Fair@44 Has Big Plans for Community, Micro-Vendors
In the heart of City Heights, a community experiment is in the works. Fair@44 is a colorful new space that is welcoming micro-entrepreneurs—mostly food and craft—to share their wares every Wednesday for lunch (11 a.m. to 3 p.m.) and dinner (4:30 to 8:30) with community members and the larger San Diego population.
Fair@44 is a partnership with the City Heights Economic Development Collaboration; a collaboration between City Heights Community Development Corporation, El Cajon Boulevard Business Improvement Association. Karen Organization of San Diego, City Heights Business Association, International Rescue Committee San Diego, Media Arts Center San Diego, LISC San Diego, and Horn of Africa. One of their primary goals, says El Cajon Boulevard BIA's Beryl Forman, is to incubate businesses. To that end, they took up residence in a vacant lot at the northeast corner of El Cajon Blvd. and 44th St., across from the Copley-Price YMCA, and turned it into a multi-colored plaza that will soon be outfitted with kiosks designed by students from San Diego State University.
So far, there are a couple of clothing booths, along with half a dozen international food vendors, including Viola's Desserts, Antojitos Tenampa, Cambodian Grill, Tortas Ajogadas, and East African Cuisine. The organizers are working to bring in more established food businesses like URBN Pizza and Meshuggah Shack, and welcome other mobile food vendors.
Miriam Arzate, owner of Antojitos Tenampa, makes the food of her native Mexico City, including the marvelous tacos de alambre—a rich cross between a taco and quesadilla that combines grilled strips of juicy beef and peppers, and cheddar cheese. It's the most deliciously messy snack you can imagine. Add some cilantro, chopped onions, avocado, and salsa—then dig in.
I recognized Hasno Ali of East African Cuisine from local farmers markets. She makes terrific sambusas—beef, chicken, cream cheese, and other flavors. And you have to try her fragrant and moist saffron chicken, along with her spiced up vegetable stew—filled with eggplant, tomatoes, and zucchini. Served with lentils and black-eyed peas atop her seasoned rice, it's a fantastic meal.
You can certainly take the food home for a ready meal. Or you can bring a group of friends, work colleagues, or family and eat at one of the picnic tables for lunch or dinner. Have fun watching local high school kids dancing to live music in the evening. Moms who pick their kids up from school come by to hang out in the afternoon, says Forman. Local office workers and neighbors walk over for lunch and local residents and YMCA members hungry from their work outs tend to hang out in the evenings. There are free Zumba classes sponsored by the YMCA from 4 to 5.
Ron Troyano of Alchemy San Diego is a consultant on this "weekly happening." He says the idea overall is to test the viability of an international market, with the goal of having it open daily. "We're testing the appetite of the vendors and the location and market concept overall without too much risk for the organizations," he says. Currently, they're looking for an anchor operator—maybe a mobile food facility—that would enable the market to open daily. To help the vendors, many of whom are new entrepreneurs, Troyano is helping to set up a system to guide these folks through the permitting process and manage what is an interim track for businesses. He's already done this for Makers Quarter and silo. And he has big future plans to create a network of commercial kitchens for vendors to help support this.
But the bigger idea, says both Troyano and Forman, is to use the market as a vehicle for creating community, especially given the multicultural makeup of the area. Forman is eager to expand this community beyond City Heights and engage residents of neighboring Talmadge and Kensington.
All of this so far is just in the initial stages; Fair@44 only opened Oct. 5. But stay tuned. If the organizers can get a couple of anchor vendors early next year, this lively international market could be ready to open daily.