In TriBeCa, a Farm Stand Where Celebrities and Tomatoes Mingle
Austin Johnson was fretting over a pile of heirloom tomatoes.
The fruits were stacked precariously alongside some radishes, onions, bell peppers, squash, cucumbers, flowers and herbs, all of which were picked less than 24 hours earlier at a farm in Columbia County, N.Y. The produce was arranged atop burlap-covered folding tables on the corner of White Street and West Broadway in TriBeCa, where Mr. Johnson has overseen a seasonal farm stand on Tuesdays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
“It is truly farm to West Broadway,” he said before picking up some lovage, a celery-like herb, and taking a bite. “You have to taste this!”
Later that Tuesday morning in early August, the actor Christopher Abbott and Flynn McGarry, the prodigious chef at Gem on the Lower East Side, came to peruse the stand’s selection of produce, flowers and baked goods including muffins, focaccia and quiche. “I usually stop by for the delicious pastries and some produce for home,” said Mr. McGarry, 23, who lives in nearby Chinatown.
On a previous Tuesday, the actor Alexander Skarsgard dropped by to buy a muffin. The R&B singer Frank Ocean has also visited.
According to Mr. Johnson, the stand’s emergence as a sort of curbside Erewhon, the upscale Los Angeles grocery store that has become a reliable place to spot famous people, is merely a matter of location. TriBeCa in recent decades has become a favorite Lower Manhattan neighborhood of celebrities, attracting homeowners including Taylor Swift, Jake Gyllenhaal and Meg Ryan.
Customers, notable or not, have mostly discovered the farm stand while out and about in the neighborhood. Some people who walk by “have lived here for 20 or 30 years and are like ‘What is this?’” said Mr. Johnson, 36, who lives in Manhattan’s East Village. “It’s a very health conscious ZIP code,” he added. “People care about what kind of produce they eat down here; the quality, how it is grown.”
Mr. Johnson’s understanding of local appetites comes not only from his shifts at the farm stand, but also from his position as chef-owner at the restaurant One White Street, which he opened inside the townhouse at 1 White Street, on the same corner as the stand, with Dustin Wilson in the summer of 2021.
Some may recognize 1 White Street as the address of the fictional embassy of Nutopia, a conceptual country created in 1973 by John Lennon and Yoko Ono when he was being threatened with deportation because of a marijuana conviction in Britain. The pair, who claimed to be ambassadors to Nutopia, never lived at 1 White Street, but gave the address as the location of the Nutopian Embassy when asking for diplomatic immunity.
“The location is really cute and the history with John and Yoko wrapped into it made us fall in love with it,” said Mr. Wilson, 42, a master sommelier and a managing partner at One White Street. He and Mr. Johnson are both alumni of the restaurant Eleven Madison Park, where they worked at different times before meeting in 2018, when Mr. Johnson was a chef at the restaurant Frenchie in Paris.
For One White Street, Mr. Wilson and Mr. Johnson wanted to develop a menu that featured fresh ingredients local to the region. With land owned by some of their business partners and the help of the organic farmer Eliot Coleman, they established a small farm in Ghent, N.Y., to use as the restaurant’s produce supplier. When pandemic-related delays led them to postpone One White Street’s opening last summer, they started the farm stand as a way to introduce their business and to sell produce they couldn’t yet use.
“We donated a lot, took a lot of it to chefs around the city and our local fire department,” Mr. Johnson said. “But we also thought it could be fun to do a little pop up market for the community.”
In June, they opened the stand for a second summer. Almost all produce it sells comes from Rigor Hill Farm, the restaurant’s supplier, but some items are occasionally sourced elsewhere, including from Smallhold, a mushroom farm in Brooklyn. The baked goods are made at One White Street, which also supplies free coffee for customers.
“It’s a community builder for us,” said Mr. Wilson, who lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. “It’s a different way to connect with the neighborhood other than the restaurant.” Their desire to ingratiate with locals is a main reason they chose to stage the stand on Tuesdays. “TriBeCa residents tend to clear out on the weekends, so we’ll get more traffic midweek,” Mr. Wilson added.
The neighborhood is also home to the outdoor TriBeCa Greenmarket, a larger operation that is open on Wednesdays and Saturdays along Washington Market Park on Greenwich Street. A more typical style of farmer’s market, it features a variety of vendors running separate stalls. Prices at the Greenmarket and farm stand are comparable. On recent visits to both, a pound of tomatoes at the Greenmarket cost $5; at the farm stand, tomatoes went for $8 a pound. A large bouquet of wildflowers cost $16 at the Greenmarket; the stand sold a similar size bouquet for $14.
Kristin O’Connor, a private chef, made her first visit to the farm stand on the same day as Mr. McGarry, the chef. She bought some mushrooms, tomatoes and squash. “This is really unique produce,” said Ms. O’Connor, 41, who lives just outside of TriBeCa, in Battery Park City. She added that Mr. Johnson’s eagerness to engage with customers is part of the stand’s appeal.
Mr. Johnson’s tendency to expound on the qualities of each item a customer is considering can result in the line at the stand moving slowly. That hasn’t stopped Taylor Palmby, 26, from returning weekly to buy bouquets of wildflowers for her apartment in Manhattan’s Financial District, a short walk from TriBeCa.
Ms. Palmby, who leads a VersaClimber class at Rise Nation, a gym in NoHo, said the flowers usually start fading after a week, lasting just long enough until she can return to buy more.
Though the farm stand is seasonal, Mr. Johnson intends to stage it for as long as temperatures allow, “hopefully until the holidays,” he said. There are also plans to debut a year-round indoor market next door to One White Street, on West Broadway, as soon as this fall. “End of September, I’m hoping,” Mr. Johnson said of when it may open.
Called Rigor Hill Market, it will offer a similar selection of produce and baked goods found at the farm stand, which Mr. Johnson plans to continue in a seasonal capacity even after the market opens. “I think keeping the sidewalk vibe is important,” he said.
Rigor Hill Market will also feature custom wallpaper with an illustration of Celine Dion, Mr. Johnson’s favorite celebrity. “I grew up listening to Celine in my mom’s car,” he said. His two-and-a-half-year-old French bulldog, Dion, a fixture at the farm stand, was named after the singer.
On a Tuesday in mid August, the wallpaper with Ms. Dion’s likeness was already visible inside the space that the market will occupy. And at the farm stand, there was another famous face: the actress Gina Gershon, a first-time customer. She bought some wildflowers, lettuce and tomatoes.
“I wish I had gotten some cucumbers,” Ms. Gershon said. “But I’ll be back.”