On a recent afternoon, pastry chef Clarice Lam, owner of the made-to-order dessert delivery service The Baking Bean, received a text from a staff member at her booth in UrbanSpace’s new Garment District food market, saying that four items had sold out. “I was like, ‘Oh my god, there’s still five and a half hours to go. What am I going to do?'” said Lam. After that moment of panic, she delivered her backup stock to the booth. By the end of the day, the first Friday of the market’s operation, the number of sold out products had risen to six.
The Baking Bean is one of 31 vendors who have temporarily set up shop between West 39th and 41st streets on Broadway, as part of a new food market from the group behind New York City’s Mad. Sq. Eats and Broadway Bites, UrbanSpace. Some vendors, like Roberta’s and Black Iron Burger, have their own brick-and-mortar locations, while some, like the seasonal lemonade vendor Frittering Away, move around the New York market circuit, and others, like Waffles and Dinges, are food truck operations. While the market provides a new lunch option for the area’s office workers and tourists, it also gives participating vendors an opportunity to expand their businesses while minimizing risk.
“We get more exposure to a demographic or a subset of people that don’t know about Roberta’s [or] don’t ever go to Brooklyn,” said Peter Litschi, director of mobile operations of perennial UrbanSpace market pizza vendor Roberta’s. “It’s a way for us to gain access into Manhattan with a little bit lower risk than actually having to have a 10-year or however-many-year-long lease.”
The city’s food landscape changed with the recession and now includes a mix of 18,000 restaurants, approximately 70 food trucks, and UrbanSpace’s three pop-up markets. While participants are uniformly pleased with their experience, nearby neighbors can get frustrated by the competition.
Rising New York City rents put many restaurants in a tough position. In June, The New York Times reported that neighborhood staple Union Square Café—from Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group—would depart its East 16th Street location at the end of 2015. After almost 30 years, the increase in rent on a new lease is more than the restaurant is willing to pay.
Rent is also on the rise in the Garment District. According to The Wall Street Journal, “two years ago, average asking rents for a square foot of ground-floor retail ranged from $125-$150,” but today the prices range from $200-$350.
“There’s no way a small business like myself could afford rent or the sort of prices you would be paying in Midtown. It’s just insane,” said Megan Griffey, one of the owners of Frittering Away, one of the participating businesses in the UrbanSpace market.
The East Village’s Black Iron Burger opened a new location in early August on West 38th Street between Seventh and Eighth avenues, and the market is one way to get the word out. “It’s a great way for the neighborhood to get to know us,” said general manager Victor Ortega.
Led by former model turned pastry chef Clarice Lam, The Baking Bean makes custom cakes, pastries, desserts and confections. Lam is using this market experience as an opportunity to make decisions regarding her company’s future.
“It’s also a tester to see what the crowd out here thinks of my treats. For me, the next step would be to open a storefront, so it’s kind of like, ‘Do I want to do it in Brooklyn? Do I want to do it in Manhattan?'” said Lam. “It’s kind of weighing out and seeing which area would be better for The Baking Bean.” Right now, Lam rents out a commercial kitchen space that she shares with other businesses, so to have her own storefront “would be amazing” because it would give her a lot more flexibility.
Both Griffey and Lam previously applied for booths in other UrbanSpace’s markets, but were denied because of lack of space. “There’s such a high return of food vendors [to Union Square Holiday Market] because you do well at these markets that nobody wants to give up up their spot,” she said. UrbanSpace market director Julie Feltman said that the organization looks for people with experience, “diversity from booth to booth,” and “buzziness,” meaning businesses that already have a following.
The online application process to join a market requires vendors to submit product and proposed booth descriptions, past market experience and recent press clippings. The price for participating is determined by booth size, and vendors have a choice of half, full and double booths. While UrbanSpace declined to disclose the booth rates, in 2008, Eldon Scott, president of UrbanSpace — an offshoot of the London-based Urban Space Management — told the Centre for an Urban Future rent at the Union Square Holiday Market “starts around $6,000 for the smallest spaces.”
Before joining a new market, Litschi says, Roberta’s does research to see if the rent will be offset by what they expect to make in that area. Sometimes things don’t work out as well as they had hoped, requiring creative strategies to generate sales. At Broadway Bites, they created a delivery hub for nearby office buildings to generate “auxillary income to offset those other costs,” he said. Another factor they take into account is whether there will be enough room for their pizza oven, which is currently set up to the left of their Garment District booth.
The response to the market has been positive, reported Feltman and several vendors, because it brings diversity to an area that is filled with many chain restaurants. “Midtown is like a food desert in general,” said Jacqueline Moliner, who works in the area and has visited the market twice since it opened. One man who works in the area buys a peanut butter cookie from The Baking Bean almost every afternoon. The New York City Food Truck Association’s president David Weber described the market as a “win-win” for both entrepreneurs and the community in an email. “The industry isn’t about competition. It is about choice. Having a market that provides more options in a convenient and exciting venue is a great thing for both the public and for hospitality entrepreneurs.”
But some local brick-and-mortar employees aren’t as enthusiastic. Sales at the chain restaurants in the area have decreased since the market opened. “It’s had a big effect,” said Europe Café manager Peter Singh. “We lost a lot of business to them.” Because of the surrounding office buildings and proximity to Times Square, the market is at its busiest around lunchtime. The managers of The Counter, a national burger chain at the corner of West 41st, and of Baja Fresh have also noticed a decrease in traffic.
James Versocki, the New York State Restaurant Association’s general counsel, said that while there may be a concern about markets competing with established brick-and-mortar restaurants in the area, the association hasn’t received any member complaints. “I think if you look around the city, whether it’s the Union Square [holiday] market or whether it’s farm markets that pop up all over the city, [it] really leads to the diversity of food options. And as long as there’s consumer demand, I think it’s going to be met,” he said.
Open daily from 11:00 a.m., to 9:00 p.m., UrbanSpace Garment District will run until October 17.