Cesar Fuentes grew up selling pupusas — a Salvadorean corn tortillas dish — on New York City streets with his mother, who dreamed of being an entrepreneur.
Fuentes, who worked his way up the food ranks and spent the last 15 years managing Red Hook Food Vendors, is taking the reins of Vendy Plaza at La Marqueta, which is back for a second summer at the historic East Harlem location.
On Sunday, La Marqueta officially opens for the season after a soft opening last week.
Every Sunday through Sept. 9, Vendy Plaza will be open Park Avenue and 116th Street beneath the Metro-North, with up to 30 food vendors, as well as live music, beer from different local breweries and cooking demonstrations.
The initiative was started last year, and the partnership between City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, the Vendy Awards and the NYC Economic Development Corporation.
Mark-Viverito, who has represented the East Harlem district since 2006, committed $3 million from the City Council for infrastructure work in 2014. Last year’s push was the most recent of many attempts to make La Marqueta the neighborhood hub it once was.
And, according to organizers, last Sunday’s soft opening saw about 1,000 visitors — double last year’s opening, with one of the vendors selling out the 100 pounds of pork he brought.
For Fuentes, his role isn’t just about finding food vendors to fill stalls. Instead, it’s about the rebirth of a historic neighborhood, bolstered by New Yorker’s love of food truck culture.
“I really believe in this,” Fuentes told Metro. “I’m not born (in New York) but I’m a raised New Yorker. I’ve lived in the Bronx, in Queens and I’m an adopted son of Brooklyn. I didn’t have direct ties with East Harlem and El Barrio community, but being a Latino, East Harlem represents to us what Harlem historically represents to the African-American community. It’s an historic center, a gathering point that has a lot of history. It’s a mecca, if you will.”
In addition to helping his mother’s pupusas business, he relied on food truck work to get him through college.
“That’s what formed me as an insider, as a stakeholder in the industry, being able to be a street vendor myself, and seeing the good times and the bad,” Fuentes said.
Food trucks are big business in New York City, bringing in an estimated $15 million a year in revenue, according to the New York City Food Policy Center.
“On one extreme you have the hipster food trucks, those who become stars in the industry, the high end food trucks,” Fuentes said. “And on the other you have your local vendors, those who often go under the radar. New York has developed a very competitive market, and if you don’t have a name out there, you’re not going to get the chance to score a big number of people coming in.”
Fuentes said he hopes Vendy Plaza at La Marqueta can integrate the “fraternity” of street vendors.
“We’re open to both end of the spectrum,” Fuentes said. “We’re able to match those high-end, popular food vendors with local flavors, up-and-coming talent, artisans who have a lot to be proud of but unfortunately don’t get the chance. The first fruit lady on the street corner, who wants to have that dream that my mother once had of having a business and getting the chance to sell at a market, that’s what Vendy Plaza is.”