Frequent visitors to downtown Bethesda are surely familiar with the Central Farm Markets (CFM). Since 2008, with a hearty spirit and a special emphasis on the Jewish community, CFM has brought fresh, local food to hungry DC-area residents. CFM has grown to operate in three locations—two in suburban Maryland and one in Northern Virginia. It has become the largest farmers market in the Washington area and one of the largest nationally.
The roots of CFM stretch back to 1970 when Mitch Berliner abandoned a career in computers and opened Berliner’s Farm Stand in Montgomery County. The business was among the first selling local and organic food in the Washington area, and soon expanded to several locations as well as distribution to some produce to restaurants. In 1977, Berliner helped plan a meatless banquet in the Jimmy Carter White House. He later founded Berliner Foods Corporation to distribute Haagen-Dazs, Dove Bars, Ben & Jerry’s, sorbet and a gourmet items such as frog legs, escargot and spice mixtures. Following the sale of the company in 2007, Berliner founded the Central Farm Markets.
Debra Moser, Berliner’s wife operates CFM with him. Moser began her career as a graphic designer and photographer. She became interested in food while photographing food items for advertisements at Woodward and Lothrop. Later, she earned a teaching degree and an MBA and developed a career helping small businesses to grow.
The Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington (JHSGW) interviewed Mitch Berliner and Debra Moser about the Central Farm Markets and their relationship to the DC area’s Jewish community.
JHSGW: What was the genesis of the Central Farm Markets?
Berliner: Growing up, food and cooking was very important in our family. I went to farmers markets as a kid with my parents. I’ve always had a passion for farmers markets and couldn’t believe that Bethesda didn’t have a comprehensive farmers market. In 2008, I approached Federal Realty, which owned a parking lot at Elm Street and Woodmont Avenue in Bethesda, and thought that would be a great venue for a market. We had 17 vendors when we started that year. Now, we have grown to over 60 farmers and artisan food producers every week at a location around the corner at the Bethesda Elementary School.
Moser: I had always been a good cook and especially a baker. In the early 2000s, I was the executive director of the Metropolitan Center for the Visual Art in Rockville. I decided to take on an additional fun project of getting my certification in pastries at L’Academie de Cuisine, where I worked with a former White House pastry chef. I also started baking and selling gourmet potpies, cakes, biscuits and pies at the farm market. After that work became too much to take on individually, I decided to join Mitch in operating and growing Central Farm Markets. We created a marketing team and social media presence with a community focus: We want you to come. We want you to stay. And we want you to come back.
JHSGW: So is each market about more than stopping by for a few specialty items?
Berliner: This is not just about getting some tomatoes and leaving. The real big mission from day one has been to have a wide enough selection so that people could truly do the vast majority of their weekly shopping, from eggs to poultry to produce to pickles. We have live music almost every week; we have tables and chairs for people to sit and enjoy the music and food; and we’re dog friendly.
Moser: We do some annual activities. In October, we do our “Bake Bethesda a Pie” contest. A couple of years ago, we got so much interest that we created a children’s division. We have animal adoption and bloodmobiles and free blood-pressure tests. We’ve had Girls Scouts work with us through Manna food center, which gleans food from the market farmers every week. We have a grant to buy food from the vendors at the end of each market and donate it to Manna.
Berliner: We also help sponsor a non-profit group that operates the Crossroads Farmers Market in Takoma Park that covers half the price of purchases made by low-income shoppers.
Moser: I oversee the Mosaic Central Farm Market in Fairfax, which opened in 2014. I can’t tell you how many people come up and say, “Thank you for bringing this farmers market to the community. We’re so glad you’re here.” It’s really been heartwarming.
Berliner: People are calling our famers markets the “village green.” Shopping there has become part of people’s weekly routine. It’s what they do. They say to us, “Thank you for doing this! This is what we do every Sunday.”
JHSGW: How do the farm markets serve the needs of the Jewish community?
Moser: It was very easy for us to start focusing on the Jewish community as a whole. We write blog posts with holiday recipes made from fresh and local products at the farm market: brisket, chicken, challah, kosher lamb bacon, vegetarian recipes and honey. It has been a tremendous hit, and we get a lot of requests for kosher food.
Berliner: Several years ago, I went to one of our farmers, and asked if some of the chickens could be slaughtered kosher. They found a shochet (kosher butcher) in the Baltimore area. It was a hit. I’m pretty sure that at that time we were among the only farmers markets in the entire country that had kosher offerings.
Moser: People come to us because they know we’re part of the Jewish community. We have featured tahini from Soom Foods, a company started in this area. We’ve hosted events with Jewish cookbook authors and welcomed artisans selling Jewish crafts such as challah covers and other holiday table items.
JHSGW: How do Central Farm Markets compare with other markets in more urban settings?
Berliner: We try to differentiate our markets to fit the needs of each community, which means having the greatest diversity of products as possible to be the most inclusive market around.
Moser: One of the big differences between ours and the ones in more dense areas like New York is that there people live in smaller spaces and they’re unable to stock up as much as our residents do here.
Berliner: The national trend is for year-round markets. Farmers with greenhouses have expanded exponentially. We have one farmer with a carbon-neutral greenhouse who had fresh, local produce year round.
JHSGW: Right now, Central Farm Markets has three locations in the DC area. Any plans for more?
Berliner: We are considering creating a market in DC, and we’re looking at places where there’s a community that needs a market.
Moser: We get comments and requests to open markets here and there. We’ll have business and government entities call. The reality is that we don’t want to oversaturate our markets and ourselves. We want to bring the best farm market we can to each community we are in or may consider.
Berliner: The thing is, now we can’t retire; we have to do this until we’re 90.