“There’s nothing left,” says Baan Siam managing partner Tom Healy. He’s not talking about running out of food at a stall at the REDEYE Night Market that stretched down Pennsylvania Avenue NW Saturday night. He’s surveying the kitchen at his Mount Vernon Triangle restaurant after would-be market attendees swarmed businesses within walking distance of the overcrowded event. Healy and his staff fielded 411 phone calls during dinner service and sat close to 600 patrons. “We burned through all of our reserves,” he says. “We ran out of Tito’s.”
Scroll through comments on Instagram and several Reddit threads to read grievances from festival goers that explain why they were circling downtown neighborhoods in search of meals. Some say they gave up on attending after standing in line for an hour and a half. Others say they stuck it out only to find another tangle of confusing lines for food and drink once they got in. A few people expressed concerns that the cramped setup wasn’t ADA-friendly or said they felt unsafe. A volunteer reported feeling lost and overworked on Reddit.
No Kings Collective put on the event that was scheduled to run from 4 p.m. to midnight. Sponsor Events DC offered additional help; a representative says they provided marketing and financial support to No Kings Collective and assisted No Kings Collective with securing things like insurance.
It’s no surprise the all-star line-up of close to 50 restaurants from the D.C. area and Baltimore drew tens of thousands of people from near and far to one of the District’s main arteries. Anju, Ekiben, Thip Khao, Maketto, Lei Musubi, Makan, China Chilcano, Pho Wheels, and Kuya Ja’s Lechon Belly were all there. The mission was to celebrate the Asian American and Pacific Islander community’s resilience after an isolating and dangerous year and to share a taste of what the atmosphere is like at night markets in Asia.
“The city showed up to support the AAPI community and our vendors were celebrated,” says No Kings Collective co-founder Peter Chang. “That was ultimately the foundation of what we were trying to do.”
At least two AAPI chefs, whose restaurants were featured at the night market, spoke out on social media Sunday. “All day it’s going to be, ‘I went to an Asian night market once and let me tell you how you should have been organized,'” wrote Chef Erik Bruner-Yang in an Instagram story. After thanking organizers for bringing people together, he continued: “I have done hundreds of colonizer centric full price ticketed food festivals across this country and didn’t have to listen to this much bullshit.”
“These fucking business vendors just wanna make money and have you guys wait in line in the cold!” wrote one Instagram user in the comments. “Regardless of if the food are sold out or not! Poorly managed #REDEYE. I should give you a panda eye on your left eye.”
“No one complains this much about cherry blossom, h st festival, nats game, shows at the anthem, parades,” Chef Kevin Tien also wrote in an Instagram story. “Is it easier to bitch because this was a BIPOC event. The [REDEYE Night Market] did a fantastic job and for me this was a huge success for an event during the pandemic. The staff beyond helpful and easy to work with.” He goes on to say that some attendees “still managed to show aggression to our staff and even other event goers.”
City Paper has previously chronicled how tricky food festivals are to pull off and how they’re often sources of frustration for vendors and attendees.
The overcrowded night market turned loose thousands of people who were looking for hot food in a hurry. They flocked to Baan Siam, Penn Social, Daikaya, Bantam King, Mandu, Central Michele Richard, Carmine’s, and other establishments. Downtown bars and restaurants got a refresher on what business was like before the pandemic.
“At 5 p.m., when we were at capacity for the dining room, we were like something’s going on,” Healy says. He huddled with his partners immediately. “It just spiraled from there.”
The people phoning ahead for reservations or showing up at the door weren’t groups of two or three. “People were like, ‘Can I get a party for 22, a party for 18, or a party of 12?'” Healy says. “This festival was groups of friends who got together. The line for the host station was out the door and around the corner. The host kept looking at people saying, ‘Just turn around and don’t even try.'”
Baan Siam brought in a record $16,900 in sales. On a good Saturday night, the rake is closer to $15,000. The gulf between the two figures would be wider had the restaurant not imposed strict one-hour time limits on tables. Patrons couldn’t order round upon round of drinks.
Despite making more money, Healy isn’t interested in a sequel. “Normal customers were not getting the level of service they were used to,” he says. “All of our resources turned into crowd control. The kitchen didn’t go down, but it came close.”
Sprawling downtown bar Penn Social had room for large groups. General Manager Rob Hess says they saw a 150 percent increase in sales Saturday night. When groups started trickling in around between 4:30 and 5:30 p.m. he thought Capitals fans were pregaming earlier than usual. Then he realized they were coming from the festival in droves.
“We ended up at capacity around 7:30 p.m.,” Hess says. “Groups of 20 were coming in all at once. There wasn’t an empty seat in the house. That hasn’t happened since before COVID.”
Bartenders on the early shift stayed on longer and late-shift bartenders came in early to accommodate the rush. “It honestly was nice to see people returning downtown,” Hess continues. “The street traffic was dramatically more than a normal rush hour any day of the week downtown.”
Isabelle DuBois, general manager at Central Michel Richard, agrees. Her restaurant is right on Pennsylvania Avenue NW. They reached capacity quickly during dinner service and had to turn customers away. “We went from nothing to 5,000 very quickly,” she says.
DuBois theorizes more was at play than the too-popular event. A handful of patrons were coming or going from plays at theaters while others said they were in town for weddings. “It was not just the festival, it was a perfect setting. The weather was good. The city is doing a good job trying to promote [downtown] areas.”
The REDEYE Night Market has potential for a repeat performance, with a few significant organizational tweaks. “We’d love for this to become an annual event,” Chang says. “We have a lot to learn for next year. We are listening to all of the feedback we’re receiving and will be implementing many changes.” They’re considering an expanded check-in process, a larger footprint for the event that will allow vendors to spread out, and timed tickets.
Feedback from attendees reveals the biggest pain point. Organizers asked attendees to register in advance on Eventbrite. It felt all for naught because you didn’t need to show proof of registration to enter. Entry was free. “We’ve maxed out on Eventbrite tickets, but you can still attend,” REDEYE Night Market posted on Instagram the day of the festival.
“Occasionally in the events industry, RSVPs for free events are used as a tactic to gauge interest so that organizers can relay numbers to vendors,” Chang explains. He declined to provide City Paper with the total number of people who registered in advance. “This was always meant to be a free event that you could walk up to, and we never explicitly said that you could only enter if you RSVP’d. With admission free on a cold November evening, it was hard to fully gauge how many folks would actually show up.”
Lines formed before the event even began. Personnel at the gates were tasked with not only checking bags, but also asking all attendees for proof of vaccination or the results of a negative COVID-19 test from the previous 72 hours with a matching ID.
“We apologize that we were unable to provide the experience that some expected, but we are listening and learning for next year,” Chang reiterates. “I’ve also received hateful messages, which should tell you everything about why we wanted to do this event and how much we’ve put on the line to do it. We just want to remind people we’re humans.”
In addition to the downtown restaurants that got a big boost Saturday night, Chang says he heard attendees vowing to visit the brick-and-mortar locations of some of the festival vendors. “This in itself is a huge win for our community, even though it unfortunately came at the expense of inadequate access.”