The Better Side of Food Festivals: The Stop's Night Market
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The Better Side of Food Festivals: The Stop’s Night Market

Toronto's food festivals are generally awful, but The Stop's Night Market gets it right.

Toronto has a tumultuous history with food markets, fairs, and festivals. For a city full of top-notch restaurant options, it fails miserably at orchestrating epicurean events. Just this month, a Mac and Cheese Festival in Liberty Village stirred a minor social-media maelstrom over the event’s location, line-ups, and overpriced bites of pasta. Let us also not forget the general vitriol directed at Taste of the Danforth, Toronto Underground Market, and last year’s Grilled Cheese Fest.

The failure of Toronto’s food-related events has become comfortably reliable. The Mac and Cheese Festival sucked? Duh, obviously it did. If you’ve experienced disappointment at the hands of a parking-lot group binge, there’s no one to blame but yourself.

If you’re paying money to stand in line to pay more money for a sample serving of food that’s been sitting outside for hours, you’re not doing it right. Go to a restaurant. Sit down, order a bottle of wine and enjoy the ambience. Eating at a food festival is like having sex in the bathroom of a Greyhound bus—it sounds fun, but ultimately no one is that comfortable or does their best work.

That’s why it was confusing when last week’s The Stop’s Night Market was good. No chaos, just charm. Held in a parking lot on Sterling Road over two nights, the industrial landscape of abandoned factories created a “hidden gem” atmosphere. The string lights, the old-timey wandering band, and the unplanned, yet extremely complementary, golden sunset transformed the dusty location.

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An annual fundraiser for The Stop Community Food Centre, it’s about more than gimmicky snacks. “We measure success in a couple of different ways,” said Cheryl Roddick, The Stop’s director of development, in an email. “We’re thrilled to have raised over $200,000, which will go a long way to supporting our programs that so many people in this city rely on for healthy food, skill-building opportunities, and connections to other resources.”

The tickets for The Stop’s Night Market were $100 each, with a $25 tax receipt. Ticketholders could pick a night (Tuesday or Wednesday) based on availability. Once you were inside the gates, it was all-you-can-eat-and-drink—at no additional cost. For most people that still makes for an expensive dinner but, for a fundraising event, it’s relatively accessible in comparison to black-tie galas.

Roddick also explains that they consider the event a success if it aligns with their philosophy of bringing people together with food. “One of the things I love about the Night Market is seeing perfect strangers mingling, comparing notes, and recommending which dishes to try next.”

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The positive guest interactions make The Stop’s Night Market a unique experience. Rather than battling people for scraps of funnel cake, the line-ups were short and casual. There was more than enough food to go around and the food was delicious. From Bar Fancy’s mouth-numbing chicken wings to Small Town Food Co.’s lake-trout ceviche, no one was left hungry. The market ran from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. and there was food right up until the end, though some of the vendors ran out halfway through the night due to high demand. The Stop contributed dishes by their own chef, Scott MacNeil, that helped supplement quantity without sacrificing any quality. In fact, MacNeil’s tempura-salmon ciabatta was one of the night’s best bites.

An unexpected perk of The Stop’s Night Market was the chance to interact with some of the city’s top chefs, restaurateurs, and bartenders. You could ask questions about the food and wine without holding up masses of people in line behind you. The conversations lent a personal touch to the dishes and mental note after mental note to visit the vendor’s brick and mortar location as soon as possible. The vermouth punch by Parkdale’s Geraldine was even more delightfully complex after chatting with owner Alexandra Albert.

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“We chose week nights because that’s what works best for our chefs, who are busy with their restaurants on the weekends,” Roddick said. The Stop also worked with designers to fashion unique booths for the vendors. This wasn’t a white plastic-tent city: the booths captured a sense of the restaurant’s ambience. Oyster Boy’s neon yellow and marble shell-style booth was a far cry from Sullivan & Bleeker’s cardboard cottage.

The food festivals of Toronto should be taking notes from The Stop’s Night Market. The charitable agenda, weeknight organization, and one-time cost showed a level of respect for guests, vendors, and the community at large. Maybe there’s hope after all.

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