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Hold a business meeting. Eat soul food. Grab some groceries. Eat Thai food. Drink a smoothie. Have a cocktail. Get together with friends. Eat Jamaican food.
One year ago this week, a big new project called the Salt City Market landed in downtown Syracuse.
It combines a food hall featuring vendors from Baghdad to Burma and Vietnam to the American South, plus a bar and café, and a full-service grocery store.
“Whatever it is you’re looking for, whatever mood you’re in, you can probably find it here,” said Sara Tong-Ngork, who runs the Firecracker Thai Kitchen stall in the market. “And what’s great is if you don’t like one thing, or aren’t in the mood for something, there’s something different just around the corner.”
In its first year, the Salt City Market, at 484 S. Salina St., has established itself as a destination. It’s certainly become downtown’s go-to spot for business or social meet-ups.
On any given day, you’ll find meetings taking place in the seating areas and tables set up amid the vendor’s stalls and in the Salt City Bar, which anchors one end of the market level.
The bar (which is also a café) is where Brian Fay, executive director of the Syracuse Northeast Community Center, holds meetings as often as once a month.
“When we’re looking for a place to meet and strategize, this is where we come,” Fay said during a recent weekday meeting with his deputy, Patty Sullivan. “It’s a great space, it’s comfortable, and it has great food and the best coffee in town.”
The market occupies the ground floor of the $22 million, four-story building developed and operated by the nonprofit Allyn Family Foundation. It’s across from the Marriott Syracuse Downtown (Hotel Syracuse), in a former vacant lot once known as a spot for drug dealing and other problems.
The space also boasts a community center that hosts everything from cooking classes to club meetings with a special invitation for nonprofit groups to make use of it. (It does not host private events).
But it’s probably best known for its collection of food vendors, representing cuisines from around the world.
Celebrating the city’s cultural diversity is a major part of the mission, said Adam Sudmann, who manages the market for the Allyn Foundation.
Visitors often tell the vendors how much they appreciate the range of food and the ability to try new things, said Sudmann, whose experience with Syracuse’s diverse foody scene includes the My Lucky Tummy events and the With Love teaching restaurant.
The market, he said, demonstrates that there is true cultural and culinary diversity in town.
“That’s the win,” he said. “We’re here to show Syracuse to Syracuse.”
And it keeps the vendors constantly adding to or changing their menus.
“We have tons of loyal (customers),” said Abigail Henson, who runs the Farm Girl Juicery (Juice & Flowers), which specializes in smoothies and juices and will be introducing new smoothie bowls soon. “Then everyday we’re meeting new people. It’s impossible not to evolve.”
At the Baghdad Restaurant stall, owner Firas Hashem said he may at some point add up to 20 new items to his offerings of Middle Eastern foods.
“The customer can’t eat the same thing every day, every month,” he said.
The vendors, most of whom have never run their own businesses before, own their stalls, and are working on three-year contracts with the market. No major changes are expected soon, Sudmann said. There may be a few that move on at the end of their contracts, perhaps to open their own places.
“This is meant to be a launching pad,” said Sudmann, also noting that the first-time vendors competed for their spots in the market.
The market is grooming potential new vendors, through Salt City Test Kitchen at the former With Love restaurant space at 435 N. Salina St. The Allyn Foundation also runs that space.
Sudmann notes that the vendors work long hours, and due to the layout of of the stalls, “they are always on display. They have nowhere to hide.”
“The work they do is impressive,” Sudmann said.
He is happy that so many people have come to the market, for the food or the meetings or both.
He cited what he called “café culture” is other cities, noting that Syracuse may be different from places like Seattle or Portland but can find some common ground with places like that.
“We like that this is a place where people can come together and just feel like its a space that belongs to them.” he said.
The Salt City Market is hosting a series of special events and promotions this week, leading up to its first anniversary on Jan. 29. That includes giveaways (T-shirts, YETI mugs and “market money” throughout the food hall), and special deals from the individual vendors.
On Saturday, it hosts the “World’s Worst Buffet,” which includes sample of “Miracle Berries” from West Africa, which Sudmann says “change the biology of your mouth,” making bitter or tart foods taste sweet. So the buffet includes raw lemons, pickles and other items that will taste different after the berries.
Throughout February, the market is ramping up its community events, which feature cooking classes, movie nights, theater workshops and more. See events schedule.