The last major event that the year-round indoor Stockton Market was considering was its own expansion. After Salt House owner Steven Lau bought it last year, all signs pointed to growth: added vendors, more emphasis on local and more. Unfortunately, the coronavirus would be the next major event the market would encounter. And while Covid-19 restrictions have cooled ambitions, in the very least, Stockton Market hasn’t lost stride. They’ve been open since the pandemic hit (they even helped write the rules on indoor markets with Hunterdon County officials). And while many vendors are on pause, those still selling are doing so more often, with more days available for a time-challenged public.
One such vendor is Market Pizza, run by Megan Jones-Holt (and currently co-staffed by her husband, who is “good at some of the prep work,” she assures us). Not only has Jones-Holt extended her hours, she’s done everything she can to maintain stride with her normal working style, offering weekly specials with seasonal darlings like ramps, indulging in chit chat with socially-starved regulars, and even considering some branding concepts to solidify her unofficial nickname, “The Pizza Witch.”
We caught up with Jones-Holt to ask about the changes to her business life and what life is like in a place as convivial as Stockton Market in an era that’s decidedly not market-friendly.
Table Hopping: People must appreciate being able to come get a pizza. Is it strange to be in this position?
Megan Jones-Holt: I don’t feel like a frontline hero! But it’s amazing, the outpouring from the customers. It’s just been “Thank you so much for being here!” A lot of places just shut down completely.
TH: What about you guys, and the market overall?
MJH: We transitioned right into it. We’re a hop, skip, and a jump over the Pennsylvania border. Pennsylvania shut down and I can’t remember what day it was, mid-week, but one of the vendors was also in a market in New Hope. We had our weekend market that same week and said “Let’s all come together and assess.” We reached out to vendors and said, “If you’re not comfortable staying open, don’t stay open. But if you want to stay open, we’re here, we’ll back you.” And we decided to go to the health department of Hunterdon County [where Stockton is located].
TH: And you helped write the rules?
MJH: We basically said, “We’re a grocery store, indoor market year-round. What are the protocols to follow to remain open?” So we helped write the protocol. We got the Covid-appropriate signs and put them up everywhere—“Wash your hands,” all that kind of stuff. And it was all about social distancing, enter through the front, exit through the back, all that.
TH: It’s a large market, but how do you manage social distancing in the space?
MJH: We put all the tables and chairs on the stage. Some of the [vendor] tables put tables in front of them to create that space. Where I am, I don’t really have a barrier, it’s a bar. So I put a couple of my stools up with caution tape around it.
TH: And what about the vendors themselves? How many have stuck around?
MJH: A lot of people pulled out. We’re probably down to around 10 percent of the original vendors. What ended up happening, the owner had started a café in front. Of course the café had to close down, though they’re still offering meals to go. But we’re dedicated to being there, Tuesday through Sunday, for the time being. They said to the vendors “If you’re not comfortable being here, give us product. We’ll sell it.” So we have a makeshift store in front of the building.
TH: What kind of products are you selling?
MJH: Produce, dairy, soap, herbs in baggies. The big thing this past week was selling flour and yeast. We have a spice vendor in there. A chocolate vendor. There’s a dumpling guy. The fish guy comes in Friday and Saturday. There’s a meat and cheese guy there Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Vendors are varying their times.
TH: What about you? How has business been?
MJH: The first thing everyone does when something like this happens is tighten up costs. I did the opposite—I started taking ads out. We’ve gotten a lot of new customers. A lot of new people have found us, which is great. A lot of people that live near the market but never came before are all of a sudden finding it.
TH: I would have to imagine pizza cravings are one thing that went up in this era?
MJH: Pizzas are kind of normal. People are looking for something really normal.
TH: Are you doing a limited menu or are things basically the same?
MJH: I have a standard menu, and every week I come up with a special pizza. I have not stopped doing that. It’s a lot of seasonal stuff, a lot of vegetables, things like that. Right now, for instance, there’s a mushroom guy in the market, Mainly Mushrooms. He forages for ramps, which I’m using. I’ve always done it this way. I’m keeping stride, it’s just a different stride.
TH: Do you get a sense that customers are weary when they come in or is it a relief?
MJH: A lot of our customers who come from a distance say stuff like, “We just had to get out of the house!” And they come and grab a pizza but they’ll chat for a while and then they’ll go. Everybody comes in and wants to talk.
TH: What about personally? This can’t be an easy time.
MJH: It’s kind of a double-edged sword. We’re doing well, but all I do is go home and go to work. The social norm is missing. But business is doing well and the market as a whole is doing well. People understand the parameters.
TH: Do you think that patronage will last beyond the pandemic or will we return to convenience—the grocery store—ASAP?
MJH: I would hope it lasts. Because we are here for the community. And we hope that those people who are in the community who found us through this will continue to support us.
TH: What about your own plans if and as restrictions ease?
MJH: Anybody that used to help us obviously isn’t helping us right now, but they will come back I hope. This definitely put a damper in some of our expansion plans.
TH: What were those plans?
MJH: There was another market we were going to. It was supposed to open in the early summer in Flemington. I don’t see that happening. And of course, why would you want to go to a market without things to bring an audience? It’s a crowded market. A reason it’s attractive for us—there’s music, a craft brewery right there. The whole idea is you have music, people coming in, eating pizza, drinking. We just don’t know how long this is gonna last.
TH: Do you personally shop at the market?
MJH: Absolutely. Even before this happened, I always bough from vendors at the market. I like the buy local. That’s why we’re lucky to be in Hunterdon County. There are a lot of farms nearby. And I’ve always used those products in my pizzas. That’s why people like it. It’s good quality, using good products. And none of that’s changed, even now.
TH: Any other fun plans we can look forward to, pizza or otherwise?
MJH: Everybody calls me the “Pizza Witch” because I make magically delicious pizzas, so I’m trying to find someone to do a design of a pizza witch. What a great niche!
Stockton Market is currently open from 8am–3pm, Wednesday and Thursday; and 8am–5pm Friday through Sunday. 19 Bridge Street, Stockton. Check with a specific vendor before assuming they’re open, as vendor availability has changed. 609-608-2824.Click here to leave a comment