Leonard Johnson at Mystery Bay Seafood
Leonard Johnson at Mystery Bay Seafood Matt Baume

Ah, spring! When love is in the air, and romantic minds lightly turn to a singular thought: “Where can I get a fresh tamale?”

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After a long dark cold winter, you will be delighted to hear that hot food is back on the menu at local farmers markets, with local vendors now permitted to peddle their wares to passers-by. This weekend, the Capitol Hill market saw the triumphant return of Mystery Bay Seafood, with owner Leonard Johnson dishing out piping hot chowder to rain-dampened shoppers; meanwhile, Marlo Aguilar at El Chito served perfect tamales.

At last, some signs of normalcy are settling in with steaming cuisine returning sidewalk stalls — just the latest transformation in a year of unpredictable transformations. But it’s nothing compared to the massive changes coming to the market next month.

Marlo Aguilar at El Chito
Marlo Aguilar at El Chito Matt Baume

This past year was rough for food vendors, says Leonard at Mystery Bay Seafood, bundled and masked as pots of chowder bubble around him, weekend rain drizzle dripping from the sides of his tent.

“We had to reduce costs — get by with a lot less,” he says. “We had to make everything we do more effective, and just get by month to month.” Prior to lockdown, he could look up and down the Capitol Hill Farmers Market and see five or six other hot food vendors; for the last year, due to safety restrictions, there have been none.

Some vendors, like El Chito, adapted and provided pre-made frozen foods; others weren’t able to continue.

“It means a lot” to be back, says Marlo Aguilar at El Chito. Under his mask, there’s a clear look of relief at his face as shoppers form a (distanced) line at his booth.

Marlo started his tamale empire ten years ago — “it was an accident,” he says. “I had a regular job and brought tamales to the office for Christmas. People said I should sell them.”

That was good advice. As of 2019, he had a thriving business of 22 employees, serving food at markets and breweries around Puget Sound. He was able to pivot to frozen food and a food truck for the last year, but serving hot food at markets was his main source of income before quarantine hit. He’s hoping that soon it will be again, with booths planned at markets in Columbia City, Magnolia, Lake City, and Pike Place.

The biggest change, though, will be on Capitol Hill. The entire market is planning to uproot from its decade-long home outside Seattle Central College, and move to a permanent home a few blocks north in a new plaza that’s THIS close to being finished on East Denny Way, outside the subway station. (Update: That's East Barbara Bailey Way, if you're looking for directions.)

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Once that move is complete, more hot food vendors are expected, says Ele Watts, Food Access Program Specialist with the market. The street between Cal Anderson Park and the new market location will be opened to pedestrians — no cars allowed — making it the perfect spot to grab a snack and picnic. She’s hoping that shoppers will soon see nearly a dozen different fresh hot food stalls there.

For now, the vendors are rebuilding their food empires and expressing no shortage of relief at having endured the last year. This past weekend, Leonard was focused on the present, serving warm food to shoppers chilled by springtime rain. The weather didn’t seem to bother him.

“Doing shellfishing out at night in storms, that’s what it’s all about,” he happily explained. He’s been in the fishing business his entire life, which might explain his resiliency. “There’s a lot to enjoy,” he said, “even when the weather’s miserable.”

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