On a trip to China last winter, Natalie Riha (pictured) witnessed her first “night market,” a pulsing after-hours scene fueled by fresh food cooked on portable grills. “Everybody would eat dinner and hang out in the street and form this really fantastic community,” recalls Riha of the steaming market stalls that lined the streets. Upon her return to Chicago, Riha, then a graduate design student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, knew what she wanted to do for her M.F.A. thesis project: facilitate a social food gathering called Nite Market.
Adopting the medium favored by food trucks, Riha took to Twitter to invite artisans and established vendors to participate in the event. Her goal? Use the digital platform to create a physical space for a community to share a meal together. It was an ambitious undertaking, even for someone with Riha’s résumé: She’s the special-events manager in charge of catering for Google’s Chicago offices, with previous gigs as a server at North Pond and farm director at Uncommon Ground.
The first Nite Market—simultaneously Riha’s thesis exhibition—was held in May at Dirt Gallery, an independent art space in west Pilsen. Inside the gallery, designs for food carts and photographs of street vendors hung on the walls while artisans selling homemade ice cream and tamales filled the sidewalks outside. Essentially an underground dinner party, Nite Market requires a free membership via the website. “If we made it a public event,” explains Riha, “then it would turn into a farmers’ market, or any other kind of food event that happens in the city. That defeats the purpose of [vendors] being hobbyists or unlicensed potential food makers, because they would have to be certified.” Most Nite Market vendors find the city’s costly licensing and certification laws prohibitive; others, like a computer engineer who makes kegs of beer and soft pretzels in his spare time, are more interested in sharing goods than pursuing a business license to legally sell them.
The upcoming second Nite Market promises a wider range of vendors offering treats such as Dutch oliebollen doughnuts fried on site, home-brewed kombucha and beer, and hand-pressed apple cider. As the market continues to grow, Riha will look to other membership-based food markets like the Underground Market in San Francisco and Grey Market in Washington, D.C., for guidance on building a thriving food community without sacrificing the gathering’s “underground” status. However paradoxical, one of the city’s most progressive and accessible food events also has to remain the most exclusive.
To find out the location and time of the upcoming Nite Market on Friday 11, become a member at nitemarket.jimdo.com.