ROCHESTER — Growing up in Taipei, Taiwan, Tiffany Alexandria loved going to night markets with the organic way people gathered to offer wares and the community built among people from different backgrounds.
And the food, wonderful, scrumptious food.
Alexandria, who moved to her husband's hometown in Rochester five years ago, missed having that kind of access to hidden treats. As a professional foodie, Alexandria blogs about, photographs and consults with businesses large and small on how to present and improve the things we eat.
"I just wanted to be able to eat more, but we don't really have a strong incubator in Rochester for food businesses or micro businesses in general," she said.
That's what led her to create her own version of a night market last year, providing an opportunity for area residents of color to sell their own food, clothing, crafts and other wares.
Now in its second year, the Night Market continues to expand and draw residents from across the state.
Alexandria spent about six sleepless weeks bringing the first Night Market to fruition with help from Experience Rochester, the city's tourism bureau and Mayo Civic Center operators. That first event shattered everyone's expectations. Alexandria estimated about 500 people would show up, but the event drew over 8,000 and vendors ran out of food in about a half-hour.
The secret to the event's success lay in its untapped market.
"Rochester is a very diverse place," said Joe Ward, president of Experience Rochester. "I don't think a lot of people recognize it for that, because Rochester looks quite different than a lot of places. There's people from all over the world here."
Alexandria, who simply wanted a fun event that people could go to in the summer, realized the Night Market served a larger community purpose. Many told her how thankful they were to see an event that celebrates the area's cultural offerings.
"They never felt welcome in all the years they've lived here, and some of them have lived here for decades," she said. "They just didn't feel like there was an event made for them. I was honestly shocked."
Alexandria decided to grow the Night Market from three events last year to every other Saturday starting July 2 at the parking lot of the Knotty Woodpecker woodworking studio at 307 E Center St. The markets run from 4-10 p.m., taking inspiration from the Asian outdoor markets that gather at night when it gets far too hot during the day.
More than 70 vendors from all kinds of backgrounds rotate through each market throughout the summer. There could be Hmong egg rolls, Malaysian-Indian chai, Jamaican beef patties and Caribbean delights.
While most vendors are from Rochester, the markets have a few sellers from St. Paul and one from nearby Austin.
"We have diversity, for sure," Alexandria said.
The markets will culminate in a large-scale event outside Mayo Civic Center on Sept. 10, the same day as the Mid Autumn Festival celebrated in many Asian cultures.
Ward said he sees the Night Market's success as the newest Rochester tradition, especially as Rochester's tourism economy recovers from the pandemic.
For Alexandria, the Night Market still represents a way for would-be entrepreneurs of color to test out business concepts, find their community and, perhaps, open a brick-and-mortar restaurant or shop of their own.
"In the beginning, I just wanted to create an event for people to come and play until I saw the community showed up," she said. "Then I knew this event was serving a different purpose."