Atlanta night market debuts in Gwinnett

Food from 50-plus countries will be featured

While Atlanta has plenty of farmers markets and supermarkets, the metro area is due for a night market.

David Lee, the 49-year-old owner of the Saigon Cafe restaurant chain in Atlanta, is creating what may be the area's first night market this weekend at Gwinnett Place Mall as a way to showcase and celebrate the growing diversity in Gwinnett County and the metro area as a whole. The event slogan: "Taste the World."

What is a night market? It’s typically an evening open-air bazaar held in urban areas featuring food, retail vendors and entertainment. They are especially popular in Asian cities such as Hong Kong, Taipei and Bangkok. Vancouver and Toronto feature multiple weekly seasonal night markets. Stateside, Philadelphia, Portland, Cleveland, Los Angeles and Chicago have held regular night markets in recent years.

Credit: Dave Tavani

Credit: Dave Tavani

Lee, who has been planning this for two years, decided to focus his first night market in a mall parking lot, more indicative of the suburban nature of where ethnic communities congregate in metro Atlanta.

To focus exclusively on promoting the night market, Lee has ceded day-to-day operations of his Saigon Cafe restaurants to his family and staff the past few months.

With a goal of drawing 50,000 people over three days, Lee and his volunteer staff have spread the word through a blend of traditional media outlets and social media, especially Facebook. On the event’s Facebook page as of Tuesday, 6,800 have committed to going and 39,000 expressed interest in the event.

Lee has gathered 80 mostly mom-and-pop-type food vendors and another 40 retailers and artisans representing more than 50 countries with Asia, the Caribbean and Latin America heavily represented. Food options will include Ma’s Irish Pancakes, Vietgie Crepes & Noodles, JD BBQ and Boxete Korean snack food.

He said he had hoped for more eateries, but many restaurants interested in taking part lacked extra personnel to man a booth. But the food truck community — which typically focuses on intown audiences — embraced the concept. The market will feature at least 20 food trucks over the weekend, from Gyro Chef to Chef Q’s Soul Shack to Bollywood Zing.

Philadelphia non-profit group the Food Trust introduced a night market in that city in 2010. Expecting a few hundred people, the event drew 4,000 and food ran out in two hours. Night markets, held four nights a year, now draw an average of 20,000 attendees each time, said Diana Minkus, senior associate at the Food Trust who oversees the night markets.

“We really wanted to prove that festival food didn’t have to be chicken fingers and pizza,” Minkus said. “There was really high quality, delicious, often healthier locally sourced foods coming from food trucks and restaurants. We want to celebrate Philadelphia’s culturally diverse food scene and its immigrant populations.”

A Vietnamese immigrant who came to the United States with his older sister when he was 12, Lee was inspired to do this after visiting night markets in Taiwan and Vancouver. “I like the idea of bringing people together and giving back to the community,” he said. “With Gwinnett County growing so quickly, we should play a role and make something different and interesting.”

Although Lee hates talking in front of crowds and is more earnest than charismatic, his passion shines through to his supporters.

Beth Powell-Jackson, a Realtor who has been actively helping Lee, said she picked up on Lee's vision immediately: "We believe in him. We believe in the idea. He is just this humble guy that people respect. When he says he'll do something, he goes out and does it."

During talks, Lee is laser focused on promoting the night market, not himself. During a meeting with the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce in January, he spoke at length about the project for 15 minutes but didn’t mention Saigon Cafe a single time.

Lee made the night market project a nonprofit organization and is providing free space to multiple charities and Gwinnett County schools, giving them exclusivity to sell bottled water.

The entrepreneur moved to Duluth two decades ago when few Asians lived there. At the time, he was a draftsman and designer of local restaurants and shopping centers. He also helped build out food courts in malls nationwide. After 9/11, his priorities shifted and he sought to do something that allowed him to spend more time with family and not so much on the road.

He opened his first Saigon Cafe in Duluth off Pleasant Hill Road in 2002, one of the first Vietnamese restaurants in the area specifically targeting a non-ethnic audience.

Using a photo-laden menu, his goal was to educate Americans about pho and bubble tea. “Pictures,” he said, “help you sell your product.” By decorating his restaurant in bamboo and trees, “we wanted to bring people a touch of Asia.”

Over the years, that area off Pleasant Hill became heavily Asian with no shortage of other pho and bubble tea options. He has added six other Saigon Cafes, but his original location survives less than a mile from where the night market will be.

Lee, who has drawn sponsors such as Emory Healthcare, UPS and Georgia Natural Gas and is charging a $5 entry fee, hopes this first night market will break even. Regardless, he plans to do it again in November, and if all goes well, four more in 2018. Over time, he hopes to create new night market events in different counties and locations but plans to always hold events in his home base of Gwinnett.

“Gwinnett,” Lee said, “is a starting point.”