The Bronx Night Market will look more like its old, pre-pandemic self when it opens for the 2021 season at Fordham Plaza on April 3 with the return of live music, family activities and slightly increased capacity restrictions.
It’s been a long journey back, according to co-founder Marco Shalma.
Keeping the market alive during 2020 required Shalma and his team to develop COVID-19 safety regulations and send them to the city Department of Transportation for approval. Shalma, tired of the Bronx being “the last for everything,” expedited that process because he was worried about how food vendors would fare without income from the market.
Shalma, 46, has worked around food and in restaurants since he was 13—from washing trays at Wendy’s to owning a small restaurant chain in Manhattan.
When Shalma ran those restaurants, he didn’t know the business next door. He moved to the Bronx in 2009, where life felt more in line with how it felt growing up Israel—a bit more open, a little friendlier. Here, he can go to his neighbor to get a cup of sugar or a couple of eggs and the guy at the bodega knows his name.
When he met Amanda Celestino, who was editor of the food magazine Edible Bronx, in the summer of 2016, he found a like-minded business partner, who shared his love for food and the borough.
Arrivals from around the globe
The pair launched the Bronx Night Market in 2018, aiming to celebrate the rich culture of a place where about a third of the residents are foreign-born, with a high concentration of immigrants from the Caribbean, the Middle East and Central and South America.
They also wanted to keep money in the borough. Celestino and Shalma wanted to offer Bronxites a nearby food market so they didn’t have to spend cash elsewhere.
“It’s a different kind of capitalism. It’s a capitalism that says that there’s more room at the table for more people,” says Shalma, who primarily works at his marketing company, Round Seven Media. “And if it’s not, you break the table, you build a bigger one, to allow more people. It’s a kind of capitalism that says ‘We can all make money together. I don’t need to make all the money. We can—we should—all make the money.”
Shalma runs the market—open every Saturday, April through November—as a side gig and says profit isn’t the goal. He sees it as a type of incubator—a way to give up-and-coming business-owners a chance he had to fight for.
Born in South Africa during apartheid, Shalma was listed as non-white on his government ID. From the age of 6 on, he primarily grew up in Israel, where he felt out of place again, as someone who is half Jewish. He’s felt like an outsider through much of his life.
“I grew up in the same kind of situation,” Shalma says of aspiring food purveyors who don’t have institutional support. “I identify with that [feeling] that people don’t pay attention to you, or they don’t think that you have what it takes, and you have to prove it all the time.”
A launching pad
This year, vendors can apply to become a Bronx Night Market partner. Shalma says the market received more than 150 submissions for about 20 available spaces to rent. He tries to ensure that vendors serving similar fare aren’t featured at the same time. There’s a rotating lineup of vendors, which switches out on a monthly basis, so that everyone has a chance to get in front of customers.
Shalma checks that vendors have the necessary insurance and licenses, some online presence and a true small business. He’s not looking for chains or big brands. If a vendor doesn’t make the cut, he sends a message explaining what they can do to be successful if they reapply.
Shalma hopes that the market can help vendors jump-start businesses. A few have even transitioned into running their own stores. He and his team will help vendors with their menus, pricing and branding—including website development and social-media guidance—for free.
“It allows young Bronxites to make money locally, you know, by exposing them to larger crowds,” he says. “Because when you vend at the Bronx Night Market, you’re gonna get a lot of people getting to know you.”
Randy Carpenter, who runs The Fried Kitchen with his son Christopher, has been part of the market since it opened. Their chicken-and-waffles business, like several at the market, is run out of Mott Haven in the South Bronx, where Carpenter lives.
“There’s people that certainly come out every week to see us,” Carpenter says. “Right now, there’s people saying, ‘Please come back to the Bronx. Just pop up over here.’”
He sees a camaraderie that he says is rare at other markets. Carpenter says vendors help each other out when they can. He’s borrowed propane tanks from other stands and received advice on affordable insurance. They look out for each other in the same way Shalma keeps watch.
“It’s been proven that [Marco] wants everyone to make money. He could be greedy and say, ‘Listen, I have an empty spot. I’m gonna rent it to someone else.” And he could bring another chicken-and-waffle guy in. But he would never do that.”