Like supermarkets, restaurants, and coffee shops, New York City’s three outdoor destination food markets—Queens Night Market, Bronx Night Market, and Smorgasburg—have been seriously impacted by the Covid‑19 pandemic. In March 2020, when organizers would ordinarily be planning their spring openings, they instead put their plans on an indefinite hold. Normally, outdoor destination markets are both economic and social spaces: places of commerce, with vendors from around the country and the world, but also public spaces where locals and tourist relax, stroll through the market, and congregate over meals at picnic tables. During the pandemic, public health restrictions drastically changed nearly all social spaces. For the outdoor markets to survive, their organizers stripped them down to mechanisms of economic exchange.
New York’s destination markets are part of a global wave of new and redeveloped “public markets,” such as the Time Out Market in Lisbon, London’s Borough Market, and the renovated San Telmo Market in Buenos Aires. All promote themselves as attractions for global tourists and local visitors (González 2018; Crespi Vallbona and Domínguez Pérez 2015). Destination markets, like some local shopping streets, are places where the ethnic diversity of sellers and consumers and the diversity of goods, especially food, are presented as amenities (Zukin et al. 2016). Hundreds of artisanal food makers from different social, cultural, and immigrant backgrounds sell at destination markets, allowing marketgoers to sample foods from around the world, such as Salvadoran pupusas or Himalayan momos. Despite being part of a global trend, New York’s destination markets are also highly localized. To understand how New York’s destination markets dealt with Covid‑19, it is important to understand the multidimensional economic and social purposes these markets serve.
Global trend, local gathering space
In 2020, during the pandemic, I interviewed the Queens Night Market and the Bronx Night Market organizers by phone and reviewed social-media platforms on reopening plans at Smorgasburg, the Queens Night Market, and the Bronx Night Market to learn about the three markets’ adaptation strategies. These markets are an integral part of my research on New York City’s small food-business ecosystem. From 2017 through summer 2020, I studied Latinx entrepreneurs’ motivations to start food businesses, interviewing five Latinx entrepreneurs, a director of a small-business development program, three directors of kitchen incubators, a government official, and two destination-market founders. I found that destination markets are diverse ecosystems, with small food businesses in every stage of development, from Latinx entrepreneurs testing out a new concept to established businesses opening a new location. My research also builds on previous ethnographic observations and qualitative interviews with 31 entrepreneurs and four kitchen-incubator managers, which Nga Than and I conducted in 2017 and 2018 to study business development in outdoor distribution sites and kitchen incubators.
At destination markets, vendors sell food they either bring in or prepare on site, bringing consumers into direct contact with food producers, cutting out middlemen like wholesalers and supermarkets, and creating a more sustainable local system to sell food (Macé Le Ficher 2019). Foodies gather in the markets, and the spaces are frequently written about in event guides and food media publications. Here, there is a local ecosystem where products are made and sold locally, and customers enjoy direct interaction with the makers of their food as opposed to the more removed experience of participating in global and national food systems.
Therefore, New York’s three destination markets have multiple dimensions: as social spaces; as an opportunity to establish an amenity that both upgrades and serves a local community; and as a low-rent location where vendors can start a food business—from immigrants looking to achieve the American Dream to middle-class individuals who have lost or want to change their jobs. The rise of destination markets and the onset of Covid‑19 are global, but the spaces are local and destination-market founders had to find their own paths to recovery.
Three adaptation strategies in the pandemic
During the pandemic, all three markets scaled down and adopted new distribution strategies focused on efficiency and minimizing interaction. They combined three key strategies to both help vendors and comply with public health restrictions: selling food to go, limiting capacity, and setting up alternative distribution networks. Organizers who adopted the first two strategies tried to retain the marketspace as much as possible by still operating in the same neighborhood, but they controlled and minimized customer interactions. The third strategy reimagined the economic and social organization of the markets by establishing a new customer base.
Smorgasburg adopted the first strategy, a food-to-go model. It changed its name to “Smorg-to-go” at three of its locations: in Williamsburg, at a recently acquired location at Chelsea Market in Manhattan, and at Prospect Park in Brooklyn. The market organizers rotate the small number of slots among their usual vendors. At Smorg-to-go in Williamsburg, consumers order from that week’s slate of vendors on their cell phones, receiving a text message when their food is ready for contactless pickup. Limited seating with distancing measures is available in a nearby park. Technology fully mediated interactions between consumers and producers, minimizing the risks of in-person contact, but also increased the social distance between customers and vendors.
The second strategy is limiting capacity, which allows markets to continue their pre-pandemic format most closely. The Bronx Night Market decided to open with timed tickets for entry. Masks are also required unless visitors are eating, and distancing measures are in place. According to a Bronx Night Market organizer, vendors “need to maintain safe processes” while patrons “have to learn a new way of [coming to the] market.” Instead of 5,000 patrons showing up on any given Saturday, they must go online to sign up (interview, 2020). Remaining in the same location allowed the market to retain its Bronx brand, but the social experience is lost: operation of the market is now focused on economic exchange.
By contrast, the Queens Night Market organizer ultimately decided against opening at the main location, fearing the sense of community would be lost if the market could not operate at full capacity: “I want to preserve the experience and feeling of the event. [We would have to bring back] fewer vendors to comply. [Visitors] don’t get to share picnic tables and [don’t] get to talk to strangers. It takes away from the experience.” Limiting capacity gave consumers the closest experience to pre-pandemic times, but at a distance and under time constraints. Any interactions will be more contained and quicker in the interest of efficiency.
The Queens Night Market organizer adopted the third strategy. He set up alternative distribution network where vendors prepared meals for frontline, public-health and public-safety workers. The Queens Night Market organizer stressed his primary goal was “to make sure vendors don’t lose money.” Yet, because of the market’s low price cap of five dollars, its vendors depend on volume, and “limiting attendance capacity limits the possibility to profit” (interview, 2020). The market had to set up a different way to operate. In May 2020, the Queens Night Market released a statement on their efforts at a community board meeting: in seven weeks, the market organizers raised $100,000 in donations and provided nearly 15,000 meals to health-care workers at all nine Queens hospitals and seven Queens emergency medical service (EMS) stations (Community Board # 4Q 2020).
At the Bronx Night Market, connecting vendors to recovery efforts and distribution channels was also key. Organizers worked closely with the city government to help vendors who need assistance, sharing information on how to access unemployment insurance and federal government loans, especially through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and the Small-Business Association (SBA). The market organizer explained they were “connecting vendors to hospitals, police, organizations like Think Food and World Kitchen […] to help responders. Anything to keep them active” (interview, 2020). Despite not operating as normal, the market as an organization could persist as an intermediary, keeping vendors busy and connected to financial resources and feeding essential workers from the temporary distribution points. The outcome of all these approaches was that markets transformed from spaces of socialization to transactional spaces: consumers were now strangers at a (six-foot/two-meter) distance from the vendors and from each other, and no longer had the opportunity to share a table.
Transformation to transactional spaces
New York’s market organizers lamented the loss of their marketspaces as gathering places. The Queens Night Market organizer explained: “What I love about the market is having a seemingly representative sample of New York City enjoying life, each other, stories. The joy of being together in a celebratory way… [I] miss the diversity of the market and smiles on people’s faces” (interview, 2020). When preparing to reopen with a pandemic-friendly plan, the Bronx Night Market organizer spoke about missing “everything” about the market: “Obviously, the food, right away. If you’re going and trying different food […]. The sense of community. The joy and sense of respect we got from the community. Engaging on a regular basis that is for them, 100% for them, respectful to them and their cuisines. It’s such a positive place to come together as a community” (interview, 2020). At a time when stay-at-home orders kept potential visitors at home except for basic errands, the destination markets persisted as organizations by adopting transactional survival tactics.
In cities in other parts of the world, organizers of destination markets made similar adaptations during the pandemic. There were drive-by Christmas markets in Germany; social distancing and no communal seating at Borough Market in London; and a partially opened, frequently sanitized La Boqueria market in Barcelona. Now, with vaccination campaigns, the future is starting to look more hopeful. Outdoor destination markets are re‑establishing themselves as centers of socialization and local transactions, connecting consumers and food producers directly. All of New York’s destination markets ultimately opened in summer 2021 at their regular locations. Smorgasburg and the Bronx Night Market even opened new outposts, in Jersey City and Harlem, respectively, while the Queens Night Market ran a small Manhattan outpost again. This year, all three markets started regaining their social function, employed more vendors, attracted more customers, and made social and economic contributions to the urban economy and culture.
- Community Board # 4Q (District 4, Queens). 2020. Community Board Meeting. Tuesday, May 19, 2020. Available online at the following URL: https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/queenscb4/downloads/pdf/minutes/2020/05-19-20.pdf.
- Crespi Vallbona, Montserrat and Domínguez Pérez, Marta. 2015. “Food Markets: New Tourism Icons. Illustrative Cases of Barcelona and Madrid”, in I. Tózsa and A. Zátori (eds.), Metropolitan Tourism Experience Development. Selected studies from the Tourism Network Workshop of the Regional Studies Association, held in Budapest, Hungary, Budapest: Corvinus University of Budapest, Department of Economic Geography and Futures Study, pp. 127–139.
- González, Sara. 2018. Contested Markets, Contested Cities: Gentrification and Urban Justice in Retail Spaces, Abingdon: Routledge.
- Macé Le Ficher, Paula. 2019. “The Risk of ‘Foodwashing’ in Calls for Innovative Urban Projects”, Metropolitics, 22 February. URL: https://metropolitics.org/The-Risk-of-Foodwashing-in-Calls-for-Innovative-Urban-Projects.html. (Originally published in French: “Appels à projets urbains innovants : l’alimentation au risque du food-washing ?”, Métropolitiques, 25 June 2018, URL: https://metropolitiques.eu/Appels-a-projets-urbains-innovants-l-alimentation-au-risque-du-food-washing.html.)
- Zukin, Sharon; Kasinitz, Philip; and Chen, Xiangming. 2016. Global Cities, Local Streets: Everyday Diversity from New York to Shanghai, New York: Routledge.