Market Cooperative of East Liberty brings in business, community



It’s early Saturday morning in East Liberty and people are stepping inside a pale yellow brick building, shaking the rain off from their jackets and closing their umbrellas. Once inside, they’re greeted by vendors and fluorescent lighting. This is the Farmers’ Market Cooperative of East Liberty, and it is bustling.

Once inside, safe from the terrible, frigid and wet weather, customers are greeted by piles of apples, a meat stand, wine and stacks of vegetables. Even around 10 a.m., when the market has been open for five hours, there’s plenty of options for the wandering eye and food connoisseur.

Directly inside the entrance behind the doors are piles upon piles of apples. Shining and a perfect mix of yellow and red, the apples come from Kistaco Farms, run by Tim Hileman, a third-generation farmer. His white crew neck t-shirt is tucked into faded blue jeans, he’s wearing a baseball cap over thinning sandy brown hair and his eyes scream just how tired he is, but he’s still working.

He and his family arrive at the market around 5 a.m. every Saturday, right when the cooperative is set to open. They unload their signature apples and apple cider as well as a selection of other fruits and vegetables. Kistaco Farms has been coming to the Farmers’ Market Cooperative of East Liberty since 1968, 27 years after it opened in 1941.

“[The market] brings local food. It’s actually a nice meeting place, we used to have people come in and run into people they haven’t seen for a while,” Hileman explains. “They stay in, they visit. It’s just a nice gathering place for a Saturday morning.”

For 10 a.m. on a Saturday, the market seems to be in full swing. Not one vendor is without a customer in front of his or her stand. According to Hileman, the constant buzz hasn’t always been a part of the market. His stand is busiest in the fall, he explains, because apples and apple cider are an autumn staple, but the market itself is always in a flux.

“[We’re doing] pretty well,” Hileman says with a shrug. “We have ups and downs, you know. Back when I was a kid in the ’70s, this really was a really busy place. Through the ’80s and ’90s it fell off a little bit; I think primarily because of the neighborhood.

“You know, the neighborhood had a down cycle, the Sears Building was here just sitting empty,” Hileman continues, looking at the door. “There just weren’t a lot of people coming into this area. They weren’t making an extra trip to come to the farmers’ market. Since Home Depot opened up [in 2001], it’s been a lot better.”

To the left of the piles of apples is a refrigerated case of glass filled with different meats. Behind the counter stands Valarie Kennedy, wearing a faded Duquesne University sweatshirt. The red fabric is no longer bright, but Kennedy makes up for that with her bubbly personality, stopping to talk about the Kennedy Meat Stand while bossing her son, Jacob Kennedy, who strikingly resembles her with the same blonde hair, round face, easy smile and blue eyes. She fumbles with her hands and rubs them down her sweatshirt.

“With the USDA regulations and things that have changed over the years, the Kennedy Meat Stand is a fully USDA-inspected meat facility,” Kennedy explains. “We sell to private individuals and families, as well as commercial restaurants and vendors.”

The Kennedy family has been in the cooperative for five generations and they get to the market at around 3:30 a.m. Saturday mornings to begin to prepare for the crazy bustling day ahead. Even six and a half hours after unloading, the meat stand and those working behind it are incredibly busy. According to Kennedy, that’s the norm and the family manages “to sell quite a bit”.

“There are a level of regular customers who sustain the market, especially our meat stand,” Kennedy says, wiping her hands on her sweatshirt. “We have people that have been here multi-generations, we have three generation customers, right now actually. Some of the people who help us at the stand actually had grandparents who shopped here … I’ll tell you, I have seen people who have come straight off an airplane who have been told to come to the market … I’ve probably had about 10 to 20 new customers today alone.”

As the city’s only year-round farmers’ market, the cold and rainy day isn’t abnormal for customers. They bustle in and out, keeping the Farmers’ Market Cooperative of East Liberty busy and lively in a neighborhood that is finally back in bloom. When East Liberty thrives, the cooperative thrives.