By: Benyamin Davidsons
Chelsea Market was opened on Nov. 12, 1997. A revolutionary concept, the high Line food emporium is now one of the world’s most vibrant indoor food and retail marketplaces, and garners some six million visitors annually. It was brainstormed and brought to fruition by its founder Irwin Cohen. In an interview with Side Dish, Cohen, now 88, tells about how he brought the idea to life, and how it helped revitalized the neighborhood.
The whole concept was a very brave endeavor for someone who had no food experience, but as Cohen put it– New Yorkers care about clothing, food and shelter. Cohen had already worked in the other two sectors, so he figured it was time to tackle the food industry. We had “lots of garment center tenants, so I didn’t want to build factories or showrooms, and I had also managed lots of apartments all over the United States, so we were left with food, and we all need it,” he told Side Dish.
Today, Chelsea Market is an iconic culinary mecca for upmarket foodies and chefs, situated in the heart of Manhattan’s Meatpacking District. It wasn’t always a great neighborhood though—the market went a long way to revitalize that part of the West Side. As per the NY Post, in the early 1990s, the New York-native came up with the idea to open up a giant food market that would combine wholesale and retail and promote local entrepreneurs and artisans.
Cohen didn’t have the money at the time to make all the investments necessary, and a recession had put a damper on bank loans. Cohen still had his street smarts and connections though, which he used to get investors from Russia—who were itching to invest their cash after the collapse of the Soviet Union. So, with funding from Russian entrepreneurs, Cohen arranged and purchased an assemblage of 17 buildings – spanning from West 15th and West 16th streets on 10th Avenue and 11th Avenue. The entire property cost just under $11 million.
To be sure, the buildings were less than impressive. One had served as the former home to the Nabisco Factory, where the Oreo cookie was made. By then, though, the buildings were vacant and dilapidated, or “100 years of garbage,” as Cohen put it. The streets were deserted, and it was home only to stray cats and prostitution. “It was a very very tough neighborhood,” Cohen said. “Going to work every day was a little dangerous. In fact, my Russian investors had to send over retired KGB agents.”
Cohen persevered though. Together with his daughter Cheryl, they went after food wholesalers and retailers for the space. They prioritized bringing in women entrepreneurs for the Chelsea Market, to the point that initially “67% of our owners were women”, Cohen said. Amy Scherber of Amy’s Bread, and Sarabeth Levine of Sarabeth’s were among the first, and their businesses took off from there. As the market came together, the city did its part of cracking down on crime too. Chelsea Market and the neighborhood have evolved over the years. Chelsea Market is now owned by Alphabet Inc., parent company of Google, which purchased the market in 2018 for $2.4 billion.
“I think that we did something good by getting the market started, and I was really privileged to be able to work with my daughter and come up with this whole idea,” Cohen said.