What’s the Secret Sauce Behind New York’s Thriving Food Markets?


Three years ago, we reported on four of our favorite New York markets: All Good Things, Chelsea, New Amsterdam and Smorgasburg. Of those, only two – hip Brooklyn Smorgasburg and sprawling Chelsea – are still open today. All Good Things, a Tribeca food market and restaurant, closed in 2014, and soon after, New Amsterdam, an open-air public market that was situated in front of the former Fulton Fish market, fell victim to funding and development woes.

Today, we can add to the mix a behemoth like Eataly, the Italian mega-marketplace, as an example of a different kind of success story — it makes sense to connect its buzzing popularity with the longstanding (and far-reaching) celebrity talents of the Batali/Bastianich team. At the other end of the spectrum is the workhorse Essex Street Market — one of the city’s first indoor markets, which opened in 1940 when Mayor La Guardia made pushcart vending illegal. The place has seen better days; originally prosperous with, at one point, 465 stalls spread out in four buildings, now it barely supports 30 vendors and always seems in danger of closing, despite the new talent and management being brought in to help revitalize it.

In such a perilous time, how do we find ourselves today in a golden age of New York markets? Five new massive food halls opened between 2014 and 2015, and rumor has it that Anthony Bourdain’s mammoth 155,000 square-foot Chelsea Piers home is set for a 2017 ribbon cutting.

In a city where restaurants open and then close in a flash, when anything can be delivered to your door in a short period of time, and with institutions like Essex at risk of the wrecking ball, how is this growth possible?

We sat with the brains behind three relatively new markets – Gotham West, Gansevoort, and Urbanspace Vanderbilt  – to find out.

Eldon Scott, the president of Urbanspace, says it starts with creating a new kind of public space entirely: “Private space should be a little more public, and public space should be a little more private,” he tells the Voice. With decades of experience managing markets throughout London, he came to New York to oversee Urbanspace’s holiday and pop-up markets. He sees the recent opening of their first permanent space, Urbanspace Vanderbilt, as the local NYC scene finally catching up to the international desire for communal dining that’s extremely local and personal. “We want Vanderbilt to be a part of the city, not just some restaurant you walk into,” he says. “We want it to be an institution with a sense of community.”

Chris Jaskiewicz, COO of Gotham Organization, had a need to build community along with the development of his far-west residential building, which inspired Gotham West Market. “We wanted to create an amenity for our 1,250 tenants above the building,” he says. “What would attract them to come? What’s the best way to build a community? So we came up with the idea of doing a food hall. But if we were going to do it, we were going to do it right and in a way no one’s ever done it before.” His 10,000 square-foot space opened in 2013 and features only ten restaurants.

Market owner Chris Reda believes the Gansevoort’s success comes from creating community on both sides of the business model: “Our community includes a bunch of vendors who are mostly all from different areas of New York, and they all work directly in the market,” he says. “You get what New York is really about here: the food, the service, and the attitude.” His 8,000 square-foot space opened in 2014 and features around 40 vendors.

Evidently, collecting stellar talent is the easy part for these marketers. Gansevoort has Tacombi Taco, Bangkok Bar, Ed’s Lobster Bar, and Mission Ceviche. Urbanspace Vanderbilt also has Takumi Taco and Bangkok Bar, along with Red Hook Lobster Pound, and Roberta’s Pizza. Gotham West has Choza Taqueria, Ivan Ramen Slurp Shop, El Colmado and Uma Temakeria.

Each has one stellar coffee shop. Each has one taco joint, one sushi place, and somewhere to get a comforting slice or burger. “It’s not a competition,” says Reda. “We don’t have 15 people serving coffee. We have the coffee place, the gelato shop, and sandwich place. There’s no pizza and then a vegan pizza place.” In this way, a customer walking in the front door “is everyone’s customer,” he says.

That lack of direct competition is essential to all three spaces. Foot traffic is a huge benefit, according to Scott. Making it possible for small businesses to reach a wide audience — without taking on the huge financial risk for their own brick-and-mortar spot — is essential, too. But all of the markets truly strive to share the best of the best with their patrons, and so to lure them in, they have to offer a colorful shift in culture.

“In our case,” says Jaskiewicz, “our vendors were able to get into a project that was a priority for one of the city’s most successful real estate developers. Which meant that they knew we would put a lot of effort and energy into building and promoting it in a way that was attractive. Normally, a restaurant doesn’t have a landlord that’s invested to the degree we’re invested in the success of their restaurant.”

The structural elements are essential to making a space thrive, and this is where the deceased markets may have lapsed. At Gotham West, the design is a nod to the Hell’s Kitchen of the Seventies: the signage and postcards have a warm color palette and images of the area during that time, and the interior features polished concrete, black steel cages and high ceilings that are oh-so-New York.

Early on, management would meet with the vendors to talk about how they could economically and stylistically pull the independent stalls together. “We’re not just ten food stands running here independently. We want it to be a real experience, from the moment you walk in,” says Jaskiewicz. They decided to not use any paper products, instead sharing the same dishes, bowls and flatware. Things like lighting and sound are universal, but signage, staff uniforms and other stylistic choices are unique.

Gansevoort also strives for an old New York theme: “We wanted you to walk in and feel like it was timeless,” Reda says, to emphasize their location as the site of an open-air market of 100 years ago. “We want to take you back to where it originally was.” Vanderbilt extends a bit more creative control to the vendors, whose stalls are all uniquely different in design.

Some teams are more hands-on with their vendors than others. “We give vendors constructive criticism on their menus,” says Scott, “but they have creative control over [them]. We want them to be successful and to do the best at what they’re doing.”

“We curate every day,” says Jaskiewicz. “We’re constantly challenging the operators to let us know what’s happening with their menus so we can promote them, and we have meetings with them regularly to get their ideas since we’re at the point now where we’re a big success but have to keep things fresh. That doesn’t happen without firm leadership and pulling their creativity out in a way that keeps it vibrant.”

All this doesn’t necessarily equate to a no-fail formula for special sauce, though. Gotham West saw one of its vendors open and close within the first year. Gansevoort has had some vendors who haven’t succeeded. Only time will tell for newbie Vanderbilt. “If you have 25 vendors, one of them is destined to fail,” Reda claims.

And that failure is, in some ways, the good kind: “The problem with most of the vendors is that some of them are very passionate, so they take their product and limit it into a smaller category. Compare something like pizza to something like brigaderos – the Brazilian pastry. How many people are going to choose that? If they want a cookie, they have one and they’re done. If you have one guy that makes the best chocolate pot pies, does that really work? Specialized products only work if you’re doing a pop-up.”

“As long as we’re matching the demand of what Manhattan residents want,” says Jaskiewicz, “nothing should fail.”

It’s possible these markets work because they make an effort to cater to locals. The team behind Gotham West realized the far-west site of its residential location is ideal for bikers, so the only non-food space in the hall is a bike store, and there are copious places for bike storage. Scott believes Vanderbilt “has to be a New York kind of place, otherwise it’s not a destination for tourists anyway. If it’s too tourist-oriented, it won’t sell.” Reda chose a market concept because his area was chock-full of nightlife and large restaurants, but not the amenities locals needed throughout the day.

Staying local is the goal for all three markets, though none claim to have hard and fast rules set for this. And they each hope that their purveyors might become too big for their spaces, as happened years ago with Scott and the Body Shop, which got its start at Spitalfields market in London. Reda has high hopes that the success of his vendors will inspire constant change: “We’re not looking for people to be there for 25 years. We’re looking for people to come in, grow out of their space, and move on. We hope they do that. That they become successful.”