Years ago I lived in downtown Baltimore, where I was a graduate student at UMBC. One of my favorite spots was Lexington Market, one of the city’s many public markets that evolved from a 18th century center of commerce to a 1970s eyesore. I loved shopping there. Granted, there was nothing organic sold in that market, but did not matter as that word was not in my vocabulary back in 1992—especially when my salary was 800 bucks a month. But Lexington Market was pure shopping fun, as I loved to banter with my favorite Korean produce vendor, the Jamaican goat curry and roti pitchman, and the loquacious Italian fellow who served a mean $1 breakfast sandwich of eggs and scrapple (a mid-Atlantic version of chorizo, for those who are curious).
Shortly before I moved, an artisan bread stall replaced one of the fried chicken shops. It was almost alien: bread that was not uniform in shaped, nor pre-sliced, and sold in plastic bags! Despite my new graduate degree, choices other than white or wheat made my head hurt: rosemary and olive, chocolate cherry, potato and herb. My little paycheck got smaller those last few months. Clearly the couple who founded that stall was ahead of their time—I visited a few years later and they were gone. Fast-forward even more years and shift 3000 miles to the west, and I remember walking through a large Silicon Valley supermarket and saw a sign for “artisan bread” featuring loaves of olive bread. I walked up to it. I walked away. I could tell it was not the same.
Now “artisan” labels are everywhere. The word ranks highly along with local, organic, and cage-free. Why this word become so popular? Explanations are aplenty: in a world where almost everything we use, wear, and eat is mass-produced, we want to enjoy something unique and exclusive. Consumers are becoming more aware of the effects of shipping goods across the globe, so we want local. Some argue that in an age where wearing designer labels during tough economic times is frowned upon, buying cheese that is $30 a pound is a way to indulge without appearing conspicuous. Chocolate makers—sorry, I mean chocolatiers—have seized upon this interest—more likely than not that box of confections you bought for a gift has artisan slathered on its packaging. Of course, there is also a simple explanation: the stuff is good.
I am not an economist, but I would argue the surge of all things artisan is at least in part . . . economic. As companies have laid off millions, many professionals have decided to go solo, starting their own business and selling everything from jewelry to almond cardamom salt—peruse through sites like Etsy and you will find all kinds of goodies. Weave ambition with the economic need to build a livelihood, harness it with the ease of the Internet, and buyers’ desire to find something unique, and you have artisan. We live in an odd world, it seems—as brick-and-mortar stores become more homogenous in their product offering, we use the web to find the variety our grandparents remember.
Some areas of the United States have long had a thriving “artisan community.” Take Santa Cruz, California, for example. Other than the local university campus, there is little industry, especially since large employers like Wrigley and SCO closed their operations in this town of 50,000. It is close to Silicon Valley, but the 30 mile commute is a tiring drive across windy CA-17. For those that love the town and want to stay, the only option is to create your own business, so bakeries and other small food shops are abundant; others shun the store front and have sold their wares at huge farmers’ markets in downtown Santa Cruz and nearby Soquel. Drive two hours north and you will see a similar phenomenon in Marin County, the west coat’s answer to Vermont.
Artisan is in, so expect large companies that can scale to incorporate (a polite word, I know) this trend, following the supermarket chains’ lead. As more consumers question the validity of terms like “organic” and “local” (and have long raised eyebrows at “fresh” and “natural”), large chains will try to find a way create an “artisan” experience.
Stay tuned for an artisan croissant and coffee breakfast promotion, coming to a coffee store or fast food chain near you.