Night Market Cleveland brings the nighttime culture of Taiwan and China to Cleveland

Outdoor markets are springing up everywhere in Cleveland these days -- from the exploding number of farmers’ markets to the Cleveland Flea and the Hingetown Sunday Market.
But even if you’ve been to all the others, the monthly Night Market Cleveland offers something different.
It’s distinctively ethnic, based on traditional nighttime markets in Taiwan and other Asian countries. Many of the food vendors and entertainers are Asian or have an Asian influences. And the markets happen -- you guessed it -- at night, under strings of incandescent lights and with smoke from barbecue grills wafting in the air.
The Night Markets were conceived by two community development corporations, St. Clair Superior Development and Campus District, to help promote the city’s Asiatown district. The area is still unknown to many Northeast Ohioans because it sprawls across some 20 city blocks without a distinct center of gravity.
The last Night Market event of the inaugural year happens this Friday from 5p.m. to 11p.m. at Rockwell Avenue and E. 21st Street.
“Think farmer's market meets flea market meets food festival meets concert,” states Night Market’s website.
If that sounds like a lot to organize, it is. Fortunately, a small army of young artists, entrepreneurs and event planners -- both Asian and non-Asian -- work pretty much around the clock to make sure the markets are active, creative and memorable.
An Army of Entrepreneurs
On a recent Friday afternoon, for example, a communal kitchen at the Quay 55 luxury apartment building has turned into a test kitchen/photography studio.
In front of sweeping views of Lake Erie, two young Night Market team members prepare food kits for sale at the September market. The kits are just one of several Night Market-branded items that attendees can buy as practical souvenirs.
The kits, which retail for $20, contain recipes, step-by-step photographs and ingredients for making chicken-and-shrimp dumplings, based on a recipe from Li Wah Restaurant on East 30th Street.
“The idea is to make Asian food more accessible, so people don’t have to go out and find all these unfamiliar ingredients themselves,” says product designer Taylor Berry. She alternates between chopping green onions for the dumplings’ stuffing and designing the recipe card on her laptop.
One such ingredient in the dumplings is kosari, or dried fiddlehead ferns. They look like tiny brown twigs and are unknown to most Americans, though they’re readily available in Asiatown’s half-dozen food markets.
Berry, who studied industrial design at the Cleveland Institute of Art, is soon joined by photographer Breanna Kulkin, who aims her camera at Berry’s simmering dumplings, repositioning her friend’s hand when it gets in the way of the food.
Later, the team will shoot special Night Market-branded drinks, photos of which will be used to promote the event on social media. The drinks were developed by a local mixologist and will be served at the market in specially crafted glasses.
Others local entrepreneurs are finding their niches at Night Market, too. Five food-based businesses have gotten their start since the event began in June, including SnowBros Shavery, founded by a pair of Korean-American brothers who make Taiwanese shaved snow -- a cross between ice cream and shaved ice. SnowBros has since graduated to being a full-fledged food truck.
“It’s the most vibrant night event in the city,” says SnowBros co-founder John Suh. He says it’s been the “single most important” factor in allowing him and his brother to start a new business at minimal cost while reaching thousands of potential customers.
Overseeing all the ingenuity is Brendan Trewella, who co-created and organizes the market through his consulting business Small Organization Solutions (yes, the acronym is intentional).
At Quay 55, where Trewella also lives, he hovers around the kitchen, making sure Berry and Kulkin have everything they need. “Hey guys?” he calls out at one point. “Your broth looks like it’s about to boil over.” Berry rushes over to turn down the heat.
“I’m proud that the markets have become a launch pad for people achieving their purpose,” Trewella says. “It’s what they want to do for their career, but they’re also doing it because they want to be helpful to the community.”
Raising Awareness
Promoting Asiatown, home to some 3,000 residents of Asian descent, has long been a top priority of St. Clair Superior Development Corp. While public awareness of the neighborhood’s restaurants has grown over the past decade, many still view it as difficult to navigate -- or worse, unsafe.
“The crime rates here are low, but there’s a perception of crime because when you drive through, you rarely see people walking the streets,” says Michael Fleming, St. Clair Superior’s executive director. “We wanted to bring people out on the street, especially at night, to counter that.”
In 2013, St. Clair Superior and the Campus District banded together to raise $50,000 in pilot funding from the George Gund Foundation, the Cleveland Foundation and Eaton Corporation.
Part of the impetus was the growing popularity of the Cleveland Asian Festival, held in Asiatown every May and meant to promote the neighborhood and Asian culture. The 2015 edition drew nearly 50,000 people.
Asian Festival organizer, filmmaker and event planner Johnny Wu, conducted a survey of attendees and found that people wanted reasons to visit Asiatown beyond eating out at restaurants.
“They wanted to come back, but not when there’s nothing going on,” Wu says. “Night Market brings excitement to the neighborhood on a more regular basis.”
Trewella was officially hired to work on Night Market in April 2015, pulling crazy-long days to stage the first event just two months later with creative director Josh Maxwell and a team of other planners.
They had to hustle to learn about the intricacies of parking management, gaining permits to close the street and running power to 10 electric fryers simultaneously without blowing away Rockwell Avenue.
All In
At first, restaurants from the neighborhood were hesitant to commit to Night Market, Trewella says.
“A lot of the food vendors we were reaching out to were asking, ‘do I give up a profitable Friday night at my restaurant to come out to something I don’t know?’”
There were language and cultural barriers, too. But Trewella -- who isn’t Asian -- pulled together a committee of Asian businesspeople and residents to act as a liaison between the organizers and vendors.
Their pitch ended up being, “we can’t make any guarantees, but we’re in this together, let’s learn together,” Trewella says. That honesty, along with zero vendor fees for vendors from Asiatown or the Campus District, persuaded other restaurants to come on board -- everyone from Han Kabob to Siam Cafe to Koko Bakery.
Non-Asian food vendors and startups from outside the neighborhood could participate, too, but only if they made a genuine effort to give their offerings an Asian influence.
“It’s not enough just to throw some ginger on it and say it’s Asian,” Trewella says, “but if people are taking time to reach out and connect with the community, we’re happy to have them.”
There are artist vendors, too, reflecting the high concentration of artists who live and work in the area’s former warehouses and factories. They sell everything from fine art prints to jewelry to crafts made from upcycled materials.
At the Night Market in August, there were about 75 vendors and eight musical performers. The event attracted some 15,000 attendees, double the number who came to the first event in June.
Now, the challenge is to make the event self-sustaining. Each Night Market costs $10,000 to stage, just in electricity and security alone, and the event's pilot funding will be mostly used up this year. Trewella envisions future costs being covered by a combination of grants, sponsorship and sales of Night Market merchandise -- food kits, T-shirts and drinks -- but right now the future is uncertain.
He fields a call from a friend who’s found a sponsorship lead, asking if they can talk more next week, when he’s come up to breathe.
Then it’s back to the kitchen to check on those dumplings.
The last event of Night Market’s inaugural year happens this Friday, September 25 from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m., on Rockwell Avenue at East 21st Street. Admission is free. Secure on-site parking available for $5.