PENSACOLA, Fla. (WKRG) — For owners Kevin and Kayti Robbins, the Pensacola Community Market was a way to connect small, local businesses in the city.
The couple said it all started when they started going to different markets around town selling things they made themselves.
“My wife would make all sorts of different things, like tapestries and things like that,” Kevin Robbins said. “So, we started going to different markets around town. We ended up setting up at a market that some of her friends were running. We did that twice and after the second one, one of the girls that was doing it ended up moving and they decided they weren’t going to host the market anymore. It was going well for them, so they wanted to make sure that somebody could take over and continue to run it. My wife brought up the idea of hosting a market and I said, ‘Why not?’”
At the time, Kevin Robbins was a manager at the Bone Fish Grille on 12th Avenue in Pensacola. They held their first market in the parking lot of the restaurant.
“We started that first one with, I think, 16 vendors,” Kevin Robbins said. “It was all people that we either knew personally, or met from markets that we reached out to. That was in June of last year.”
The couple then moved to Washington High School to provide a larger area for vendors.
“At this point I had people on Instagram messaging the heck out of us,” Kayti Robbins said. “We had no foundation, only a little experience of holding the market in the back of a parking lot. So, we knew that it was crazy. We had the customers and we had the vendors, but we had no space. That is when we moved to Washington High School. We were able to fit 30 vendors at that spot. We were able to have a food truck come out and work with us and it was inside, so it was nice during the summer.”
From there, the couple set up shop at La Hacienda. After staying there for a while, they said a vendor that had a contact at the Chamber of Commerce said they had a field downtown they were interested in letting the couple rent.
“The person from the chamber said they had talked to all of the people and said it was OK for us to move to the field downtown,” Kevin Robbins said. “Basically, all we had to do was join the chamber and pay a fee each time to use the space. We thought that it would be fantastic. We thought it would be a dream come true, because we were downtown. It gave us the ability to know that there is already clientele down there and gave us more businesses to work with.”
The couple said their first market downtown was absolutely amazing.
“We were there from November until April,” Kevin Robbins said. “We actually had to add another day in the month so we were now operating twice a month. We had so many people on a list. I have a list of more than 400 vendors that we have been in contact with. It has been amazing. At the time, we were getting blown up with the amount of people that were trying to join and we were maxed out at the number of people that could be on the field.”
By the end of their time running the market, they were close to 80 vendors.
“We had never had that many vendors before,” Kevin Robbins said. “It got to the point where once a month wasn’t going to cut it.”
The week before they were set to increase the days, that is when the couple said things started going downhill.
“When we were first getting started, the contact at the chamber told us that if we wanted to grow the market and add things on, that we had to go through Pensacola State College because that is who owns the property,” Kevin Robbins said. “In March, we had some ideas and we met with the chamber to go over them. They told us that they couldn’t make the call, but we should reach out to PSC. I set up a meeting with the president with PSC over the phone. I went over the ideas with him, like making the area more than just a field downtown and making it more of an event space. He told us that some of the ideas we just couldn’t do, which was totally fine. During the conversation, he stopped me and asked who gave us permission at PSC to use the field. I told him that it was the chamber that came to us and it basically came down to the fact that we were a for-profit business operating on the school’s property, making money.”
The couple said as far as they knew, everybody was on board with the situation, but that was not the case.
“I told him that if we needed to switch over and start working with the school directly, we would have no problem with doing that,” Kevin Robbins said. “He asked when the next market would be, and then he said he had to talk with his legal team to figure out if there is something they could do. About an hour and a half later, I got an email with a cease and desist notice, effective immediately. We started scrambling at that point. We didn’t know what to do.”
Since then, the couple said they have had no response from the chamber.
“We reached out to the person that put us in contact with the chamber and he said that he had no idea what was going on and that as far as he knew everybody was OK with what was going on,” Kayti Robbins said. “As far as I know, that vendor reached out to the chamber and since then, we have never heard a thing from the chamber. THat was April of this year. We did get a refund from them, because we prepaid a few months, but past that, the chamber, PSC, nobody reached out at all.”
After that interaction, the couple said they got really discouraged.
“We felt like it was going so well and it kind of hit the fan so fast,” Kayti Robbins said. “We wanted to take a new approach to how we were doing things. So, we decided to work with local businesses. When we posted the news that we lost our downtown location, there was just an outpouring of love. Businesses across Pensacola were reaching out asking if we could partner with them to host the markets. That is what we have been doing for the past three months. Alga Beer Company has been one of our biggest supporters during all of this and they kind of made our dreams come true. We also partnered with Coastal County Brewing and Trader Boes.”
The couple said they found themselves in a spot where they did not feel, as owners, were not offering the quality that the business owners deserved.
“It all comes down to the fact that we were doing this for the small business community in Pensacola and we could not put our best foot forward because we were not in a position where we had the right location,” Kayti Robbins said. “Everybody knows, location is key. When we lost that downtown location, we no longer had that incentive to offer to the business community and it was breaking our hearts. I think that is when we got to the place of, no matter how good the community was to us, you can only fight for so long. It was time to wave a white flag and I think it is wise to know that there is a time and place to quit. We did everything we could to keep it going, but I think that unfortunately, some things didn’t work out in our favor.”
The outpouring of support from the community is something the couple said is amazing.
“These small business owners have told us that they are a thriving small town business because of our market, and the goal of ours was to build up small businesses,” Kayti Robbins said. “Even if it was only a handful, that is worth it. So, we did what we were supposed to do.”
When thinking back over the last year, Kevin Robbins said it all comes down to the people.
“There are a lot of other really good markets in town, so we were always telling businesses that there are other places to go out and be part of the community,” Kevin Robbins said. “It was cool to see people who were just getting into the market scene and jumping in with us and are now all over the place.”
For Kayti Robbins, building relationships through the market is one of her favorite memories.
“Being a part of something that unifies so many different people is so satisfying,” Robbins said. “We’ve built such strong relationships that they are not just based on the market anymore. They are genuinely dear friends.”
Looking to the future, the couple said they are still going to be heavily involved in the market scene.
“Right now, we want to go back to what we have done in the past,” Kevin Robbins said. “We are still going to be in the market scene. We love the atmosphere and community and we have no desire to get out of it. We will just have to go back to the regular grind. We have the possibility in the coming years that could bring us back to a market, but we’ll see what happens with that. We enjoyed doing this and it’s nice now getting the knowledge and experience of running a market.”