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New drive-thru City Market exceeds expectations

Cars lined up in Pen Park Saturday morning as drivers picked up vegetables, crab cakes, cheese and more at the Charlottesville City Market, which switched to a drive-thru format at the new location to kick off its spring season.

“We thought that would be safest for vendors and customers,” said Justin McKenzie, the manager of the market. “We provide an essential food service for our community. We are really in demand and people miss us.”

That demand showed in sales for the first City Market To-Go. McKenzie said vendors had nearly 400 orders for more than $22,000 worth of goods. He had expected about $11,000 in sales.

All orders picked up Saturday had to be ordered online first, and no on-site or walk-up sales were permitted.

McKenzie said he didn’t want to pause the long-running market during the COVID-19 pandemic because small businesses and farmers rely on its sales and connections.

“It’s a lifesaver for them,” he said. “Without this, they won’t survive.”

Other local organizations have started drive-thru markets to help farmers sell their products.

On Saturday, customers were directed by city employees wearing cloth face coverings. Drivers were told not to leave their cars. Name cards placed in dashboards helped vendors pick the right order. Trunks were opened at the beginning, so vendors could place products directly in the car.

For the most part, traffic moved smoothly through the half-moon-shaped route.

“The vendors did a good job,” McKenzie said.

Pen Park was selected as the drive-thru location because its parking lot has a single entrance and exit.

The city closed parking lots at city parks two weeks ago in an effort to limit gatherings of 10 or more people. On the way to the drive-thru market, drivers passed playgrounds covered in caution tape and closed tennis courts.

On Friday, McKenzie said he was working with vendors to make sure the event ran smoothly and was encouraging them to pre-pack orders and arrange them alphabetically.

“For the first market and doing it basically from nothing, it went really well,” he said.

The City Market has been a staple of downtown Charlottesville for years. On Saturday, some vendors tried to recreate the atmosphere, setting up tents and hanging banners, while others unloaded orders out of the trunk of their cars.

“Having tents is so nostalgic,” McKenzie said. “It’s advantageous for them to have their product laid out on a table, easier than if it were in a backseat of the car.”

Moving forward, McKenzie is expecting to add more vendors and will adjust some logistics.

Online sales now will start Monday at 12:01 a.m. and close Thursday at 10 a.m. The window is opening a little later because some vendors sold most of their products and need time to do inventory.

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