As a young girl in Hong Kong, Wanda Chiu walked home from school against the aromas from food stalls permeating the streets. Years later, as an immigrant in Queens, they would haunt her, ultimately driving her to start her own venture, Hong Kong Street Food, exclusively based at the Queens Night Market (QNM). For Lenin Costas of Don Ceviche, who grew up watching his grandmother cook traditional Peruvian dishes such as causa limeña, participating in the QNM since 2017 helped him raise the funds to open a second restaurant. And Rosangela Arnold of Brazilicious, a late bloomer in the kitchen, started making cheese rolls after her son was born, then expanded once she took stock of how successful night market vendors were offering more complete meals.
For them and hundreds of other vendors, the iconic open-air market, started in 2015 in Flushing Meadow Corona Park — and its younger, more culturally specific counterpart, the Think!Chinatown series at the gateway of the Manhattan Bridge — has been that bridge between home and New York City. It’s been a way to share culture with other New Yorkers, connect with other entrepreneurs and launch or ramp up their small business during sluggish months. It has also been a home base and source of survival for many before and after the Covid-19 pandemic and amid rampant inflation.
“For a restaurant, you need a lot of capital and you need to invest a lot of money into, initially, even signing a lease with lawyer fees and landlord agreements and all these things — but with the Night Market, it wasn’t like that, it was very personal,” said Hana Saber Tehra, the founder of @PersianEatsNYC, whose family comes from a tradition of brick-and-mortar restaurants. The open-market scene provided an opportunity to bring “what you want to bring from your culture … [to] get your message across and shine brighter at the market.”
The impact of these night markets as incubators for food, culture and art businesses is the subject of a new report commissioned by Citizens Bank and designed and authored by Epicenter-NYC. In one of the most comprehensive attempts to quantify the impact of New York City night markets on prospective or current small business owners’ growth and consumer behavior, 363 people were surveyed from Aug. 5, 2023 to Sept. 20, 2023: 113 vendors and 250 attendees of the Queens Night Market and Chinatown Night Market. Among key findings:
- 77% of surveyed customers said they would shop with the night market vendors outside of the market setting
- 84% of customers said the night market was the first place they bought from specific vendors that drew them to the market
- Surveyed businesses most frequently used Facebook for marketing. But among surveyed customers, Instagram and Tiktok were cited much more frequently than Facebook as a way customers learned about the night market
This year, Citizens’ sponsorship helped the Queens Night Market reduce vendor fees, which in turns helped them keep prices for food at $5 or $6 per plate. This affordability is a key driver of attendance at the night market, which averages 20,000 people on spring and summer nights. It also allowed the businesses to weather rising costs and inflation, said John Wang, founder and operator of the Queens Night Market.
How small business growth sprouts from night shade
The analysis showed that 62% of newly launched businesses surveyed had plans to expand and 27% had already opened up their business at anotherlocation. Some set up their stands at a fixed location, like Burmese Bites did at the Queens Center Mall. Others moved to open brick-and-mortar businesses, like Nose Best Candles, which had started as a Tik Tok account.
In an increasingly digitally driven industry moving away from cash-based transactions, it’s key for small businesses to be flexible in accepting diverse forms of payment — from Apple Pay and credit cards to crypto, said Mike MacIntyre, head of business banking sales-expansion markets at Citizens Bank, at a Nov. 9 panel held with Epicenter at the Queens Museum.
But tech isn’t king when it comes to shopping, the survey shows. Buyers surveyed largely preferred a physical business rather than an online one, despite the majority of respondents’ preference to have the option.
The survey also showed a phenomenon reflected in larger studies on consumer behavior: particularly in a post-pandemic world with a fiercely competitive market, customers crave more diverse and personalized products and services. Experiencing culture and either the variety or uniqueness of vendors were among the top cited reasons customers attended night markets. From a one-on-one connection to a larger array of food or other items to choose from, the research suggests that vendors are most poised for success when they build personal relationships with customers IRL and offer novelty.
The report, as Epicenter notes, has a few limitations. Notably, only 22% of business owners surveyed self-identified as limited English proficient (LEP), whereas nearly twice that percentage of all self-employed business owners in Queens identifies as LEP. This gap suggests that business owners with LEP might be underrepresented. A similar comparison found that business owners with limited educational attainment might also be underrepresented in the study.
Regardless, the survey findings captured much of the optimism around recovery and growth that Wang and Think!Chinatown founder Amy Chin attributed to local small business owners. They also expressed hope that night markets could usher in greater civic engagement, from culturally appropriate marketing and education to healing from xenophobia.
“We’re always looking at how we can bring greater awareness to communities and also the needs,” said Chin, citing the gap in sanitation services and infrastructure disproportionately affecting immigrants. “How do you get the city to invest in the community?”