The genesis of Chelsea Market — with today its 20th anniversary — was not as a food hall, but rather a flower mart, which did not take off. So founder Irwin Cohen pivoted to a food concept, with mostly wholesale space and some small retail windows. Some of those original vendors are still there, but the building is now crawling with tourists and locals looking for a bite of everything from Korean ramen to housemade hummus.
“Back in the day when we opened, they were still hosing the street with the carcasses and blood. If you told me there’d be luxury apartments on Tenth Avenue, I’d say, ‘No way,’” Chelsea Wine Vault founder Dan Bartaluce said. “I credit it to Irwin Cohen. He had this concept, this idea. And now people are trying to copy it all over.”
This morning, he joined the original tenants from Amy’s Bread and Sarabeth’s who were on site to cut cake on camera, with lots of cheek-kissing and hugging in between.
“Chelsea Market really paved the way for this whole neighborhood and made a difference in how people thought of going to a food market that wasn’t like a food court with all the chains,” Amy’s Bread owner Amy Scherber told Eater. “It was a breakthrough, and I loved being a part of that. It was all businesses that were owned by real people who cared about what they were making. We all became a real community with each other, friends and colleagues that stayed close all these years.” Amy’s Bread has been a tenant since the beginning, and she credits being in Chelsea Market as a vital part of her company’s growth.
Cohen couldn’t pinpoint how he thought of the idea, but he’s the man each tenant pointed to again and again as the driving force behind the concept. “He has a vision and he has great taste,” said Sarabeth’s owner Sarabeth Levine. “And it was really fabulous.”
In 2003, real estate firm Jamestown Properties purchased the space from Cohen, and now has plans for its growth. The 80,000 square foot basement is currently under construction to be outfitted with retail, including a farmers market-style grocery store with additional seating and some vendors.
The subterranean space — which will have a separate entrance — is specifically aimed toward locals, which is a direct response to criticism that the market has been overrun by tourists in recent years, making it difficult to live up to its original idea as a place for locals. The market also recently cut down on the times tour companies can walk through the space, so that at high traffic times like lunch, tours are not permitted.
“The market has doubled its food vendors since its inception, which is a great statement of its health. We have been careful to balance new uses with legacy uses so we keep everybody healthy,” current owner Michael Phillips said. “It’s been really gratifying to be a steward of something that is now 20 years old and an institution in New York. It’s not something we take lightly.”