Since moving into the redeveloped Lexington Market building nearly a year ago, vendor Arra Cho said she’s begun to see new faces among customers. The old market put off some visitors with its failing facilities — the air conditioning system dated back to the 1950s and was known to break down in the middle of the summer — and the presence of drug trafficking.
In contrast, Cho said the neighboring structure is “fresh, it’s clean, it’s new.” Professionals who work at the University of Maryland’s campuses nearby are no longer afraid to enter the market, a $45 million, two-story building, which features large murals celebrating Baltimore’s culinary history.
Yet despite an overall increase in revenue, Cho, who co-owns Krause’s Lite Fare and Cho’s Sea Garden, said the two concepts are struggling to keep up with heightened costs of food and materials as well as the steeper rent of the new space, which is owned by the city and managed by a nonprofit. In fact, she hasn’t paid rent in months.
As the new Lexington Market celebrates its first year in operation, The Baltimore Banner asked vendors to reflect on how things are going. They offered mixed reviews: While they generally agreed that the building has created better working conditions and helped expand customer bases, some business owners said they are having trouble paying their bills. And while one new vendor has already shut down, another iconic tenant still has yet to move in.
Baltimore Public Markets CEO Paul Ruppert said his organization is working with vendors on a case-by-case basis on rent accommodations to help them stay in business. “We don’t want to see people fail,” he said. He declined to go into the details of those agreements or say how many vendors were behind on payments, but noted “almost everyone is paying their rent.”
Still, financial concerns are front of mind for Sabrina Chen, who owns Blue Island Malaysian Cuisine. Like Cho, she’s seen her clientele expand with customers from the many University of Maryland branches that surround the area since moving to her updated stall in January. At the same time, staff salaries and food costs have skyrocketed, and “the rent is a lot more. The utility bill is a lot more.” Chen is sensitive to the fact that “customers have a hard time, too,” and said she tries to keep the prices low at her stand. To keep things afloat, she works long hours, sending employees home early when she can to save on overhead. “I hope in the future it’s worth it,” she said.
Working extra is the approach of Minas Mastrominas, who, with his parents, runs the lower level Market Bakery, famous for its Berger cookies and three-layer Berger cakes. To save money on labor, he puts in long hours himself, arriving at 6 a.m. and staying until the evening hours. Still, he’s pleased to see how the revamped market has brought in patrons from as far away as Pennsylvania. “Every week is busier and busier,” he said, adding that “revenue is better here” than at the former market.
He also appreciates the updated facilities and said that staff are quick to respond when equipment breaks down. “Management is doing an excellent job,” he said.
Mastrominas said a key factor in the market’s success has been the presence of increased security personnel, who monitor the building during its operating hours, which makes customers “feel more safe.” Ruppert said the market has eight security guards on the premises at any given time, and social workers try to connect drug users in the area with support services.
But problems remain in the surrounding neighborhood, as they do in most large downtown districts. Many local office workers have still not returned, Ruppert said. Vendors and market representatives expressed frustration that any violence that happens within a few blocks gets associated with them.
Though Lexington Market is considered one of the oldest public markets in the nation, Cherrie Woods, director of marketing for Baltimore Public Markets, emphasized that the modern incarnation is still getting into the swing of things. “We’ve been open one year,” she said. “There’s that whole adjustment period.” She tries to remind new business owners that it can take a few years to build up their followings. “Overall, we’re on a good trajectory,” she said.
Ruppert said some newer vendors have had greater challenges attracting customers. One example is JBee’s Jamaican Me Crazy, which shut down its market stall after less than a year in business. Owner Jeff Brown could not immediately be reached for comment, but Ruppert said the “concept didn’t have enough customers to support their business.”
Ruppert is confident the market will continue to grow its customer base, though, attracting new diners to stalls such as Just Elbows, which sells various types of macaroni and cheese.
“Initially, it was very slow,” said Just Elbows’ owner Sharlot Owens, who opened in April. But business has grown since then. “I think people had to find out that we were here.” The retired government worker is a fan of the space overall. “I personally like the new market. This is like a huge food court.”
Cho doesn’t see that comparison as a compliment, however. “It’s not Lexington Market anymore. … It became a food court,” she said. “Even in the old market, as shabby as it was, you could walk in there … and do your grocery shopping. You can’t do that in this market.”
One year in, market fans are waiting with bated breath for the arrival of anchor tenant Faidley’s Seafood, whose second floor stall is still being built after lengthy lease negotiations. Owner Damye Hahn has said she expects to open in January; the business continues to operate out of the old market building, where it is the only remaining vendor, until then.
“Faidley’s moving in will be a huge factor,” said Woods, noting that a few additional vendors have yet to arrive.
The delay has frustrated Trinacria owner Vince Fava, who said that some customers don’t realize that his longtime Italian deli even has a space inside the revamped market. It’s tucked off in the corner by the Paca Street entrance, just across from the future home of Faidley’s. The other businesses surrounding Trinacria, including Ovenbird Bakery and Black Acres Roastery, operate at more limited hours than Fava’s Italian eatery, which he said has led to a reduction in foot traffic there. “I’m up in the corner where nobody sees me. If you blink, you miss us,” he said. “We have this great food. I think we’re just in the wrong spot.”
Fava said he is still taking a “wait-and-see” approach to his stall, a sister stand to his family’s decades-old business up the street. “For me personally, we’re doing okay,” he said. “I’m not getting rich off it.”