This Restaurateur Went to Market

New York City’s Gotham West Market features nine artisan food stalls.
New York City’s Gotham West Market features nine artisan food stalls.
Daniel Krieger

A world traveler, Mary Nguyen Aregoni marveled at the markets peppering international destinations she visited around the globe—the flurried action that attacked the senses, the swirling energy that inspired wonder. So captivating were those visits that when Aregoni finally settled in Chicago and decided to start her own restaurant, one location stood out for her startup eatery, Saigon Sisters: the Chicago French Market.

“There was no place else I wanted to start this concept,” Aregoni says.

One of the Chicago French Market’s original tenants upon its 2009 opening, Saigon Sisters is now one of the market’s celebrated stars. From her 250-square-foot market kiosk, Aregoni has built a loyal following, stimulated brand awareness, and kickstarted development for Saigon Sisters. Now operating a traditional brick-and-mortar storefront in Chicago’s downtown—a shop that functions as the market location’s commissary and was launched inside a former Quiznos—as well as a third unit inside Chicago’s Northwestern Memorial Hospital, Aregoni has established Saigon Sisters and its modern Vietnamese fare as a budding player in Chicago’s dynamic culinary scene.

“And it all began at the Chicago French Market,” Aregoni says. “We’re not where we are today without landing that fortunate spot right out of the gate.”

About 350 miles away from Chicago, in Columbus, Ohio, Brittany Baum shares a similar tale. For two years, Baum ventured to local farmers’ markets in Ohio, peddling her hand-rolled Bavarian-style pretzels under the Brezel moniker. Though thoughts of opening a traditional storefront lingered, Baum rejected those plans and chased a spot in Columbus’s historic North Market, believing the history of the market, its foot traffic, and adventurous customer base would embrace her artisan product.

“I knew we could thrive at North Market, and a spot there was my ultimate goal,” Baum says.

In 2011, Baum succeeded in gaining entry into North Market, a 138-year-old landmark that covers 33,000 square feet with 35 merchants hawking everything from cookware and flowers to pierogies and bean sprout salad. Baum’s North Market spot elevated Brezel, delivering an enthusiastic following and propelling Baum to open a second store in Cincinnati, with plans for a third.

“Being at North Market has been everything I thought it could be and more,” Baum says.

The market defined

For more than a century in the U.S., markets have attempted to mimic the boisterous format found in distant international locales, placing ambitious prepared-foods vendors alongside fresh purveyors peddling dairy, ethnic delicacies, pastries, produce, and more.

Responding to consumers’ increasing appetite for novel culinary creations and higher-quality fare, specifically dishes with a local and artisan angle, markets have enjoyed a 21st-century surge in the U.S. Resourceful entrepreneurs like Aregoni and Baum are accelerating the momentum.

Once-downtrodden markets have been reinvigorated, oftentimes fueled by urban renewal and downtown rebirths, while old stalwarts like Faneuil Hall in Boston and Pike Place in Seattle have held their ground through generations and shifting urban dynamics.

“These are places where people can shop for produce and groceries, but also have lunch or grab a meal for dinner at home,” says Chicago French Market owner and manager Sebastien Bensidoun, a Frenchman whose fourth-generation family business runs dozens of markets around the world. “It’s about convenience and community.”

The market landscape, however, continues to evolve as consumers push for fresh culinary experiences, particularly as the food-truck scene slows from its recession-era highs.

In addition to legacy markets like Pike Place, Faneuil Hall, and Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market, a new wave of markets—many embracing the “food hall” label—have emerged in major metros across the country. A slimmed-down version of their forefathers, food halls typically favor a smattering of quick-service vendors over the more traditional mix of prepared-foods stalls and fresh goods.

Take Los Angeles’s recently debuted Stir Market, which bills itself as “a modern California take on the classic European food hall experience,” or Gotham West Market, a polished, 15,000-square-foot food hall that opened in November 2013 below a 1,250-unit luxury apartment tower in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. Gotham West features nine artisan food purveyors ranging from tacos and sandwiches to barbecue and ice cream. It’s a strategically curated blend of proven New York City successes and segment leaders, says Gotham West Market president Chris Jaskiewicz.

For much of 2014, meanwhile, culinary insiders tracked the movement of famed chef Anthony Bourdain for details about his prospective global food hall planned for New York City. In January, the Wall Street Journal reported that Bourdain Market would open this year, a move that comes on the heels of the Mario Batali–backed Eataly food emporiums in New York City and Chicago, of which a Forbes headline in December 2013 asked: “Is this the future of food retailing?”

Intriguing advantages

Many markets, particularly those located in high-density urban areas surrounded by residential towers and offices, can deliver consistent and predictable foot traffic from locals as well as tourists. An estimated 6 million people visit Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market each year, while North Market in Columbus, which sits across the street from the city’s convention center, captures about 1.5 million visitors annually. In 2014, total merchant revenue at North Market topped $12.2 million, a tally that continues to rise year after year, says North Market executive director Rick Harrison Wolfe.

Traffic counts typically jump during special events and promotional activities that market management creates to spur visits and boost vendor sales. About 6,000 guests attended last September’s Ohio Craft Brew Festival at North Market, a three-day event that brought Brezel its largest weekend of the year.

“Our sales were about four times what they are on the typical fall or summer weekend—and we didn’t pay a single marketing dollar for that,” Baum says.

When the Chicago French Market opened on December 3, 2009, an estimated 50,000 people came through the doors. That energy provided Saigon Sisters and its market brethren—all of whom had bet on the Chicago market’s potential site unseen—unparalleled opening-day access to eager diners.

“That’s never something I could have accomplished myself,” Aregoni says.

And though the market stalls are typically small—just a couple hundred square feet at most destinations—Aregoni unabashedly promotes their potential. “Don’t let the size fool you,” she says. “Revenue per square foot can be amazing.”

For a market’s successful vendors, the sales and exposure can fuel remarkable growth. Over the last 13 years, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams has parlayed its original location inside North Market into a maturing brand with 19 units in six states and a mushrooming national wholesale business.

“For nearly all of the vendors here, this is their first location, and we’re hopeful that we’re that springboard for them to reach new heights,” Wolfe says. He adds that one of North Market’s explicit missions, as it is at a number of other markets across the U.S., is to incubate new businesses led by owner-operator types.

For quick-service vendors looking to test their concept, a market’s lower entry and operational costs certainly help buoy profitability and, ultimately, growth. In the market, quick-service leaders need not worry about expensive buildouts, taxes, waste management, security systems, bathroom cleaning, sidewalk shoveling, or even equipment repair. Rents, meanwhile, can be quite favorable. At North Market, where the average stall size is 450 square feet, rents hover near $37 per square foot, easily half of what operators would encounter on the street, Wolfe says.

Aregoni saw this firsthand when she recently opened a nontraditional Saigon Sisters unit inside Chicago’s Northwestern Memorial Hospital. She signed a 10-year lease and financed her own buildout of the 1,000-square-foot space, a significant upfront expense, and reports that her ongoing costs at the hospital location are triple that of her Chicago French Market space.

“When you move into non-market locations, you learn quickly just how financially advantageous the market is,” Aregoni says.

Competition, complexities, and quirks

The market environment, however, is surely not without its challenges.

First, quick-service concepts face hefty competition for space in many markets, as market management often seeks a mix of fresh purveyors and diverse prepared meals. The limited number of hoods in many markets further intensifies competition for those select spaces, which generally carry the highest—though still relatively affordable—rents because of the high demand and limited supply.

And landing a market spot is far from easy. At Gotham West, Jaskiewicz and his team met with 50 prospective tenants for nine spots, meaning more than three dozen viable and credible tenants were denied a spot in the chic new space.

At many markets, prospective operators must submit an application and full business plan, and serve a tasting menu to market leadership. That process alone excludes many would-be tenants, while the consistent pursuit of a diverse mix of quick-service vendors also eliminates qualified shops that might duplicate an existing tenant’s work.

“Ultimately, I think all markets want strong synergies, and having the right mix of vendors is critical,” French Market’s Bensidoun says.

Once in the market, operators must learn to work in small spaces and employ creative problem solving on a daily, if not hourly, basis. With limited storage, refrigeration, and prep space, Matt Janke, who operated Matt’s in the Market at Seattle’s Pike Place from 1996 to 2008, could only get small batches of meat and seafood, thereby squelching his buying power. Frequently, he’d take cash out of the till to hustle to another market vendor to restock product.

“I’ve run with tuna in my hands more times than I can count, but that’s just life at the market,” says Janke, whose team relied on two butane burners, a convection oven, and a three-door, undercounter cooler in a 475-square-foot space.

As if those hurdles aren’t enough, most markets are sink-or-swim environments. Quick-service vendors often face heavy lunch crowds and passionate demand for quick, high-quality meals. If a vendor can’t deliver, a customer can simply turn, walk a few steps, and place an order elsewhere.

“The competition is right on top of you, so you have to be on top of your game every day,” North Market’s Wolfe says.

Vendors must also work in a collaborative environment, keeping the peace with fellow vendors and living by the market’s rules, which frequently include guidelines around receiving, vacation days, signage, music, and daily operating hours. While the coffee shop might wish to close by 5 p.m. and the ice cream peddler might not want to open until noon, it’s rarely, if ever, the market operator’s choice.

“It just doesn’t work if you walk into the market and only half the spots are open,” Jaskiewicz says. “On one hand, we want everyone to be unique, but everybody also has to work together and it has to be a cohesive market.”

Even menu changes are subject to scrutiny. Vendors at the Chicago French Market, for example, cannot significantly change their menu without the approval of Bensidoun’s team.

“People need to stick in their specialty lane because we want to minimize crossover and keep everyone happy,” Bensidoun says.

If a vendor routinely skirts the rules, management holds a strong trump card: the ability to deny an operator’s lease renewal.

“When you own your own space, you don’t necessarily have to play nicely with others, but that’s not true at the market,” Wolfe says. “Collaboration is required.”

For many market vendors, however, the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks. With a carefully curated collection of fresh vendors, forward-thinking startups, and local enterprises, the market environment brings immediate access to goods, particularly fresh, seasonal products; an inspiring neighborhood feel; and the potential for powerful results.

Though Janke left Pike Place in 2008 and now runs Lecosho, a full-service restaurant located two blocks from his former market home, he finds himself returning to the Seattle landmark often for fresh products or a quick meal.

“There’s an energy to the market you just won’t find anywhere else, and it has a way of pulling you in,” he says.