In 2010, I was wandering around the Portuguese capital, Lisbon, when I found a huge nineteenth-century market. On the ground floor were some traders selling produce. A gallery ran round the building on the first floor. It had a tremendous atmosphere, but as a business, it looked like it was dying on its arse. It felt like it could only have one future.
Today, the Mercado da Ribeira is not just Lisbon’s, but Portugal’s, number one attraction. Last year it had 3.9 million visitors. They come for some of the city’s best food and drink, live events, and to hang out. But it’s not some kind of corporate repurposing: the old traders are still there; the atmosphere is more lively, but it’s recognisably that of the old market. So what happened? Basically, Time Out did.
‘Time Out was doing well in Lisbon,’ says João Cepeda, editor at the time. ‘We were a cult brand and people respected us. We organised parties for like 5,000 people, and we thought: Why not do this in a more permanent way?’ Looking around for a venue, they saw that there was a public tender for the Mercado da Ribeira. A city icon, the market opened with massive civic pride in 1882. But times had changed. ‘The market had lost its function,’ says Cepeda. ‘It still sold to small grocery shops and restaurants, but not directly to customers. They had supermarkets and online.’ So Time Out put in a bid to take it on, as an experiment. And won. ‘It was huge,’ says Cepeda. ‘There was a lot of scepticism, because of its size. So we had to come up with a project.’
Time Out Market, Lisbon
‘We organised parties for like 5,000 people, and we thought: Why not do this in a more permanent way?’
That ‘project’ was to invite in the best of Lisbon’s food and drink scene, plus some cultural stuff, while ensuring the original traders could keep their places in the market. It sounds simple enough. Oh, except they’re journalists, right? A breed of people not historically known for gastronomic flair. Boozing, yes. Cooking, not so much. What they did know, though, was Lisbon, and what was worth eating and drinking. They created a rule: it didn’t matter how big or popular a restaurant was, it would only be invited to be part of the market if it had been awarded four or five (or, in one special case, six) stars by Time Out’s critics. Little-known local spots would sit alongside legendary chefs and restaurants, just like they do in the magazine.
Time Out Market, Miami
Little-known local spots would sit alongside legendary chefs and restaurants, just like they do in the magazine
‘The main criticism – us not being from the industry – was actually our biggest strength,’ says Cepeda. ‘We made no effort to achieve the usual goals of the real estate or mall business. We just thought: What would be cool for people? Being journalists helped us understand what people wanted.’
The market’s existing traders took more convincing. ‘You have to understand, some of them have been there for four generations,’ says Cepeda. ‘Some of the fishmongers were throwing rotten fish at the construction workers.’ He stepped in and addressed the throng, in a scene that sounds like one of those cheesy romcoms where a city type arrives in town to shut down the failing wellington boot factory but has their mind changed by the sexy shop steward. ‘I got up on a box of fruit and told the vendors: “We’re not trying to destroy anything here. We’re just another tenant. We’re the same as you.”’ It did the trick. The traders gave Time Out the benefit of the doubt; so did Lisboetas. Within six months of opening in 2014, the market had become one of the city’s most-visited attractions, purely on local word-of-mouth.
So this is about more than the reinvention of a building. From the Roman agora to the Arab souk, markets are at the heart of cities. They’re where you trade, gossip, eat and drink. A market is perhaps the single most potent symbol of an urban community. Key to the success of Time Out Market Lisbon is that it has given that dynamism back to this building, and restored something to the city. The original traders have got new customers. Plus, the food is excellent. It currently boasts three Michelin-starred Lisbon chefs: Henrique Sá Pessoa, Miguel Laffan and Alexandre Silva (whose black rice with scallops is the stuff of legend). ‘It’s like a family,’ says Silva. ‘Different every day and really intense. We’re showcasing Lisbon and I feel privileged to be a part of that.’ You can eat their food with none of the usual stuffy Michelin-star rigmarole. ‘Some people don’t want to sit down with just one or two people and white tablecloths,’ says Cepeda. Time Out Group CEO Julio Bruno echoes this: ‘It’s the way people will eat in the future: you can have vegan and your friend can have a steak in the same place, and they’re both incredible.’ Bruno also thinks this trend is about more than just diet: ‘We’re creating a community around the experience of eating: somewhere you have to put your phone away.’
Time Out Market, Miami
Now that change is going global. Time Out Market Miami (curated by Time Out Miami) launched last week, featuring local gastro-talent including Norman Van Aken, Jeremy Ford and Michael Beltran. New York is opening soon, and Boston, Chicago and Montreal later this year. Dubai is on the cards for 2020, and London is set to get one the year after that. But how replicable is the Lisbon original? According to Cepeda, it’s not. And that’s the point.
‘We’re creating a community around the experience of eating: somewhere you have to put your phone away’
‘The biggest challenge is to make all the markets completely local,’ he says. ‘We only have vendors from each city. We have pink terrazzo for all the counters in the Miami Market, which really speaks of that city. We go to tremendous lengths to get those local details so that a person from Chicago or New York can see that we are respecting their city and the people around us.’
It’s the exact opposite of the idea that a Big Mac is the same in São Paulo or Solihull, and that that’s meant to be a good thing. Time Out Market might be expanding worldwide, but its focus on remaining true to the spirit of each city is a riposte to homogenised globo-dining. That’s not to say that London’s will be full of whelk stalls and vats of parsley liquor – it’s pretty safe to assume it will bring craft beer, bao buns and vegan delights – but it will feel like London. Just like the Mercado da Ribeira is still Lisbon to its very bones.
‘As an editor,’ says Cepeda, ‘if I see a project that values the city, I’ll give it coverage. Businesses often forget that putting value into the ecosystem you belong to pays off. The community will look at what you’re doing and decide they like you.’