The Essex Street Market, once a bustling place where a food vendor could make a good living selling just tomatoes and lettuce, is experiencing a resurgence after years on the wane.
The famed West Villager diner Shopsin's General Store is the newest tenant to move into the Lower East Side market. "It's like a little neighborhood in here," one of the restaurant's owners, Melinda Shopsin, said, adding that Shopsin's uses fresh cilantro and plantains from neighboring stalls. "We have a new menu that highlights certain ingredients from the market."
The move was the latest in a series of openings of higher-end stalls at Essex Street.
Paradou Brasserie opened a small sandwich and pasta outpost, Paradou Marché, on the front side of the market in April. Two specialty cheese stores, Saxelby Cheesemongers and Formaggio Essex, also opened over the last year, and a gourmet chocolate shop, Roni-Sue's Chocolates, will open the fall.
Ms. Shopsin, 28, said her restaurant's move was part of its evolution from a grocery story in 1971 to a diner in 1982 to a small, corner shop-style restaurant in 2007. Seventy percent of the clientele at Shopsin's new spot are regulars from the old location, at 77 Greenwich Ave., she said.
In 1940, Mayor La Guardia opened the Essex Street Market, in an effort to reduce the number of pushcart vendors on the streets. But after a successful first few decades, the Essex Street Market fell on hard times in the 1960s and '70s, as consumers began shopping at grocery stores for their produce. Occupancy dwindled and sanitary conditions deteriorated.
Now the market's fortunes have shifted again, with the redevelopment of the Lower East Side well under way and investment by the city's Economic Development Corporation, which has owned the market since 1995.
The corporation took in $788,000 in rent for fiscal year 2007 and spent $595,000 on upkeep and enhanced marketing, according to preliminary budget numbers. The market also had healthy revenues in fiscal year 2006 and 2007, a vice president of the EDC, Lee Benedict, said. By contrast, the market brought in $200,000 to $300,000 in revenue and lost money in 1995, he said.
The EDC soon will put out a request for proposals to develop two of the market's four buildings, known as buildings B and D, a vice president of the corporation, Jose Figuereo, said. The current market is in Building C, and Building A is a community health center. Building D will likely be food-related and could be a straightforward extension of the current food market in Building C, he said.
The market's new stores now jostle beside stalls from its earlier eras, including Jeffrey's Meats, which was established before the market was built, its owner, Jeffrey Ruhalter, said.
Mr. Ruhalter said his family's store has been able to stay in business because of its willingness to change with the tastes of the neighborhood. In the 1920s, fat was valued, he said. Then, in the 1940s and 1950s, kidney, spleen, neck bone, pig feet, heart, and lung were among the most frequently requested products, he said.
"I remember chopping lungs as a kid," Mr. Ruhalter said. "It was difficult because it was very spongy." With the increasing wealth of the Lower East Side, he has changed the store's selections yet again. Now he sells venison, ostrich, wild boar, filet mignon, and Australian lamb. "I'm a piece of antiquity kept alive," he said. "There aren't any old-fashioned butchers anymore."
Mr. Ruhalter's father, Alan Ruhalter, 75, said that before the city took over the market, conditions were "horrible," and many tenants could not afford refrigeration. The state Department of Agriculture was seeking to shut the market down, Mr. Benedict said.
The EDC has invested some of the new profits into repainting the building and creating a unified look to the market's signs. And there is $1 million in the corporation's capital budget this year to make improvements to Building C, which needs a better water supply, among other upgrades.
Besides developing the remaining buildings, the EDC is looking into ways to convince non-foodrelated stalls, such as Santa Lucia Religious, which sells a variety of knickknacks and religious objects, and Aminova's Barbershop, which has one barber chair and a barber from Uzbekistan, to leave the market.
"During hard times, a lot of these other stalls moved in," Mr. Figuereo said. "Some of them might not get to stay."
The owner of the soon to open Roni-Sue's Chocolates, Rhonda Kave, said she is quitting her job as program coordinator at the Nassau Center of Domestic Violence to pursue a lifelong dream of becoming a chocolatier.
"The market is at a turning point," she said. "There is a really diverse clientele."