Emile DeFelice saw promise in an empty street.
In 2012, as DeFelice considered a new location for his popular and growing street market, the heart of downtown Columbia cropped up as a candidate. Before making any decisions, DeFelice did some research.
“We really tried to be deliberate and thoughtful about the process,” said DeFelice, who founded what would become Soda City Market in 2005. “We didn’t want to just go down there without knowing anything. So one of the things we did, besides spend a lot of time down there, was pull some random Saturday morning video tapes from city security.”
That footage revealed a far different scene than the bustling one that greets present-day patrons of the 150 or vendors who line Main Street each Saturday from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m.
“We’d count the cars. There would be like 60 between the hours of nine and one,” DeFelice said. “There’d be 19 people — 15 homeless people and four who looked like they really didn’t want to be on Main Street.”
Even so, DeFelice, a self-described casual student of urban planning, saw enough in Main Street’s open spaces and architecture to be intrigued.
“What I saw was not quite a blank palette, but a perfect palette,” he said.
Six years later, that canvas has come to life. The weekly market in the 1300-1500 blocks of Main Street draws 5,000 to 7,000 visitors each Saturday and generates more than $6 million in city-taxed gross sales per year, according to figures provided by Soda City Market.
“The whole pace is faster than I ever would have dared predict, and it’s resulted in some cool things,” DeFelice said. “Like, I have a real office. We have a wonderful staff” of five full-time and more than a dozen part-time workers, along with a competitive health care plan, he said. “We feel like we’re able to make a contribution while making a good living and providing a good living.”
Soda City is a private event company that does not use public monies, including hospitality tax funds, to operate. An average of 30 farms offer products from strawberries to goat cheese to customers with toddlers and dogs in tow while a dozen food trucks dish up everything from paella to barbecue and vendors peddle jewelry, artwork and T-shirts, among other wares.
DeFelice is perhaps most proud of the dozen-plus nationalities on display each week.
“The market is meant to be a microcosm of Columbia, of the Midlands, and of South Carolina,” he said. “The city has a vibrant, international, creative class community, (and) it’s really important, if people come to visit or if you just imagine that this is a village town square, that you fully appreciate and understand who all is living in this place.”
CHARITY AND CHOCOLATE
James Stefanakos has been a part of the Soda City community for a year and a half. In 2015, the former engineer saw a chance to do some good and to address what he saw as a serious shortcoming in his hometown of Graniteville.
“I just got tired of there being no good chocolate where I live,” said Stefanakos, who launched Agape Chocolates in 2015. “I left my career as an engineer and started my new career as a chocolate engineer.”
Stefanakos was also driven by seeing children at his daughter’s school squirrel away lunch leftovers in their pockets so they could have something to eat later. Proceeds from sales of his artisan chocolate bars, made with locally sourced ingredients, benefit charities that combat child hunger in the areas where he sets up shop.
When people purchase $6 bars in flavors such as Love at First Chai, Pink Dogwood and Stormy Sea at Soda City, contributions are made to Harvest Hope Food Bank’s backpack program, which provides at-risk schoolchildren with food on weekends and school holidays.
Stefanakos estimates his business has helped feed more than 30,000 children. It also features a personal touch, with handmade labels featuring artwork by his three children: Maia, Xander and Phebe.
Stefanakos has worked markets in Augusta and Aiken and says Soda City is the best of the three because the organizers are easy to work with.
“Everything’s done through the internet, and it’s really smooth,” Stefanakos said. “Last year, my mother-in-law passed away, and they were really understanding when I couldn’t be here. Sometimes when you don’t see people face-to-face, it can get a little impersonal, but I don’t believe we have that at Soda City.”
While vendors, who complete applications available at sodacitysc.com, don’t often deal with organizers in person, up-close interaction with marketgoers is a vital part of their Saturday commerce.
Denise Taylor, who has lived in Columbia for more than 25 years, is better known to loyal customers as The Seasoning Lady. She offers samples of sauces she created while running her own catering company and fields questions from passers-by. An oft-asked one is what the sauce line’s name, DG, stands for.
“Damn good,” she responds with a grin. “I couldn’t just put it out there like that. My pastor wouldn’t understand.”
Taylor used to work Lexington’s Barnyard flea market, where she kept hearing that she needed to be at Soda City. So she checked out the scene and has been a Main Street fixture for the past four years.
“I like the atmosphere,” she said. “It’s a good way to let people know about the seasoning and to let them taste it at the same time. People don’t really want what they can’t taste.”
ATTENTION TO DETAIL
The fresh produce typically associated with a traditional farmer’s market is a staple of Soda City, but not its sole focus.
“A market should be more than vegetables,” said DeFelice, who grew produce, herbs and flowers and raised pigs during his own 20-year farming career. “You should at least be able to put a meal together — a meat, a starch, dairy, produce, fruits, grains — even some soap and flowers.”
Soda City’s bounty is a far cry from November 2005, when the All Local Farmers Market made its debut at a local restaurant with six vendors and 225 customers. From there, the market expanded to a location at 711 Whaley St., where it stayed for three-plus years before the downtown idea took root.
Attention is paid to every detail, including the white tents vendors work under. Sunlight looks best filtered through white fabric, DeFelice said.
“This is basically our store, and we know how to make a store look good,” he said. “Our priority is and always has been making the vendors money. (Soda City) works because everybody stays in their lane. … We are prompt, we are thoughtful, we are versatile, and we are strict. All those things combined means that everybody’s playing on the same field and everybody has all the information they need.”
DeFelice has considered replicating the Soda City model elsewhere, but his plate is full. Soda City oversees additional Main Street events as well as other endeavors, such as the annual Gervais Street Bridge Dinner. Run by Soda City’s charity arm, Soda City Friends, the dinner has raised more than $125,000 in three years for local charities, with an emphasis on organizations working to preserve and improve Columbia’s rivers.
DeFelice also hasn’t found the same ingredients that make Soda City work so well when he’s considered other potential markets. He flirted with investing in a similar idea in Nashville a few years ago, but along with needing around $3 million up front, he said he would also have had to defer decision-making power to a five-person committee appointed by the mayor.
“That’s a deal breaker, man,” he said. “You expect me to put my money on the line, and somebody else is going to call the shots? You are out of your mind.”
Soda City does not operate with board members or regular meetings — “You know what all those produce? Drama, drama, drama,” DeFelice said — and DeFelice said one of the biggest compliments he hears from vendors is that working with Soda City is a simple process.
For his part, DeFelice said he enjoys helping a variety of vendors find success and profits. He points to examples such as Indah Coffee, which grew from a tent on Main Street to a brick-and-mortar store in Cottontown with what Food & Wine magazine recently rated the best coffee in the state.
“This lets me think about hundreds and hundreds of other businesses and help them find solutions,” he said. “You’re just sort of giving everybody good things. This is kind of like a Santa Claus job.”
At her tent, Taylor smiled as she bagged a customer’s purchase and handed her a business card that includes a Facebook page where she posts recipes.
“People like that one-on-one,” Taylor said. “This is South Carolina at its finest.”
This story first appeared in the June 18 print edition of the Columbia Regional Business Report.