What do a steel mill worker, a company vice president and a cop all have in common? Those are all former identities of a man who is now trying to sell you some ostrich oil.
“But how else would you oil your ostrich?” replies Lou Braxton, the “NY Ostrich Guy,” with one of his many ostrich jokes. If you’re ever at the Union Square Greenmarket in Manhattan, Braxton is the man at the Roaming Acres stand, surrounded by eggs the size of cantaloupes, wallets that appear to have goose bumps, and three-foot-long bones. And no, those jerky samples are not food for people, they’re for Fido, although Braxton might not tell you that if you’re determined to sneak a bite without reading the sign first.
Standing among his ostrich and emu eggs, and his bison, ostrich dog treats and pork, this self-proclaimed child of the ’60s retains the relaxed pose of a farmer staring down the end of a long day’s work. His hands hide in his coat pockets and his head is covered by a well-worn leather cowboy hat. Between its brim and his bushy mustache, the subtle glint of mischief in his eyes is easy to overlook.
Nestled between the Occupy Wall Street protestors and the subway hub of Union Square, the Greenmarket is an Arcadian respite from bustling city life. Diane Eggert, executive director of the Farmer’s Market Federation of New York, says that farmer’s markets in New York have grown every year since September 11th, when consumer concern about bioterrorism and their desire to support local businesses led people to the markets. Now, farmer’s markets are thriving across the country, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, which reported a 38 percent increase in winter markets from 2010 to 2012. There are 180 November-to-March markets in New York alone, more than in any other state — a triumph that Braxton relayed with a smile on his face and the calm certainty that the boom isn’t slowing down.
He would know; his boss says Braxton is born for the business. “He goes to the vendors and goes to the customers and they all know Lou,” says Todd Applebaum, the owner of Roaming Acres, attesting to the fact that Braxton has closely researched nearly every market in the city to see where the farm’s unusual products would find their niche.
Braxton grew up on a dairy farm in northwestern New Jersey. The work never interested him and he describes his return to farming as a fluke. He was employed for a short time at a steel mill, then as a police officer for 15 years in New Jersey. His law enforcement past now informs his concerns about the outnumbered Occupy protestors around the corner. While other vendors worry about the effect the protestors have on business, Braxton says, “They’re not the ones with the guns, the sticks and the pepper spray.”
He’s also learned to “totally discount” the profiling skills he acquired as a cop. “First impressions in the city, in the Greenmarket, mean absolutely nothing,” he says, “because some of the chefs are some of the wackiest looking people I’m going to deal with.” But even this new perspective doesn’t keep Braxton from trying to predict a good sale. His latest focus is the customer’s shoes. It’s not a flawless indicator, but he says high-quality shoes often house high-quality customers.
This experiment is among the many games Braxton plays to keep sane at his stand, which he has operated for two years. Though business is growing, more people spend their time trying to trump Braxton’s knowledge of ostriches — a feat still unaccomplished — than actually buy his products. Regardless, Braxton maintains his congeniality by joking to his visitors that empty ostrich and emu eggs are bought because they’re low in cholesterol and, in his downtime, consuming 17 audio books every three weeks via a single, concealed ear bud.
Braxton’s behind-the-stand hobbies constantly change, but his products are tried and true. “Lou just has incredible stuff,” says Michael Doctor, a regular at Braxton’s stand on Sundays (when he works the 79th Street Market). Mr. Doctor and his wife, Amanda, were drawn to Braxton’s stand out of curiosity. They’ve tried the ostrich, but they come back for the bacon, which Mrs. Doctor describes as “out of this world.”
Fellow farmer’s market vendor Shereen Wilcox of Ardith Mae Farm agrees. “I raise pigs and his bacon is amazing,” she says, “It’s better than my bacon. I’d rather eat his than mine!” As Braxton’s new neighbor at Union Square, Wilcox has also taken note of his ability to draw — and keep — a crowd. “He’s got a lot of regulars and a really amazing product. I see him at the other market and they really gravitate toward him,” she says.
Environmentalism is a key element of Braxton’s pitch for ostrich products. Roaming Acres, located in Newton, New Jersey, uses nearly every part of the bird: The unfertilized fresh eggs are sold (quiche omelet frittata for 10-12 people), expired eggs are emptied and sold as display pieces, the leg bones and tendons are smoked for dog chews, the fat is rendered into ostrich oil moisturizer, the organ meat goes into dog treats, the leather is made into wallets, and the meat — everything from 45-pound drumsticks to a tenderloin down the back of the bird — is sold as burgers, sausage and jerky.
If you’re keeping track, that pretty much leaves the feathers, neck and feet. Braxton stopped selling feathers because the wind constantly sent them a-flurry. The necks and feet, he says, are useless, but that doesn’t keep curious customers from wanting to see them.
Braxton’s gift for ostrich marketing comes from the skills he learned in yet another job. He was formerly the senior vice president of SOS Security Inc., a private security company. The end of that career came when a lucrative account with Enron fell apart when the energy-trading company collapsed, and another deal with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey was halted after the September 11 attacks. After 12 years in the security business, Braxton put down his briefcase and picked up a fishing pole, fishing all over the United States for the next two years.
When he settled back in New Jersey, he worked as a tow truck operator part-time. That was when he first began listening to books on tape and making a hobby of experimenting with his appearance — another one of his games. He constantly changes his hair and beard to see how it affects his business; wearing a full beard and long a hair one day, then a crew cut and mustache the next. No conclusive results yet, except that it drives his family — a wife and three adult children — crazy.
When Roaming Acres, a neighbor of his in Andover, was looking for a part-time farm worker, Braxton took the job in order to drum up some money for his daughter’s wedding. A year later, Applebaum suggested he work the market. “He just seems like he has a good personality. He likes talking to people, he knows the product really well and it was an easy fit,” says Applebaum.
Braxton has expanded Roaming Acre’s market schedule from one day to four or five, depending on the season. Applebaum estimates that his sales have increased every month in the two years Braxton’s been in charge at the market.
His fellow Greenmarket vendors have also noticed his unique skills. “I think he’s one of the ‘backbone of the market’ people,” says Brian (who didn’t want to give his last name), a worker at the Hammond Dairy stand and Braxton’s next-stall-over neighbor for the past three months. While other stands judged the new competition, Braxton welcomed them. “He is the least political, most mature, most responsible guy down here,” says Brian.
Eggert sees this type of camaraderie as the heart of the farmer’s markets. Like everyone else, she is paying close attention to the trends — farmer’s markets are growing, they are becoming more mainstream, and more accommodating of low-income customers — but emphasizes that there’s more to it than that; more for the customers and more for the vendors. “They become a community of people,” she says.
Without knowing it, Braxton has made himself a cornerstone of that community. Yes, he sells strange meats, roasted bones longer than a 3-year-old, and giant eggs, but it’s the time in-between those sales that really makes Braxton stand out.