Unique Queens Market Fosters Entrepreneurship for Immigrants

The creator of the Queens Night Market, John Wang. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

Meet John Wang. He is of Taiwanese descent and, until a few years ago, was a corporate lawyer. The young man speaks in the majestic plural which, in reality, is a sign of humbleness because, when he says “we” he actually means himself: He alone has set the Queens Night Market in motion.

The space is meant to enjoy food, art and handcrafts at affordable prices on Saturday nights between April and October, but also to serve as a platform to assist the immigrant community, particularly those on a solid path to entrepreneurship.

Wang’s presence on these pages dedicated to Latino enterprises and entrepreneurs is unexpected. However, his market signifies a bridge to entrepreneurship for many members of this community who would not otherwise have thought about turning their handcrafts and cooking into a small business in a city that is always hungry and setting cultural trends.

“In the last few years, we have had nearly 200 vendors, and over 100 of them had never launched a business before. I think it’s very interesting,” explains Wang. “Not everyone who started here ended up as a business, but we have encouraged a hundred of them to incorporate. Less than 10 percent of the food vendors are established companies, and most of them debut as a business at the Queens Night Market.”

The names of the vendors and what they offer taste of many cultures. The Latino flavors of Chíflez (Peruvian corn and shish kebab), Completo NYC (Chilean street food), Arepalicious, and Shucos (Guatemalan tacos) mingle with Burmese Bites, Hapagkainan (Filipino barbecue, sisig and pancit), Sufra (Brazilian tapioca crepes and Afghani tea) and Joon (Persian/Middle Eastern stew).

“One of our priorities is to make room for immigrants. They are doing incredible things, and there is a market for it,” explains Wang. In fact, the market’s most popular feature is that it offers products made by someone coming from a different country with something that is authentic to their culture but that is not well-known in the city,” he says.

“Food with a personal connection,” the entrepreneur adds. “I always say that we try to collect stories and tell them first. In the vendor application, we ask how the product relates to the person’s culture.”

The market has set up shop at the New York Hall of Science in Queens’ Flushing Meadows Corona Park for the last three years. In its second year, it started offering entrepreneurial assistance to the merchants and to anyone who wishes to join through a series of seminars on how to plan a business, marketing, access to capital and regulations.

This year, the talks are being held in collaboration with the Office of the Mayor of New York City and the Department of Small Business Services. The seminars are free of charge. Prospective vendors may attend, as special guidance is available to them, but all are welcome. The sessions will be held at LaGuardia Community College (30-10 Thomson Ave., Long Island City), and the first one is scheduled for March 9 at 6:30 p.m.

One of the advantages of this market is that merchants can set up shop for any number of Saturdays by paying an affordable fee for a spot (Wang provides the tent but not the utensils). No season-long commitment is required if the vendor does not want it or does not make enough profit to sustain it.

This allows merchants to take calculated risks at a night market where Wang does not only want to attract middle- and high-end customers, as is the case in similar markets. “We have a price limit of $5 for food products,” he says. “The result is that our visitors reflect the diversity of the city: many Asians, many Latinos and then Caucasians.” The price limit is a way to make the market affordable to everyone.

Still, “the pressure is on me, as I must limit what I charge vendors for setting up at the market on Saturdays.”

John Wang, creator of the Queens Night Market, sampling sweets made by Iranian chef Zahra Lee. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

Wang says that he was not able to make much money last year. “It was because of the rain. I know it will rain on some Saturdays, maybe two or three times in the season, but last year it rained 11 times.”

He is now looking for permanent chefs and sponsors to increase the revenue of this market, an entrepreneurial adventure he embarked on three years ago counting on his business degree but having no idea of event planning, and with no acquaintances. It could have easily been a failure, but Wang took on the challenge with confidence after leaving behind his career as a lawyer (and paying up his student loans).

‘Tell your story’

Wang says that night markets are very common in Asia, some parts of Africa and the Middle East, and that, although not many exist in North America, the trend is beginning to grow. Upon his return from a sabbatical, during which he traveled for three years, he decided to start one of these markets in NYC.

He says that he wrote thousands and thousands of emails to politicians, entrepreneurs and managers, until he began to get some responses. Finally, three years ago he opened his project in Corona and, to his surprise, instead of the 2,000 he was expecting, 30,000 people turned up to shop from the mere 26 food vendors and 15 artisans selling at the market. After two days, he had hundreds of applications from people interested in participating as merchants.

Before the market opened its doors, he promoted it by starting two Kickstarter campaigns, which attracted some press coverage.

When Wang speaks at the entrepreneurship workshop, one of the things he points out is the fact that, in order to start a business, vendors must expose themselves and do away with shyness and fear, however hard that is in the beginning. “When I started writing emails to people I did not know, I sent thousands before I got an answer.”

What’s more, this is a personal story. “I have written press releases and, this I never thought I would do, but you have to tell your own story and do the exercise of translating who you are onto paper, even if you end up not sending the press release.” According to Wang, the idea is to tell the story of each person, because other people are interested and they will root for and be on the side of the protagonist.

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