If you’ve ever been to the Soda City Market, odds are you know a few of the vendors by name. You may have had conversations with them, picked up a business card, or purchased a piece of art with their signature on it. These are the names that come to mind when you think of Main Street’s staple Saturday morning event. But do you know who the brain is behind it?
You probably answered no to this question. And that’s just the way Emile DeFelice likes it.
DeFelice’s goal is to run, as he calls it, “a faceless business.”
“I don’t want people worried about how many police are here, is the area secure, or who runs the entire thing,” he says.
In other words, he wants patrons of the market to see only one part of the operation: the vendors themselves.
Emile DeFelice was a farmer in his earlier career. He spent 20 years in the business, and had been a vendor at plenty of farmers’ markets to sell his products during that time. He felt he had the know-how to create a high-quality event; and when he came to Columbia, he felt the city was missing something like that.
DeFelice explained that his friends agreed with his intuition about the demand for a vibrant Capital City farmers market. Soda City Market opened in November 2005 at Kristian Niemi’s wine and tapas bar, Gervais and Vine, and relocated a couple more times until landing on Main in 2012. Niemi has since sold that business and now owns Bourbon on Main Street, but the long time friends are still partnering on events. The latest being the wildly popular Gervais Street Bridge Dinner.
In those early years, DeFelice says it was difficult to find vendors to participate.
“When we first started out, we had to take what we could get.” He says.
It was actually Mayor Steve Benjamin who suggested to DeFelice that he move the market to Main Street.
“It really helps when city government is behind an effort,” says DeFelice. “We decided to give it a go.”
The move was successful, and Soda City Market has been expanding ever since.
“Now that we have steady support from the public, we get five or six applications every day,” says DeFelice.
Named “Soda City” for the branding value and regional significance, DeFelice says he has licensed the nickname to over 100 entities in the area. A great testament to the market’s impact on Midlands citizens.
On a typical Saturday, the market hosts about 120 vendors. Its yearly revenue stream is just north of $5 million.
Over the last decade-plus of the Market, DeFelice and his co-conspirators have gotten the process of operating the Saturday staple down to a near-science. He says it is simple enough to be run by a single person on any given week.
“My high school-aged daughter has run it by herself several times,” he says.
“It’s been a great thing, and we’ve learned a lot along the way,” says DeFelice. “I’ve learned a lot about businesses. I’ve run plenty of businesses, but this has given me unprecedented scope and acceleration of learning. We’re working with 600 unique entities.”
DeFelice considers the market as a sort of Incubator for participating businesses, a safe-zone for the companies to practice retail and learn from each other. He says he enjoys the opportunity to mentor this multitude of small-business owners.
“It gives me a chance to help others learn on my dime,” he says. “Even after 215 markets (completed) on Main Street, we still learn something new every single week.”
Emile DeFelice believes a few of the lessons he has learned can be applied to nearly every small business owner out there. For example, the source of investments:
“It’s really important you use your own money,” he says. “Even if you borrow from someone, it doesn’t hold the same weight.”
DeFelice believes he is more self-conscious about his costs when they come out of his own pocket, which results in more careful decisions. He also says that how a business owner presents oneself can make a big difference in customer engagement.
“The little things mean a lot,” he says. “That’s not just little expenses here and there, deciding not to go to Starbucks every day. It’s how you hold your arms when you’re standing at your booth. It’s whether or not you’re wearing sunglasses and hiding your eyes. It’s whether you’re sitting in a chair or standing up. Very often, I’ll walk through the market and help people in those very specific small ways. There are all sorts of tiny cues that engage people.”
DeFelice sees Soda City Market as a resource to help all businesses grow.
“Even new businesses who haven’t vended or even applied yet, they’ll stroll through here and gather ideas,” he says. “We’ve had customers who have become vendors. We’ve had vendors sell their businesses to other vendors.”
“What I feel the best about is when I see a vendor succeed that I’ve been helping,” says DeFelice. “Our work contributes to easily 5,000 different paychecks.”
Some companies with a significant presence in Columbia were given their start in Soda City. The first market company to go “brick-and-mortar” was The Peanut Man, who now has a shop on Lincoln Street in the Vista, among others.
“No one has ever left this market because they didn’t make any money,” says DeFelice.
Soda City Market, along with First Thursday and other events, is playing a big role in the revitalization of the Main Street District. Emile DeFelice believes the Soda City Market can serve as a community staple that Columbia residents and visitors alike can identify with. He hopes every patron can envision coming to Main Street for a Saturday morning cup of coffee, a produce basket or a browse amongst the art and craftsmanship on a regular basis.
“It’s not a hard sell anymore,” says DeFelice about bringing patrons to Main Street.
With Soda City Market, as well as Nest and other boutiques and larger retailers, the district offers a shopping experience that DeFelice believes is much less stress-inducing than a mall.
And it appears that the public believes the same thing.
“Before we moved [to Main Street], we analyzed video of the street on six random weekends from the previous year,” says DeFelice. “And you maybe had 60 cars drive by between the hours of 9 and 1. Now, we have a parking problem. Considering that, that’s a very good sign.”
Soda City Market will be acquiring a third block for the weekly Main Street shutdown next year, which will open up opportunities for more vendors to participate in the experience. DeFelice says they are also looking at Main Street north of Elmwood for future expansions.
“Hopefully there will be some fantastic things happening there that we will be able to announce early next year,” he says.
Watch the Complete Startup Spotlight Emile DeFelice here: