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John Wang Pivots The Queens Night Market To Serve The Pandemic Front Line

John Wang launched the Queens Night Market in 2015. Its 2020 season behind the New York Hall of Science at Flushing Meadows Corona Park was to open in April, but it has been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Along with a market cookbook, Wang is involved in the “Fuel The Front Lines” initiative with the Queens Economic Development Corporation and Acting Queens Borough President Sharon Lee, which hires the market’s vendors to provide meals for healthcare workers at hospitals and EMS stations in Queens.

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The obvious effect of the pandemic is that I have no idea whether or not we will open this year. I think we postponed even before it was apparent to everyone that New York City had become an epicenter. One of the tipping points for me was when South by Southwest cancelled. If something that big, that drove Austin’s economy so heavily, was willing to cancel, it was definitely something we should start considering.

A lot of our vendors, especially those who have family and friends in China, were already emailing me back in January or February and asking me what was happening. I had no better news than anyone else at the time, so I just said, “Let’s proceed as if we are going to open, and then we’ll see what happens.’ I think a lot of them were nervous that even if New York City hadn’t become the epicenter, that news of the coronavirus would scare people and lead to lower attendance. I think vendors expected it. I don’t think it was a shock to anyone.

We work closely with the acting Queens borough president Sharon Lee and her office. She called me and said hey, I got this idea to start a program where we are feeding healthcare coworkers in Queens. Do you want to participate, or do you want to partner with us? I jumped at the opportunity, and we ping-ponged a bunch of ideas back and forth. It was pretty fast-moving.

We usually deliver increments of 125 meals to the hospitals, while EMS deliveries are usually in increments of 50 to 80 meals. We pay the vendors $8 per meal. It’s probably below market in terms of what a caterer or a food business would charge normally, but we ensure that vendors are making some money. And it goes to help keep their staff employed.

Vendors with brick-and-mortar kitchens are cooking out of their spaces. Vendors that don’t are using donated kitchen time at either the Entrepreneur Space or a commercial kitchen called the Kommissary. Both are in Long Island City.

Korilla BBQ has been making rice bowls with all sorts of toppings. We’ve had the Malaysian Project do curries and gluten-free curries. We’ve had a Jamaican vendor make jerk chicken with rice, and then salads for vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free options. We’ve had a Trinidadian vendor make two versions of pelau—one with chicken and the other with rice and beans. We’ve had quinoa dishes, bento boxes, more variations of curry, roasted chicken, fried chicken, fajitas, tacos, dumplings, and many other meal servings.

Deliveries are done by the vendor, if they have the capacity and the vehicle to deliver. Otherwise, the Port Authority has been making them when vendors can’t. We try to spread out hiring of vendors as much as possible so we can provide a small stream of revenue for as many businesses as we can.

For the most part, these are Queens-based businesses, or businesses with a presence in Queens. Some of our vendors may live in Brooklyn, but they may have a pop-up in Queens or have some other business there. Some vendors are caterers accustomed to creating buffet lines, and they’ve had to learn to adjust not only portioning but also packaging for 125 separate meals. Some are used to doing delivery service, so they are really good at doing this sort of packaging really fast. Others are maybe more boutique styles of cooking for smaller gatherings and upscale meals.

April 18 and 25 would have been the two sneak-preview nights where we have limited ticketed entry at the market. On those preview nights, we end up donating a portion of ticket sales to charities. Maybe we could do something like that for the aftermath of the coronavirus, which will obviously be pretty far-reaching. The free public opening would have been on May 2.

Two things have always been at the core of the Queens Night Market. The first is affordability. The second is diversity, both in our attendees and vendors. So far, we’ve represented over 90 countries through our vendors’ food. There’s probably a part of me that, out of habit, tries to diversify the offerings that we send to hospitals, but it’s also a natural cross section of the vendors we have in our network who responded to the call to action.

What I also think makes Queens Night Market unique is that a lot of our vendors are there because they want to share their food. Their main purpose is to share their culture, background, and stories, or they enjoy being under that tent and selling with their family. The market’s application criteria is “what do you want to sell, and how is this reflective of your cultural heritage or personal background.” For the most part, we only feature vendors that sell food that is important to them, that has a family or cultural tradition that they want to preserve.

The majority of our food vendors have careers in something completely different. They are insurance agents, bookkeepers, lawyers, and bankers, among other professions. The ones that still have jobs are working remotely. Those that have restaurants have shifted to the extent that they can with delivery and takeout. Some of them rely on that extra Queen Night Market income, and obviously they’ve lost that. Others do it because they love being at the market and spending time with their families there.

I don’t want to start planning for the market if I don’t think we will have a good reason for opening soon. But I do look forward to the day we start planning for it, because that means we’re close to the end of this crisis.