A Unique Food Hall Transforms Syracuse

Written by: Leo Schwartz
Originally posted on KitchenAid.com May 18, 2021

Most mornings, Dreamer Glen is the first person at Salt City Market. She makes all her food fresh every day — the rosemary roast chicken, the creamy macaroni and cheese, the “sassy” crispy shrimp — so she has to arrive around 5 AM to start prepping. She even beats the construction workers, who are putting finishing touches on the apartments upstairs. 

“Just to walk in this building, it’s peaceful and quiet and serene, like it’s own little island,” she told me one Saturday, when the market was starting to buzz with activity. “I’m a part of such a large, wonderful project. It just couldn’t get any better.”

Dreamer wasn’t even going to apply to be a part of the market. She spent about 20 years running her own catering business. When she started out, she would fax her daily menu to businesses, eventually getting contracts with Syracuse University and local hospitals. She hoped to one day open her own freestanding restaurant. “In my dream, I envisioned it a little bit differently,” she said, gesturing to her tiny corner stall. 

No one would lend money to a divorced woman with two kids, as she put it. A few years ago, she heard the rumblings that would become the Salt City Market. At that point, it was just a sketch of an idea to build a food hall in downtown Syracuse operated entirely by local cooks. She went to an interest meeting and thought it was a great concept, but not for her. “I’ll just save my money until I get my own,” she thought to herself. “I might be 60, but I’ll have it.”

Dreamer serving a generous helping of mac and cheese.

Miss Prissy’s

Without Dreamer’s knowledge, a friend filled out an application for her. Three years of auditions, menu planning, and paperwork later, here she is, coming in to prepare her unique spin on soul food before the crowds descend. Dreamer’s punctuality is mostly out of self-preservation — she said that if she runs out of macaroni and cheese, her fans will burn the market to the ground. 

Dreamer’s little restaurant, Miss Prissy’s, isn’t what she pictured. Still, she couldn’t be happier. I visited Salt City Market on a March weekend, a little over a month after it opened. Miss Prissy’s was a magnet for diners, and for good reason. I don’t think I would commit arson for the mac & cheese, but after sampling it, I understand the sentiment. 

Salt City Market is more than just food, though. It is a love letter to Syracuse and a vision for what an inclusive, redistributive city can look like. It is a collection of innovators and risk-takers that are somehow greater than the sum of their very impressive parts. It is a place for anyone to come and feel welcome. 

Of course, food is the great unifier. Salt City Market is composed of ten stalls, each representing a different pocket of Syracuse and offering up delicious, affordable plates. As Dreamer told me, “You can crack anybody with a good meal.”

“I’m a part of such a large, wonderful project. It just couldn’t get any better.”

Dreamer presenting a full container of food.
Dreamer serving food from a large pot.
Dreamer serving food into a small container.

Miss Prissy’s

THE SEED OF AN IDEA

Salt City Market is the brain-child of Adam Sudmann, an entrepreneur originally from New York City. Throughout the development of Salt City Market, he has worn many hats, from mentor to developer. That hasn’t changed since the hall officially opened at the end of January 2021. When I met with Adam in March, he was patrolling around, checking in with different vendors and stakeholders while simultaneously making sure the amount of customers stayed at Covid-appropriate levels. 

His passion for the project pours out in every word. Adam has been trying to will Salt City Market into existence for the better part of a decade. Back then, he traveled frequently to other countries and was always drawn to the small stall hawker markets, especially in Asia. The yuppie iterations in New York, such as Chelsea Market and Eataly, never had the same feel. What drew him to food halls was the intimacy. “It’s the closest thing to being in someone’s home,” he told me, “But it’s also a public space.” 

Adam realized that such a market would never be possible in New York City. It would just be too expensive. His wife was from Upstate New York, which he thought might make more sense. Her brother lived in Syracuse. They were visiting one winter day when Adam noticed something curious: families were out shopping, navigating the treacherous snowy streets with grocery bags. They weren’t what he expected though: one of the families he saw seemed to be from South Asia, the other from Central Africa. 

Adam researched the history of Syracuse, which is similar to many other Rust Belt cities. They served as destinations for refugee resettlement programs from the United Nations. Syracuse alone has welcomed in almost 10,000 refugees over the past decade from countries across the world, from Myanmar to Syria to Sudan.

The exterior of Salt City Market.

Exterior of Salt City Market

The large glass windows of the Salt City Market.

Adam realized Syracuse would be the perfect location for a multicultural food court. Based on his brief field research, there were clearly skilled cooks and grocery stores carrying the proper ingredients, not to mention affordable real estate. He immediately told his wife that he would move to Syracuse as long as he could run with the idea. She asked him what his idea was. “I’m going to have a party,” Adam replied, “And then surely someone will notice.”

Adam had a creative idea: What if instead of only recruiting trained chefs, he just searched for good food? At the time, the most prominent cuisine featured in Syracuse, at least at restaurants, was Italian. Several vendors I spoke with brought up the infamous chicken riggies, a Central New York pasta dish that is similar to a slightly spicier penne alla vodka. Adam knew there were other communities to be showcased in Syracuse — they just weren’t getting the opportunity. 

In 2012, he began to throw pop-up parties a couple times a year called My Lucky Tummy, which would feature a local cook. They were a huge hit. Each drew hundreds of people and featured cuisines from across the world: Japan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Burma. To find the cooks, Adam would hang out at local Syracuse markets and see what people were buying. Adam would even ask the grocery store owners to direct them to him. He estimates he approached over 1,000 people over the years. 

Still, the dream was to open a food hall, not just host pop-events. Adam opened a restaurant and entrepreneurial incubator called With Love in partnership with a local community college, but he wanted something more permanent. That’s when the Allyn Family Foundation came into the picture.

The interior of Soulutions, Sley's Southern Cuisine.
The interior of Firecracker, Thai Kitchen.

SOULutions (left) & Firecracker Thai Kitchen (right)

Founded by W.G. Allyn of the Welch Allyn medical device fortune, the foundation has been operating in Central New York for decades. In 2015, it decided to grow its presence in Syracuse. The leadership wanted a lasting project that would support small businesses and help create generational wealth, especially for local communities of color. They learned about the Midtown Global Market, a nonprofit project in Minneapolis that converted the abandoned Sears building into an international food hall. 

Maarten Jacobs is the director of community prosperity at the Allyn Family Foundation. In their discussions, they asked each other, “What if we planted our flag in the ground and made a statement in Syracuse: We’re here to stay.” They decided to replicate the Minneapolis model in a vacant lot in downtown Syracuse that had long been deemed a problem. It was next to the bus hub that connected the entire city, but also at the juncture with the types of neighborhoods that rarely interacted. They would also build affordable housing upstairs. It was the perfect spot for a transformation. 

At that point, Adam heard whispers about the idea. “I couldn’t even talk about it,” he told me. “I’d be shaking.” He would go down to the proposed location, skeptical that it could become a massive food hall. It wasn’t even level. He recalled the empty lot as “undulating.” 

Adam’s enthusiasm paid off, though. The Allyn Family Foundation brought him on board as the manager. The foundation would provide the funding — the majority of the $25 million project — and he would provide the food business know-how. Now all they needed were the chefs.

The colorful interior of Erma's Island, Jamaican Dining At Its Best.
Latoya chopping meat in her kitchen.
A woman filling out to go orders.

Erma’s Island

IF YOU BUILD IT…

I first spoke with Adam in February 2020. He had just arrived in New York City. After an intensive interview process, they had already selected a cohort for Salt City Market. Now they were deep in training mode. Adam decided to take everyone to Brooklyn on a field trip to visit the Dekalb Market Hall and see how a fully operational food hall worked.  

For one of the new chefs, Latoya Ricks, it proved to be a fateful trip. Many of the selected budding restaurateurs had some experience in professional kitchens. Latoya’s only commercial training had been at a McDonald’s in Syracuse. She grew up in Jamaica and had moved here for the fry job, when she was 19 years old. 

“I tell everyone, I’m not a chef, I’m a cook,” Latoya said. She grew up loving to cook. She is the eldest of nine children, eight girls and one boy. “You have to help your mom cook when she has eight other kids to tend to,” she told me. 

Latoya was always entranced by her grandfather’s cooking. He would cater everything from weddings to funerals to church events. It was atypical in Jamaica, where women tend to be the big cooks in the family. Her grandfather’s food had a magnetic quality, though. Latoya would wonder to herself, why is it that people flock to him?

When the opportunity to get a work visa came up, she took it. Latoya knew nothing about Syracuse or the United States, really — “I had to learn to eat a burger and french fries,” she told me, not to mention getting used to snow. On the Big Mac assembly line, she would experiment, combining different condiments to make her own sauces. Like many others who would end up at Salt City Market, she dreamed of opening a restaurant one day, but it never really seemed like a possibility.

A plate of hearty, delicious Jamaican food.
A person serving containers of Jamaican food.
A large plate of Jamaican food.

Erma’s Island

“I tell everyone, I’m not a chef, I’m a cook,” Latoya said.

Latoya decided to go to school to become a nurse and got a job as an ER technician. She still does it part-time. She kept cooking, and a few years ago she heard about Salt City Market. There wasn’t really any Jamaican food in Syracuse, and she thought it was the perfect opportunity to bring jerk chicken to Upstate New York. 

Even after she was accepted as one of the ten vendors, Latoya felt out of her depth. She had no experience cooking her food in a commercial kitchen, which required everything from sourcing to efficient prep. On that February 2020 trip to Dekalb Market, she visited a Jamaican stall, Likkle More Jerk. The owner gave her some tips and introduced her to another chef friend, Jermaine, who had worked in the restaurant industry for over 20 years. Jermaine ended up taking weekly trips to Syracuse to help Latoya set up the restaurant, bringing hard-to-find ingredients and instructing her how to design the stove with briquettes to get the smoky flavor of jerk chicken. Jermaine also became her boyfriend. Again, it was a fateful trip.  

Latoya represents the potential of Salt City Market, more than Adam and the Allyn Family Foundation could have ever hoped for. For a city that was used to chicken riggies, Jamaican food has sure caught on fast. She goes through 200 pounds of oxtail a week, a dish that she never thought would be popular. In her first month in business as Erma’s Island, Latoya did $80,000 in sales. She even occasionally serves a special fusion dish to honor the region: jerk chicken riggies. 

The beauty of the market is that each stall contains a story like Latoya’s. That’s by design. The food hall is built to support first-time entrepreneurs. Thanks to the support of the Allyn Family Foundation, the vendors pay less than $1,000 in rent. The market even supplies the kitchen equipment. That means that Latoya pays off the cost of her space halfway through the first day of the month. 

The vendors did take out small loans of between $20,000-$30,000, but mostly to pay for their signage. Some of them had difficulty securing financing because of difficulties in the past, but the Allyn Family Foundation went to bat for them. They worked with a local bank, Pathfinder, to ensure that everyone got their funding. “We’ve taken a $20 million chance on these guys, and we’re asking you to take a $20,000 chance,” Maarten recalled telling the bank. “And they stepped up.”

The cooks of Mama Hai.
Ngoc making a large sandwich.
A large sandwich overflowing with its contents.

Mamma Hai

Even so, Adam made sure to underplay the role of the market itself. He gave all credit to the chefs (not cooks) like Dreamer and Latoya. He recalled how at one of his pop-up dinners, a friend came up to him and said, “You are giving these people everything.” 

“How dare you,” he thought to himself. He was just a facilitator — a Nick Fury-type, as he put it, assembling his team of superpowered Avengers. “It’s not enough to have drive and no talent, and it’s not enough to have talent and no drive,” he told me. “You have to have those two plus magic.” 

Take Ngoc Huynh, the owner of Mama Hai. Her family moved to Nebraska from Vietnam when she was an infant. Her mother opened up a billiards hall in Omaha, serving up classics like pho and banh mi to the local immigrant population. Ngoc remembers hating the kitchen growing up, mostly because she was tasked with the worst parts of prep and eating deformed baos that her mom would bring home. 

Ngoc moved to Syracuse to attend journalism school, working for decades in the area as a journalist. A few years back, Adam approached her to cook at one of his pop-up dinners. Ngoc agreed, on the condition that she would be allowed to cook traditional Vietnamese blood sausage. Also, Adam had to source fresh pig’s blood for her, which was dubiously legal. When Ngoc told her mom that she would be preparing the dish, she bought a plane ticket out from Nebraska to make sure it turned out right. 

“I realized how much fun it is to share a part of your tradition and culture with other people,” Ngoc told me. When she decided to participate in the market, her mom moved out from Nebraska for good. She was helping out at the stall when I visited — I even got to sample one of her famous baos. 

For Sarinthra Tong-Ngork of Firecracker Thai, the fact that she can operate a hundred feet from Ngoc and just a few stalls away from the restaurant Big In Burma is what makes Salt City Market so special. “We have three Asian concepts that are neighboring countries, but completely different,” Sarinthra told me. The market is allowing the diverse communities from Syracuse to reclaim their narratives, starting a conversation through food. Sarinthra is proud that she doesn’t serve pad thai, which would seem heretical to any successful Thai restaurant in the United States. Instead, she focuses instead on the dishes she grew up with, including favorites from her dad’s region of Isan. “I’m trying to give exposure to some lesser known things,” she said.

Sarinthra working in her kitchen.

Firecracker Thai Kitchen

A tray of fried chicken wings and Thai food.

FARM TO TABLE

While most of the chefs at Salt City Market are new to restaurant ownership, there are a couple of exceptions. One is Firas Hashim, who settled with his family in Central New York in 2014 from Iraq. He came from a line of restaunters back home. He opened one in 2020 in Syracuse before moving to the market. He was in that Saturday morning with his two sons, almost as early as Dreamer, to set up his massive gyrating spit roasts of chicken and lamb. He boasted that they were the biggest in all of New York. 

“We left our whole family in our country,” he told me, “but now we found a new purpose.”

The other veterans are the two women of Farm Girl + Catalpa, a juice and flower stand. Abigail Henson (Farm Girl) and Lindsey Jakubowski (Catalpa) have been working in the Syracuse food and agriculture scene for years. Adam brought them on to serve as mentors for the other vendors, a rock of support right in the middle of the market. 

They both jumped at the opportunity to run the little stall together. For Abigail, it meant having a storefront that was less stress than her usual restaurants, especially because it would be a partnership with an old friend. For Lindsey, who had recently moved into a fully functioning farm about 30 minutes away, Salt City Market afforded the rare opportunity to have a retail space for her flowers. 

More than that, both envisioned the joint stall as an outreach effort to sing the praises of the local agriculture scene — not just to the other vendors, but to everyone who walked through the market’s doors. “I want to get people engaged in farming,” Abigail said, “And just the overall awareness of what we’re surrounded by.”

Firas trimming meat for a gyro.
A plate of gyro and french fries.

Firas Baghdad

Syracuse sits in Onondaga County, next to Cayuga and Madison. The three areas represent some of the most fertile areas in the United States. Drive a few minutes outside of the city and you’ll be met with open pastures and siloes for miles and miles. Until recently, though, the area’s farms were exporting the vast majority of their organic produce. 

Both Abigail and Lindsey work with the regional farm-to-table scene to match local produce with restaurants. They hope that a direct pipeline will arise for the vendors in Salt City Market. Still, they understand the limits of being a new restauranter, when you are still figuring out the basic accounting metrics for your business. 

There is also the question of what local even means, especially for different types of cuisines. Many of the vendors source from specialty grocery shops to get certain types of produce. “Maybe we could never get it local, because it’s a specific type of cabbage or tea leaf,” said Abigail. “But that person that you’re supporting is part of this community.”

Ultimately, they want to help build a culture of sustainability while honoring the traditions that each chef comes from. Part of that is a co-op grocery store that opened in the market at the end of April, offering affordable locally sourced produce alongside the food stalls.

“I just want to be the truest representation of what our community is made up of,” Abigail told me. “There’s never been a place where we could get all these corners of our community together to talk about food access.”

“Ultimately, they want to help build a culture of sustainability while honoring the traditions that each chef comes from.”

Abigail and Lindsey of Farm Girl + Catalpa.
Large containers of tonic.
The signage and plants of Farm Girl + Catalpa.

Farm Girl + Catalpa

A NEW BEGINNING

When I first spoke with Adam in February 2020, he was hoping to open in November. Then Covid happened, upending everyone’s plans. Miraculously, the market still managed to open at the end of January 2021. 

Adam had no idea what to expect — he didn’t know if people would come for takeout or sit inside the massive glass and steel hall. The first day, they had a line out the door. Much to Adam’s chagrin, the vendors weren’t prepared. Most sold out of food and closed two hours early. “It did not go as planned,” Adam told me, “But I was like, alright, we’ll survive.” 

On the March weekend I visited, the market was bustling with energy every day. The clientele was diverse, representing every corner of the city and its surroundings. People meandered around the food hall, peering at the menus and delaying the impossible decision of what to order. Even dessert is difficult to settle on: There are two stands, Cake Bar and Pie’s the Limit, offering up addictive confections. 

One of the last vendors I spoke with was Sleyrow Mason, who goes by Sley — proprietor of the restaurant SOULutions (named because “I want to be the answer to soul food,” he told me). It took me all weekend to speak with Sley because his stall was so busy with customers, eager to try his crispy chicken skin-topped mac & cheese and St. Louis style ribs with sage and apple chutney.

A person scooping out filling from a container.
Small handheld pies being buttered.
A person tending to the desserts of Pie's the Limit.

Pie’s the Limit

Sley was 26 when his mother passed away in 2002. He took up cooking as a way to deal with the grief, and to keep his family and friends connected. He started working at the fry station at Red Lobster and then as the kitchen manager at the Marriott Hotel, right across the street from Salt City Market. As the refrain goes, he always dreamed of having his own restaurant. It would give him the freedom and versatility to express himself and his vision. 

“With the history and background that I come from, it’s unprecedented to be here,” Sley told me. “Just to seize an opportunity that’s not always readily available to us.” It’s a way for him to not only build a legacy for himself, but for his children too — to have something tangible to pass down from generation to generation. 

For Syracuse and everyone who steps foot in the food hall, whether diner or restauranter, Salt City Market represents a path forward. “This market is bringing the suburbs and the inner city together,” Sley told me. “It’s fusing people to get a better understanding of each other.”

Food is the medium. Adam always wanted to replicate the intimacy of the hawker stalls of Asia. He found the right vehicle. 

“I want people to feel like they sat at a table at my house,” Sley said. “You feel supported, you feel comforted, and you feel loved.”

Sley adding milk to a large tray of mac and cheese.
A large container of delicious soul food.

SOULutions. All photography by Leo Schwartz