We needed a van. So, we rented one from the only place in Syracuse with 15 passenger vans, which weirdly also sells a lot of tanning supplies.
I walked in and saw this man who was super tan in a full sweatsuit. He might have been in his 50s or his 70s, but it’s hard to tell when you’re that tan. There was a poster of Mike “The Situation” from Jersey Shore behind him and a framed $100 bill with Donald Trump on it. I knew from there that explaining why I was renting this van was going to be interesting.
I explained the concept of the market to him, talking about how we were looking at foods around the world to help create a place of diversity and welcoming in Syracuse.
He looked at me like, “What the f— are you talking about?”
But I got in the van I rented from him anyway and drove our vendors and partners down to New York City. The first place we went was a food hall. We threw the vendors into it all, pairing them up to bounce ideas off each other. The trip was about exploring restaurants for menu and design ideas, so we restaurant-hopped all weekend long. I made a rule that no one could go to less than six restaurants over the course of the trip, and we would pay for everything. Some people ended up going to 14 restaurants in two days.
To me, that is what the trip was all about. It was a celebration for us. We had all worked so hard, and the vendors had finally made it into the market.
Then, two weeks later, COVID-19 hit.
I had been working on recruiting and training people for so long, and we had finally gotten to the point where I could help our vendors refine things. I wanted them to get lots of practice, because soon we were going to open in a beautiful $25 million building with tons of customers. I wanted to get working on pop-ups and all sorts of events so that they were all really polished for the eventual crowds. We even signed a lease on a restaurant up the street to have menu testing nights. But then we were forced into lockdown.
We immediately started to face obstacles. The building was delayed because of supply chain problems from COVID-19. The siding was stuck in Spain, the switch gears for the electricity were stuck in Texas. Everything was halted. Even our electricians and plumbers started not being able to show up. Then, eventually, I got COVID. It wasn’t bad, but it was certainly a headache that I will never forget.
But in a way, I really consider us lucky.
We had a lot of trepidation about opening during a pandemic. Would people even show up? Would we open and have crickets? We thought everyone was so scared of the virus, but it turns out people weren’t as scared as we thought. The first night we opened in January we had one stall that ran out of food. I was lecturing them about ordering more, when suddenly another stall went down. And then another. We had so many people come that we’d sold out.
That night, I saw people show up here and realize how long it had been since they had seen other people. Everyone was realizing that we are social creatures. People were desperate for that aspect, and they were desperate for each other.
In the end, that’s what we are really trying to do here at the market, especially with the pandemic. People are getting fed through that experience of finally being around others. And it’s made me realize people’s sturdiness and inventiveness, even in the face of these unimaginable things.
This as-told-to interview is part of COVID in the Community, a series created by students in the Reporting classes at the Newhouse School in Spring 2021. COVID in the Community documents the experiences of Syracuse area residents living through this extraordinary time.