as its centerpiece. As a dedicated patron she became attached to certain vendors and products, and understands the importance of authenticity to the customers she now serves.
The challenge today is to keep that history alive while adjusting with the times, says Dempsey. Her historic charge is competing with farmers' markets and 24-hour grocers for attention, meaning the market must maintain a balance between the contemporary and time-honored.
Dempsey is excited to be leading an atmosphere of change at the Cleveland landmark, which currently operates at almost maximum capacity save for a few vacancies in the produce arcade. While she has been busy overseeing much needed electrical, plumbing and other infrastructural improvements this year, any forthcoming vendors and products will at least partially be a result of market leadership's renewed relationship with customers.
"I feel fortunate to be in a grand, lovely structure that has such attachment for people," says Dempsey. "We know what a special place this is to shop at."

Photos Bob Perkoski

Read more articles by Douglas J. Guth.

Douglas J. Guth is a Cleveland Heights-based freelance writer and journalist. In addition to Fresh Water, his work has been published by Midwest Energy News, Kaleidoscope Magazine and Think, the alumni publication of Case Western Reserve University. A die-hard Cleveland sports fan, he also writes for the cynically named (yet humorously written) blog Cleveland Sports Torture.   
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