Vendors Want EDC to Relinquish Direct Management of Essex Street Market (Updated 2/25)

Essex Street Market.

Essex Street Market.

We have more today on the difficulties being experienced by merchants at the historic Essex Street Market. As previously reported, three vendors – Brooklyn Taco, Heritage Meat Market and Essex Flowers – have either closed or are on their way out due to declining business. Two other stalls have been vacant for several months. Now the vendor association has come to the conclusion that significant changes must be made in the management of the Essex Street Market if the remaining businesses are to survive.

Currently, the city-owned facility is managed by the Economic Development Corp. (EDC) Next month, the association will go to Community Board 3’s land use committee with a plea to switch to a new, more nimble non-profit organization better equipped to deal with the market’s unique operational and marketing challenges. While CB3 has no authority over the market, its support could help focus new attention on the plight of the small operators inside the 75-year-old building at the intersection of Essex and Delancey streets.

An expanded public market is being built as part of the Essex Crossing mixed-use development project. All of the current vendors have been invited to make the move to the new building when the time comes. In the past year or two, city officials have been weighing whether to hire an outside entity to run the new facility when it opens in 2018. But the vendors say they’re worried about hanging on until then and want immediate change.

Anne Saxelby.

Anne Saxelby.

“The market is going through a time of transition,” said Anne Saxelby of Saxelby Cheesemongers. In her role as head of the vendor association, she added, “It’s in a tenuous position. While the EDC played an important role in reviving the market (in the past decade), I think they are not the right entity to manage the market now. We need a new way to go forward, a new strategy.”

In recent interviews, the owners of the three businesses leaving the market, have expressed similar frustrations about the EDC’s management of the building. Little has been done, they argue, to combat a false perception that the old facility has already shut down. Jesse Kramer of Brooklyn Taco acknowledged that the reasons for shuttering his business were complicated (Kramer and his business partner did not see eye-to-eye). But he added that unresponsiveness from the EDC when it came to putting marketing plans in place, making the market a more comfortable place to dine and extending the facility’s hours doomed Brooklyn Taco. “It takes months to get anything done,” Kramer said, adding that there was an urgent need to “tell the world the market was still open for business.”

Heritage Meat Shop, Essex Street Market.

Heritage Meat Shop, Essex Street Market.

Patrick Martins, founder of the company that opened the Heritage Meat Shop in 2011, said, “The market is continually empty. There are very few customers.” Martins, owner of Heritage Foods USA, wrote a letter to local elected officials, explaining his reasons for closing. “In my years (running several successful businesses),” he said, “I have never worked with a group less responsive to adjusting to the requests of its constituents than the EDC.” Martins, who’s married to Saxelby, gave back some of the space he originally rented but was still paying $3500/month. The high rent, he said, was clearly out of step with the reality inside the market. “I would just ask that you spend a couple of weekdays at the market,” he encouraged the elected officials. “Hours will pass without a single customer walking down the aisles — consistently. That, in the end, is the biggest evidence of all that what the newer stalls signed onto was not what they got.”

Bill Frazer of Essex Flowers (a long-established LES business) opened a small shop in the market less than a year ago. He did not expect to make a lot of money — only to break even and to stick around long enough to transfer operations over to the new facility in three or four years. But Fraser said business was nearly non-existent. A very good day meant collecting $100. “It feels like a dying market,” he said. “My employees were bored to tears. I know the EDC has been trying harder but it’s a little too late.”

It should be noted that the vendors who most frequently complain about sagging sales are the newer operators, meaning businesses that opened post-2001. Also, stalls offering prepared foods seem to struggle more than grocers. As we reported last summer, merchants such as Luis Meat Market, Vida Fruit Market and New Star Fish Market have actually experienced an upswing in business and are more optimistic about their fortunes than they have been in quite a long time.

But it’s the delicate balance between new and old — a unique mixture of ethnic and artisanal offerings under one roof  –that makes the Essex Street Market a special place. When plans for the former Seward Park urban renewal site were being made several years ago, the community board pressed the city to protect all of the existing merchants. As a result, there was an agreement to keep their new rents “commensurate” with rates being paid in the existing building and to pay moving expenses. Those measures were meant to ensure that at least some of the flavor of the Essex Street Market is reflected in the gleaming new facility. This is why there’s concern now about the prospect of multiple empty stalls even before Essex Crossing breaks ground.

At the request of the merchants, an Essex Street Market “working group” began meeting in the past year to address pressing concerns. The vendors are represented, as well as staff from the EDC, representatives of local elected officials, members of Community Board 3 and staff from the LES Business Improvement District (BID).

essex street market 3

The working group and the EDC are receiving advice from Ted Spitzer of Market Ventures, a consulting firm that specializes in operating successful public markets nationwide. In a presentation, he outlined various management models for the new market. Rhonda Kave of Roni-Sue Chocolates was one of those present for the briefing. She told us,  “His suggestion was to follow the successful and proven public market structure where the EDC would assume the overarching role of ‘sponsoring agency’ but step back from day-to-day management operations in favor of a small not-for-profit agency that could be more nimble and responsive to the needs of vendors and the community.”

[PLEASE SEE CLARIFICATION AT THE BOTTOM OF THIS STORY IN REGARDS TO THE ABOVE QUOTE]

The vendor association’s proposal has not yet been made public, but it is expected to call for moving up the timetable — and shifting to a new management structure right away.

In recent months, the Lower East Side BID has taken an interest in the market, sponsoring evening tasting events with Time Out Magazine, installing new promotional signage on the outside of the building and partnering with the EDC for a marketing push around the upcoming 75th anniversary of the market. Asked about the market’s recent troubles, BID Executive Director Tim Laughlin said, “It is clear that we must find new and innovative ways to (bolster the market) so that a negative trend of vendor closures can be reversed.” He added, “A vibrant, thriving and active market is an important part of our local economy and we look forward to expanding our collective efforts to achieve this shared goal.”

Contacted by The Lo-Down, EDC officials said they could not comment on the vendor association’s bid for alternative management because they have not yet seen the proposal that will go before CB3. In a statement, spokesperson Christopher Carroll said:

It is our goal at Essex Street Market to cultivate a vibrant, inclusive and balanced market environment for every member of the market community. The Market has been a cornerstone of the Lower East Side for decades, and we look forward to continuing to work closely with the local community and all the vendors to help them grow and thrive.

In a separate background briefing, an EDC official defended the agency’s management of the market. Intensive efforts have been made, we were told, to work directly with each vendor to address his/her unique needs. The market, the official said, is “mission driven,” meaning that the goal is to offer low-cost retail spaces to a diverse group of small businesses. While some vendors have requested evening hours (the market closes at 7 p.m.), the majority want the hours to stay as they are, he said, and it’s not possible to keep portions of the market open due to security concerns. All merchants are advised of the market’s hours and other operating guidelines before they sign permits, we were told.

While there is no direct evidence to suggest business at the market has slumped, the official said, stepped up marketing efforts are underway. A new branding campaign and a new website are in the works. There’s also a plan to convert a stall on the northern end of the market to a visitor center, with market brochures and neighborhood information.

Local elected officials, including City Council member Margaret Chin and State Sen. Daniel Squadron, said they would wait to see how the community board responds before weighing in on the vendor association’s proposal. CB3 Chairperson Gigi Li also indicated that the full membership would need to weigh in, but she added, “The board is committed to helping the vendors in any way possible. A vibrant Essex Street Market is a huge part of retaining the Lower East Side’s distinctive character.”

UPDATE 2/25  Clarification today on a point made in this story by Rhonda Kave of Roni-Sue Chocolates. According to her, Market Ventures’ Ted Spitzer suggested handing over daily management of the market to a small not-for-profit organization. We were contacted by an EDC spokesperson, who noted that Spitzer has not yet made his recommendations for the management structure at the new Essex Market. While Kave acknowledges this point, she told us today that he did extoll the virtues of the non-profit model during a question and answer period following the presentation. Spitzer, Kave said, pointed out that non-profit groups have taken charge of a number of markets around the country and have demonstrated an ability to cut through red tape and achieve results. The EDC spokesperson said Spitzer had actually discussed the advantages and disadvantages of several management scenarios and did not speak in favor of any single approach.

 

9 comments to Vendors Want EDC to Relinquish Direct Management of Essex Street Market (Updated 2/25)

  • Ludlower

    It needs later hours.

    Another idea is to have it serve as a night market on weekends with at least one on-premise beer/wine vendor which would increase volume of customers and give these businesses a fighting chance to stay.

  • david

    Great article. Clearly the new market will need new hours. Let’s hope the EDC gives up it’s control.

  • local

    Maybe the neighborhood shoppers are not in the market for artisanal goods?

    Seems
    so based on this data. From someone who has been shopping there since
    the mid ’90s, the market seems booming! The newer stalls have products
    that are much higher priced, and represent a completely different market
    segment. Their products are niche. Their target customers are not the
    long time customer who
    is concerned with prices and interested in basic groceries.

    Who
    do the newer struggling stalls consider their target customers? Where
    are these people? Maybe they live in a different neighborhood.

    Who
    is it that thinks the market has closed? Certainly not people who live
    locally, and people outside the area surely haven’t even heard that it
    will be moving.

    How would new management change this? I would worry that it would create yet another market that I can no longer afford…

  • local

    Maybe the neighborhood shoppers are not in the market for artisanal goods?

    Seems so based on this data. From someone who has been shopping there since the mid ’90s, the market seems booming! The newer stalls have products that are much higher priced (wasn’t this established as a subsidized market to ensure lower prices), and represent a completely different market segment. Their products are niche. Their target customers are not the long time customer who is concerned with prices and interested in basic groceries.

    Who do the newer struggling stalls consider their target customers? Where are these people? Maybe they live in a different neighborhood.

    Who is it that thinks the market has closed? Certainly not people who live locally, and people outside the area surely haven’t even heard that it will be moving.

    How would new management change this? I would worry that it would create yet another market that I can no longer afford…

  • Anon resident

    The issue is that NYCEDC should not be in the market businesses. The other issues between SBS and NYCEDC the staff who are assign to help promote the market have never run their own lemonaid stand before. They want the vendors out so Ron Moelis and L&M Development can do what ever he wants with his retail space. If you look at L&M Developments other holdings of storefronts it’s all chain stores.

  • Josh Greenspan

    Hi Local,

    I opened an artisanal food business in the essex market in the fall of 2012. Lured by the prospect of $300 a month rent (steal right?), a family connection to the market that went back to when it was established to get the pushcarts of the streets and a desire to be part of what looked like a growing and changing food community in the market, we lasted 1 year.

    I won’t pretend that there weren’t other reasons for us closing, but our involvement in the markets, both Essex Street and La Marqueta in Harlem, crippled our business. The EDC is a nightmare of inefficiency and totally clueless about how to deal with a group of small businesses with immediate and different needs.

    To answer your fair and valid points let me say this, the neighborhood shoppers are into artisanal goods, they just can’t get to the market during it’s operating hours. The newer stalls, mine included are targeting the younger, newer (post 2005) LES resident. The one with a higher median income, who’s paying $2500+ for their apartment and eats out 3 nights a week. I would close my business at 7pm, when the market closes, and sit outside and watch an endless stream of my target customers get off the train and walk blindly past the shuttered market (which looks like a bus depot or warehouse, without signs or lights) on their way home.

    You’re right, these aren’t the long time market customers who are shopping for groceries, or the customers who flood the market on the 1st and 15th to use their SNAP cards to stock up, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t locals or part of the neighborhood. The first week I opened, a woman came in and told me she had lived in the neighborhood for 5 (!!!) years and didn’t even know the market existed. I wish that was the first and last time I heard that. It isn’t so much that people think the market has already closed, it’s that people do not even know it exists in the first place.

    The market is very well served with several grocery stores, a butcher and 2 fishmongers. Those business are (relatively) stable and secure. Unfortunately, no new businesses will come to the market aiming to target the older local customer, mainly because their basic needs are being met by the vendors mentioned above. But that doesn’t make a market. Part of what made Essex appealing to me was the diversity, the idea that there would be a bunch of small businesses each selling different and interesting things in a place where you could also buy the staples.

    The answer isn’t to create a market you can’t afford, nor is it to turn away the people who have been using the market for the last 30 years, but it does have to acknowledge that the demographic of the neighborhood is changing and that there are other customers who have different needs and wants (shopping post 7pm after work is a big one).

    New management can change this by creating a space that is well marketed, not only locally, but throughout the city as a destination for affordable staples and interesting, artisanal business. A place with longer hours and broader appeal. They could clean up the market and make it more welcoming, both inside and out, offer basic amenities like WiFi and seating to encourage more people to come in, stay and spend more money.

    The sad thing is these aren’t earth shattering, never-before-thought-of proposals, they’re pretty basic, but the EDC is completely incapable of implementing any of them.

    Rather than being a robust, full market going into this exciting transition to what should be a great modern facility, I’m afraid there won’t be many vendors left to make the move…

  • Geatano Puglia

    100% The Market needs someone that has ran and has Experience With small businesses. Later hours, Signage outside, Better website and different platforms that will boost the customers experience and the Vendors earnings.

  • local

    Thank you JG for your comment and productive discussion.

    I just don’t think that there are as many customers that you describe who would shop at the market even with later hours, or better marketing. You have serious competition. Union market is no doubt a challenger. If you go to Whole Foods at 6pm, the place is packed, with just the same type of customer you describe. Not to mention all the delivery services…from take out to Fresh Direct. Heritage Meat seems to have decent marketing, but that didn’t seem to serve them… (who can pay so much for meat on a regular basis?)

    Ultimately, it would be great if those who are arguing against EDC had some solid data to support the arguments — calculate the need, assess the competition…and present real data.

  • Anon resident

    It’s sad that you had to close. The LES BID has been a failure for years when it came to properly promoting market. Your talking to deaf ears at NYCEDC, Seth Pinsky knew this was an issue and did nothing. Let’s not forget that there is no longer a Pathmark in the neighborhood, and NYCEDC is in the process of destroying the Seaport and has pushed out the New Amsterdam Market, which was another option for locals. Please remember not everyone likes to shop at Whole Foods.