When the pandemic first hit New York City, the devastation for the dining industry was immediately apparent. Exorbitant rents and low profit-margins were already making it near impossible for restaurants to survive. And for many, operating outdoors with limited capacity still doesn’t cut it — hundreds of thousands of jobs have still been lost.
But the Queens Night Market points to a radically different model for the food world. In 2015, John Wang launched the night market — which operates in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park every Saturday (during non-pandemic times) from April through October — with a $5 cap on every item, no matter the vendor. By doing so, Wang sought to make this one of the most affordable dining experiences in the city. That rule, coupled with his process for selecting vendors, has provided an alternative vision of what the city’s food world can be, and who gets to participate.
First and foremost, I want it to be clear that I still resist calling the Queens Night Market a food event. I’m not delusional, I know a lot of people come because of the food. But food is really a vehicle and a gateway, that’s why it’s so prominent in the event. For sure, it draws tens of thousands of people a night, but it also creates conversation, and that runs all the way through our curation process.
It’s not about what’s trendy or what’s going to be Instagrammable, we insist that everyone who’s approved to sell food, that their food links up to their personal and cultural heritage. It’s representative. It’s not just something someone invented in a test kitchen or saw that someone got a lot of likes on Instagram, so they want to sell it because they think it’ll make a lot of money.
That’s a long-winded way of saying that the Queens Night Market itself, I don’t consider it a food event, but more of a cultural event and community space. And to me, that’s what it should be. We went to great lengths — the mission of the Queens Night Market as a matter of fact is to be New York City’s most affordable, diverse, welcoming community space. Not to say we’ve completely succeeded, because there’s always another step you can take towards that end. But I think, to me, any ideal food event or destination would strive to have that, and embody those principles and social values.
So on a high-level, a [utopian food event] would be uniquely affordable. Especially in the post-pandemic world, the economic aftermath will be felt for years to come by New Yorkers. When we introduced the $5 price cap at Queens Night Market five years ago, it was a novel thing, it was in some ways my way to push back against the ever-increasing cost of living in New York City. There are all these amazing, Michelin-starred restaurants in New York City, but the proportion of New Yorkers who can take advantage of that — New York is known for its food, but some of those glorified restaurants are just unaffordable for most people here. So I wanted to push back against that, and purposefully create an event where the affordability really equalizes things.
But that’s tremendously hard to do in New York City. Maybe it’ll be easier if the real estate market really does tank. Rent is so expensive in the city that costs are pushed onto the customers, so you have what you’d find in other parts of the country at a fraction of the price. A lot of that is driven by real estate. It takes a lot to make the Queens Night Market so affordable. It really puts pressure on vendor business models. Because whereas they’d be making a $5 or $10 profit margin on that dish elsewhere in the city, I’m asking them to take a $1 margin instead. It’s tough to do. But it’s something I still feel firmly about: There are not enough affordable places in New York City where you can have great food and atmosphere.
Diversity is one of our key values, and it’s become such a buzz word without people really paying attention to why. It’s something that everyone is starting to recognize that, in theory, it’s a good thing to have. But I view diversity as a representative thing. If I was going to create an event in New York City, it has to represent New York City, and be as representative of the population as possible.
It has practical implications for the Queens Night Market. We’ve represented over 90 countries, which is a cool stat, but really what it means is we have 90 countries buying into the event. When we had a Mauritius vendor, all of a sudden Mauritian customers started showing up out of the woodwork. A diverse representation in vendors creates diverse representation in visitors. Not to mention all the great cross-cultural conversations you have because of this. That’s why I don’t necessarily call it a food destination — food is used as a bridge, rather than the goal of it.
I think we’ve done a lot of good things, I think we’re the most diversely attended regular event in New York City. I think we are probably the most quote “affordable” event-slash-community space.
But my ideal is to one day create that experience in something that’s not a pop-up destination. I think New York City deserves something that’s built into New York City itself. If you go to night markets around the world, the ones that have really storied histories, they’re built into the city. If not in infrastructure, then at least in spirit and practical operations. In Taiwan and Marrakesh and Hong Kong, they’re just sort of there. It’s not like someone explicitly hired an event staff to set it up. It sort of organically runs itself. That’s something I’d love to do, though in New York City, it’s super challenging.
I also don’t want to build out an entire building or complex for this sort of thing. I think it would defeat the purpose, and also drive up costs. So some way to integrate it into the city fabric would be amazing, where it’s not a Saturday night thing, but a 7-day-a-week thing. Which would also help drive down costs for vendors and customers.
Finding space is challenging — I think Open Streets is making great strides towards opening up streets for dining where nobody had ever eaten before. Space in New York City is so unbelievably expensive, it’s hard to rent an apartment, let alone — we operate on almost 400,000 square feet when the night market is running. If there’s some way to convince the city that these streets should be closed Monday through Friday for X number of hours for community space, that would be amazing. You call it a food destination because we bring out tens of thousands of people on a Saturday night — I’d much rather bring 5,000 people, seven nights a week. That would change the spirit of it, in a good way. It’d become embraced as part of the city, not just something that New York City hosts, if that makes sense.
At the same time the night market started, it was when [Anthony] Bourdain was talking about Bourdain Hall. They were going to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to build out this terminal. If you’re doing that, the cost to consumers is probably outrageous, whatever they’re buying. So I’m definitely not advocating for that — there’s a number of food halls that have popped up in the last ten years, it’s sort of ridiculous. But something more grassroots that doesn’t feel popped into a space just because.
I’m sort of agnostic about where it is — the space we have now is amazing, like I said, we have almost 400,000 square feet. But Taipei, for example, has dozens of night markets in the same city. And people go there in droves, but it’s not like a special destination. They’re not renting out space from a park or a museum or something. So if every borough had one, it’d be amazing. I love Manhattan, but the Queens Night Market is the Queens Night Market.
We were in Rockefeller Center for most of last summer, and it was nice because it was scaled down, reliable, Monday through Thursday, and people could depend on it. It wasn’t a destination, it was just for people who happened to work in the area and be walking by. It was just there. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, everyone come to this thing at this time.’ It felt casual and integrated into the neighborhood. Which is something I like.
And to be honest, I can’t tell you the last time I took the Staten Island Ferry just to go eat there. And as much as I can wax poetic about all these amazing restaurants in Queens and the Bronx and Brooklyn, I can totally understand how a $30 Uber, or, ‘transfer, transfer, transfer, then another ten-minute walk’ makes it a challenge.
With the pandemic, I’m fearful that unless the real estate market changes, there will be all these small restaurants with vacant storefronts, and only the places with the biggest payrolls and investors will go in. And you could end up with a homogenized, less diverse dining experience in New York City. If Starbucks decided it wanted to go and swallow up 25% of the vacant restaurants when this is over, and Subway wanted to do another 25%, God knows what the dining scene would look like. That’s something I think about a lot — what’s the food experience going to look like in the wake of all this. I know a couple people who are still planning to do new business operations and continue with their plans, but infinitely more have decided to shut down, or just see where it goes. So I think that’s sort of a new thing in the city, the idea that there are more people shutting down restaurants than there are aspiring restaurateurs is a little bit frightening. We’ve always had the privilege of the other side of that.
I would say at least 75% of our vendors have day jobs Monday through Friday that are completely unrelated to food. One of the unique things about our vendors is that this price cap at the night market influences who applies to be at the night market. Most of them are not in it to profit, because they recognize this price cap will limit the profits they can make on any given night. So we get specific types of applicants. About a third of the vendors have no interest in ever having a commercial operation of food outside the night market. They either love spending Saturday nights there with their family, or they just want to share their story, or they’re there for the community. Then there’s a third that’s on the fence. Maybe they want to figure out if being in the food industry is something they like, or if they want to just do it on Saturdays. And then a third of them that are gung-ho and want to be in restaurants as a career.
One thing that stands out is how happy the vendors are, and how much camaraderie we have. It doesn’t feel like a competition. Which goes back to, I don’t feel like we’re curating and producing a food event. And I don’t think vendors feel like they’re coming to a food event. There are so many pop-up food events in New York City, and they choose to be at Queens Night Market for a specific reason.
I price our vendor fees so I can break even. My social contract with them is, I’m going to enforce these price caps, but in return, I’m not making a dollar off your vendor fees. There’s this camaraderie, it feels like we’re all on the same team. It’s not like landlord versus vendor versus customer. Everyone is there to share their story and share their food. I don’t treat restaurants and food as a business model — it’s more a platform for other social causes.
John Wang, along with Storm Garner, is now the co-author of The World Eats Here: Amazing Food and the Inspiring People Who Make It at New York’s Queens Night Market.