By Wendy K. Leigh
Market share in Seattle is about a whole lot more than investors and stocks these days – unless you’re talking chicken stock, that is. After brewing and bubbling for more than a year, the Campaign for King Street, backed by the nonprofit MarketShare organization, is cooking up its final recipe for success. The plan is to launch a cultural and culinary epicenter in the 10,000-square-foot second floor/street level of King Street Station, the city’s central transportation hub.
If MarketShare gets its way, a portion of this unused space in Seattle’s historic architectural landmark downtown will be transformed into an international street food market to nurture micro-restaurant startups for low-income refugees and immigrants – and to bring the community together by erasing boundaries and breaking bread with people from multicultural backgrounds.
Diversity is the keyword here, and it applies not only to the eclectic mix of ethnic cuisine on the proposed menus, but also to the rich heritage of the prospective entrepreneurs who dream of setting out their shingles at King Street Market. According to MarketShare, more than 400,000 immigrants and refugees call Seattle’s King County home, bringing with them the culinary skills and unique food-based traditions from more than 100 countries.
Why King Street?
King Street Station first opened its doors and platforms to the public in 1906, and the building is now on the National Register of Historic Places. Its clock tower, designed to resemble the San Marco bell tower in Venice, Italy, towers over Pioneer Square, home to one of America’s most renowned collections of Romanesque Revival style urban architecture. Because of the station’s 100+ years of bringing millions of people in and out of Seattle, many feel it’s the perfect place to honor the diversity that increasingly defines the city.
“Every day, about 384,000 people move through this area,” states Philip Deng, founder and CEO of Marketshare. “But almost none of them go inside King Street Station – because it’s been empty this whole time. Like it’s been waiting for something.”
Deng explains that the idea is for all members of the Seattle community to come together to share a table and a meal under one roof. It’s not about creating new dishes as much as it’s about sharing authentic food from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds.
He tells the story of working on a project at Yesler Terrace, the city’s first low-income housing project, and happening upon a Somali woman cooking the most delicious stew he had ever smelled. After discovering that there was nowhere in the city to try dishes like these, and making the connection that food also holds real economic potential for immigrant families struggling to thrive in their new country, the idea for MarketShare evolved.
“We’re talking about a place where, regardless of how you vote or worship, or the language you speak, or how much money you make – we all have to eat. And we’re all there because the food is delicious, diverse and interesting,” states Deng.
The international street food market is far from a done deal, however. The City of Seattle owns King Street Station and has recently renovated the entire second and third floors, which have been vacant for years.
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray launched a community input process in spring 2016 to determine how to best utilize the space after a major refurbishment and remodel by Olsen Kundig design firm. The third floor has cozied into its calling as a 17,130-square-foot cultural hub, with a focus on art and open community space – but the street market is still fighting for its place on the second floor.
MarketShare notes that they’ve been working for months on the King Street Market plans for that floor, creating economic models and blueprints, while forging grassroots connections with other nonprofits and immigrant community groups. Mayor Murray recently announced $362,000 in Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds to help with construction costs for second-floor food and retail operations that serve the community – which aligns with the MarketShare vision.
“This is a public space with public funding committed to its development, and MarketShare is putting forth an activation concept that creates the most public benefit for entrepreneurs, customers and the community,” stresses Deng.
King Street Market plans to facilitate up to 10 food stalls that low-income entrepreneurs can set up for less than $10,000, ideally presenting cultures and cuisines that are not already heavily represented in the Seattle restaurant scene.
In its pilot phase, which lasted for more than a year, 37 applicants representing immigrants from 18 countries competed for two available spots in the program. Two women were chosen as the MarketShare fellows, who went through a rigorous process of training and preparation, including a business readiness program hosted by The Center for Inclusive Entrepreneurship and hours of interaction with professional chefs and culinary educators. Rosario, one of the original fellows, now operates an independent catering operation, Salu-Salo, offering many of the same Filipino dishes she created in the program.
After operating in outdoor street markets and festivals all over Seattle, it became obvious that a permanent location is the only way to guarantee a steady clientele for food stall startups, one that’s not dependent on the weather or the whims of festival attendance. King Street Station has steady foot traffic every day, and is a literal crossroads of international culture. The visionaries at MarketShare believe the new market will also become a cherished community space and a testament to Seattle’s values of diversity, inclusiveness and entrepreneurship.
Foodies, volunteers, supporters and financial donors can join the grassroots Campaign for King Street by visiting the MarketShare website.
“Let us build together as a community a living, enduring monument to our ideals, our values and to the basic notion that we are not just “better together” – but that we love living together.” – Philip Deng