Born and raised in Winter Park, FL, John Rife, Owner and Founder of East End Market, started his career in commercial real estate development. He had some success and learned a lot about the industry, but realized that real estate wasn’t his true passion. In 2007, while pursuing a Master’s Degree in Film and Digital Media at The University of Central Florida, Rife put together a documentary film that, in his own words, “opened Pandora’s box.” The film features people that attempt to only eat food that’s grown within 100 miles of their location. At the time, the concept was still very grassroots. The Farm to Table craze hadn’t really gained momentum yet. Nevertheless, for Rife, it was the start of something big.
“Everything actually started in 2007 when my wife and I took a three month cross-country road trip to explore more of the United States,” he said. “We saw and experienced so many amazing things. When we got back, I wanted to explore Orlando’s local food movement. I started lurking at organic grower’s meetings and was basically the ‘fly on the wall’ guy. I got to meet some great small businesses doing some amazing things.”
Rife continued, “Cut to 2010 and, based on my experience with the film and learning about local food movements, I had an idea to put together a Thanksgiving dinner with all local food. I mapped out all the farms and how to visit them and then thought to myself, ‘why not bring them all together in one spot.’ Four days before Thanksgiving, I got with the Manager of the local farmer’s market in Audubon Park and she and I collaborated on how to make it happen. That’s basically how the Winter Park Harvest Festival was born.”
The first event saw several thousand people show up. According to Rife, all the food geeks were “nerding out about it.” The Harvest Festival was held in Winter Park for a total of five years and Winter Garden for two. Rife developed a great network of purveyors and a following of attendees, but he wanted more than just a one day event.
“We started looking at ways to make that happen,” he said. “I sort of had this ah ha moment. Reflecting on my real estate career, my ability to develop property and the tenants I still managed, we came up with the idea for a neighborhood market and food hub in the Audubon Park Garden District of Orlando. The idea was to showcase some of Central Florida’s top food entrepreneurs, tradespeople, artists, and chefs.”
Of the people Rife reached out to to become tenants, none of them had current physical retail locations. Many had successful farmer’s market style businesses, but most were just starting out. For Rife, it was the perfect mix of eager entrepreneurs and foodpreneurs looking to establish themselves and be part of something special.
“There was definitely a certain level of incubation with our first tenants,” he said. “They were amazing with their craft, but when it came to leases and administrative type stuff, they needed some hand holding. We officially opened the doors to East End Market on November 1st, 2013.”
Today, the two-story structure is home to a dozen merchants, a large event space, a demonstration kitchen, an incubator kitchen, offices, retail shops, a full-time, award-winning caterer and a world-class ramen restaurant. The banquet room upstairs seats 100 people and the commissary kitchen can be rented by the hour. They also do cooking demonstrations, pop-up events, themed dinners and a Friday night event called Evening Exchange that serves as a “feeder” program, allowing up to 40 different vendors to showcase their goods. According to Rife, Evening Exchange is a great way for new merchants to leverage the East End Market brand as a way to launch and grow their own brand.
“As Orlando’s first food hall, we continue to help small food businesses innovate and grow their concepts,” Rife said. “We give folks an opportunity to taste and see the REAL Orlando. On a personal level, I love being around passionate entrepreneurs, trend setters, makers and mavens. East End Market is a true melting pot of awesomeness. I also love seeing customers, event hosts and neighbors sharing a meal, creating meaningful moments and building memories in our market. From a local’s perspective, it’s a very exciting time to be in Orlando.”
Looking ahead, Rife is focused on exploring other verticals at their present location. That includes more programming / workshops / community events and expanding their business in the online education space for maker and food entrepreneurs.
What advice does Rife have for aspiring entrepreneurs? “If you do the safe thing, you'll get what others have,” he said. “No radical paradigm shifting business was created doing the safe thing. If your idea doesn't give you indigestion, it's not big enough. You need a true passion for your product or service to carry you through the hard times all entrepreneurs face when starting a business. Your story and your passion trump a perfect business plan. There are lots of smart people who can help you with the business administration, but there are only a few visionaries on the planet and they shouldn't be spending their time on bookkeeping. Hire the best and then do what you are uniquely qualified to be superlative at. That is the fuel for a fantastic business and the foundation for a team that can produce great business results.”