John's story is so much fun to read that we hate to delay your diving into it for even the time it takes to read this introduction. But his incredible hard work and willingness to take risks deserve a mention here, and we hope you'll find his experiences and advice as unforgettable as we do.
When did you know that you wanted to work in food?
The truth is, when I had the idea to start the Queens International Night Market three years ago, I didn't set out to create a food event. First and foremost, I wanted to create a beloved and welcoming cultural event - a community event that prioritized affordability and inclusivity. I wanted to really leverage and celebrate what I thought was one of Queens' and NYC's greatest assets: its unparalleled diversity. And it just turned out that our unique $5 price cap on food and the emphasis on trying to represent as many cultures and ethnicities as possible through our vendors are pretty great building blocks for a popular food event! I was a corporate M&A lawyer? what did I know about event planning or food festivals? It's funny to think that when I had this idea three years ago, I expected the art and merchandise to be a focal point of the Night Market. Boy, was I wrong. In just our first two seasons, we've featured over 130 food vendors representing over 60 countries; we attract more than 8,000 visitors each Saturday night; and other events have started to copy our price cap model.
How did you get your current good food job?
I basically dared myself to try it. In other words, it was a passion project that quickly became my every day work. I still remember the day I thought of creating New York City's first night market: I had quit my law firm, I had dabbled in a few projects that really went nowhere, and I was considering leaving NYC?probably for New Orleans. I told myself that if I was going to stick around NYC, I'd need to do something crazy, something ambitious, something that hadn't been done here before. And I'd be willing to dedicate one year to it, sink or swim. That was three years ago, and here we are, gearing up for another season.
How did your previous work or life experience prepare you for a good food job?
I guess the easy answer is that I review my own contracts now! I triple-majored in college, then went to law school and business school. I've been a waiter, a valet parker, an online poker player, a tutor, a door-to-door water salesman, a lawyer, etc. To be honest, I'm not sure any of my work or life experience set me up or prepared me to do what I do now. Ironically, I started the Queens Night Market because I wanted to do something that didn't require technical skills, connections, or a huge amount of capital. I wanted to try my hand at something that I could succeed at based on hard work, some common sense, and a little bit of luck.
What was the greatest obstacle you had to overcome in pursuing your Good Food Job dream?
I think about calling it quits almost every day, actually. I work longer and harder than I ever did as a corporate attorney in Manhattan. And I think there's this perception that the event is a cash cow because of how popular it's become. The truth is, the emphasis on affordability puts an incredible amount of pressure on our budget. Sure, I could lift the price caps on our food vendors, which then means I could charge an arm and a leg in vendor fees. But that would quickly change the amazing tapestry of visitors we get, and would undercut the reasons I started the Night Market in the first place. I wanted to create an event that was accessible and visited by everyone, regardless of demographic profile. And if you take a snapshot of our visitors right now, it's pretty incredible. It looks like a real cross-section of NYC and Queens.
The easy answer to our budgetary woes is and will always be corporate sponsors. I'm still working on that. One thing that most people don't know is that we operate almost exclusively on volunteer effort. I've had a core team of amazing volunteers who have dedicated 40+ Saturdays the last two years to the Night Market. I owe them more than I could ever express in words. I spend just about 24 hours on-site every Saturday, and there are volunteers with me for the majority of that time. Crazy, right?
We also had two Kickstarter campaigns, which were huge failures, but generated some critical media coverage. People always tell me failed crowdfunding campaigns aren't sexy, but they're there. They're public. They're part of the history of the Queens Night Market.
Name one positive thing that a former employer taught you that you continue to appreciate?
There's one significant financial investor in the Night Market other than myself. He was my boss when I summered at a hedge fund during law school and business school. Long before I ever had the idea of creating a night market in NYC, he asked me if I would consider running a marathon with him - I actually hate running. I'm the kind of guy that counts every step, and tries to distract himself in every way possible during a run. But I'm also the kind of guy who wants to try everything once, and fully commit. So I agreed to run the Paris marathon with him and started training three months before the race. I quit my law firm and ran 3:27 for my first (and probably last) marathon.
I still hate running, but I later learned that Greg uses the marathon as a kind of proxy for vetting personal investments. As an executive at a hedge fund, he has an interesting portfolio of personal investments. When our first Kickstarter campaign failed, I asked him whether he would invest in the Night Market to get it off the ground. Although I'm really, really paraphrasing his answer, it was something like, "You ran the marathon. You obviously have the self-discipline and the will to see something through once you've decided upon it - even when it's painful, inconvenient, or even something you hate. I'll invest." I will always remember that. Sure, marathons are often used as a metaphor, but here is this amazing and successful person who uses actual marathons as a ruler. That's super cool and insightful.
What can you identify as the greatest opportunities in food right now?
I live in New York City, where every opportunity seems like one opposing end of a spectrum: there's 'trendy' and there's 'hidden gems'; there's 'expensive' and there's 'hole-in-the-walls'. There's 'experimental' and there's unabashedly 'authentic'. We represent the latter in everything we do, and only time will tell if that's a good decision or not. I see restaurants and food projects open and close before I can even try them. Trying something that caters to "everyone", on every dimension possible, seems to work for us and theoretically it has the ability to survive economic waves. So my advice is to find something that epitomizes what everyone loves: affordability, a great story / a historical context, novelty (but only because you didn't know about it), and a personal connection.
If you could be compensated for your work with something other than money, what would it be?
Awesome question! When someone asked what my continuing motivation for the Night Market was, I said: on the good-weather nights when it looks like all of Queens and NYC is in attendance, with their parents, with their kids, having a great time?that's the motivation. If not for that, and the positive feedback we get from NYC, the Night Market wouldn't exist. And then add the unbelievable amount of time and effort the volunteers have poured into this thing. Compared to what I made as a corporate lawyer in Manhattan, I should have quit after the first year, but I think we're doing something good, with a ton of positive social impact. I guess in the absence of paying myself a salary, that's compensation enough for now!