12-04-2016  10:19 am      •     

Skip Osborne attempts to advocate for Ken Groves with Paul Verhoeven, Saturday Market executive director

Ken Groves lays out his spices and barbecue sauces

Groves displays his commercial kitchen license from Oregon Department of Agriculture

Steven Gifford says he was forced out of Saturday Market because of a false accusation that he did not make his own tie-dye t-shirts. Gifford says the committee that made the decision was biased and unaccountable

For 14 years Ken Groves has been selling his spices and barbecue sauces at Portland's Saturday Market.  But a dispute with the market's board is threatening to close down his "King of the Cajuns Spices," market stall.

Groves says new rules, passed by the market's board on March 28, are a thinly veiled effort to force his family business out of the market.

"This is my only job," Groves says. "I left my job when I got in here and I have built my business here. And people love my spices and sauces. I've brought a lot of business into this market."

The new rules say vendors of packaged food must schedule a workshop visit, to allow the market's product committee to ensure all products are prepared by hand in a licensed commercial kitchen. Under the new rules packaged food vendors must also show the committee a year's worth of receipts for product ingredients.

"They want me to expose my trade secret. I've been here 14 years and they've never asked me to do this before," Groves says.  "They want me to show receipts for all my ingredients and where I get my products from. That's all private business.

"Now, after all these years they want to see my trade secrets."

Groves protested the requirement. He points to the Department of Agriculture license for his kitchen, saying he has complied with everything the law demands. And he asks, what expertise do market board members have in kitchen inspection?

 With help from Skipper Osborne, who runs a civil rights advocacy group called Truth and Justice for All, Groves sent a letter to the board asking them to reconsider. But the board responded by setting a time limit, May 31. And last Saturday, Paul Verhoeven, the market's  executive director, handed Groves a letter banning him from selling at the market.

 Verhoeven says the rules are needed to ensure high product standards. Saturday Market, which leases its space from the city's Parks Department,  is dedicated to promoting artists and artisans who hand-craft unique products.

"Nine other vendors have taken the workshop visit and passed it," Verhoeven said, then clarified that one business has yet to submit required documents.  "He's been notified and re-notified and now he's here in disregard of the No-Sell notice.  He's disregarding it."

To get his spot back, Verhoeven said, Groves must complete the workshop visit and show his year's worth of receipts. The rule does not require Groves to reveal his trade secrets, Verhoeven said.

"You don't have to show your recipe."

Saturday market has rules about everything from incense and smoking (banned), to introducing new products (a committee must approve each one). One soap vendor said body care product vendors also are required to have workshop visits. But they did not have to show a year's worth of product receipts.

Groves says the market board is dominated by a tight cabal who invent rules so they can force out anyone they don't like. He says two other artisans – a cupcake baker and a couple who make tie-dye t-shirts— were pushed out.  And as one of a small number of African Americans who currently sell at Saturday market – My Brother's Barbecue is another– he feels unfairly targeted.

"It's a policy they made up this year," he says. "They want to see everything. They've never done this before and I think they are doing this to get me out."

Some might say Groves is taking this too personally?  Not Steven Gifford.  Gifford says he was evicted from the market for no good reason.

Cross over to the other side of the light-rail tracks and you can find Gifford's stall. He moved his tie-dye t-shirt business from Saturday Market to the Skidmore Fountain market, which includes imported goods.

Gifford says he can't charge as much for his tee-shirts at this spot, even though he hand dyes everything he sells. That was at the crux of his dispute with the Saturday market board.  Members of the product committee told him they'd received a complaint that his tee-shirts were simply bought from a catalogue.  They wouldn't supply any more details, he says, but asked to visit his workshop.

During the visit, Gifford said the board members pronounced the workshop too clean to be a real dye space, and refused to look in his product cabinet.

"They said the floor was too clean," he says. "But they weren't even looking at the area where I do the work. They said I was lying. They were willing to do anything to get me out of there."

Gifford calls vending at Saturday Market, "an Animal Farm, situation." After he was pushed out, another tie-dye artist who had left the market returned, he said.

"You've heard the expression judge, jury and executioner. Let's add to that complainant, prosecution and witness. These people who were going to judge me were the ones who complained about me;  they investigated me; they prosecuted me; they juried me; they executed me. They kicked me out of the market."

Groves has another reason for feeling targeted.  Three years ago the board slapped him with a series of infraction notices, alleging he'd left his booth 5 minutes early and parked his vehicle in the street before the allowed time of 5 p.m. Those complaints were dropped after a photo of Groves' parked vehicle was shown to be taken after 5 p.m., and a vendor survey found most believed the rules were unclear.

Since, then Groves' relationship with the board has remained cool.  Now, with an eviction notice from the board and no sign of willingness to compromise, he says he needs to find a lawyer to take the case.

CORRECTION: This article originally named the number of African American vendors at the market, which may have been inaccurate.

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