In the heart of downtown Columbia, ‘Soda City’ has upped the game for outdoor markets

Soda City founder Emile DeFelice says he hopes the city's Saturday morning street market, with its wealth of diversity, will dispel some common assumptions about the city, and even about farmers markets.

Day trippers take note: A visit to Columbia’s Main Street market known as Soda City is worth the 90-minute trip from Charlotte. Trying to figure out why they call it Soda City not so much.

Held every Saturday—rain or shine—from 9 a.m. to 1p.m. along the city’s main drag, Soda City is an eclectic, fresh take on the Saturday morning street market trend. Now in its 12th year, Soda City features more than 150 vendors in the heart of downtown.

True to form, Soda City is a hip branding moniker meant to make you go “hmmmm.” The formal explanation is that the name is derived from the “Cola” abbreviation used for Columbia, while also paying tribute to the city’s old soda-bottling plants. Ask around and you’ll hear that the name came from a defunct soda shop while others give you that “it is what it is” look.

For newcomers, it really doesn’t matter what they call it. Most just keep strolling down the street trying to take it all in. Because what really sets apart Soda City is the unique lineup of vendors and products — from around the world and as close to home as the city’s African American community.

Yes, there are fresh fruits and vegetables for sale, but you’ll also find young string players strumming away for tips. No surprise encountering a stand of boiled peanuts, but who knew the person selling the peanuts would be rocking green hair? Or that there’d be empanadas cooked by local Latinas near fine wine grown and bottled in the Palmetto State? And hot rodding is one thing, but high-tech, electric Tesla cars on display is truly upping the game.

Is this the same sleepy Columbia known for its perpetual heat waves that we thought we knew so well?

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Soda City founder Emile DeFelice says it’s just those kinds of assumptions about the city, and even farmers markets, that he’s out to destroy.

“I want (people) to think of Columbia not as some backwater town,” says DeFelice. “We have a killer town with a lot of international people here,” adding that 20 different nationalities are represented at Soda City.

People often overlook that the state capital is home to the University of South Carolina; historically black Benedict College and Allen University; Fort Jackson; and a host of federal, state and city-related jobs. And though the city is infamously known for the Confederate flag that once flew over the capitol building, Main Street is lined with plaques and photographs that educate passersby about Columbia’s considerable contributions to the civil rights struggle.

From the beginning, says DeFelice, he was intentional about showcasing vendors who offered that special something most people wouldn’t expect in a Southern-bred farmers market. As a former farmer with 20 years experience who also ran for state agricultural commissioner, DeFelice knows his street/farmers markets.

“I’m a total market junkie,” he admits.

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But he’s had the luxury of shaping Soda City to his vision because, unlike most markets, Soda City is completely self-supporting. It pays the city for police, fire and sanitation services. And DeFelice personally reviews the five applications a day he gets from would-be vendors.

About that name: there’s the official version and then there’s another unofficial version that even DeFelice can’t help but pass around. Soda City may be based on the Cola abbreviation for Columbia, says DeFelice, but that was shortened “cuz it’s too hot to write the whole word.”

Regardless, DeFelice says his goal is to make people realize just how cool Columbia—and the Soda City Market—really are.

It’s hard to pick what might strike your fancy at Soda City, but here are a few worth trying.

• It takes a double-take to realize that Nieci’s Green Bites are selling organic pet snacks rather than the human kind. The samples out front are comparable to any granola snack or cookies you’ll see. The names and ingredients obviously are designed to cater to pampered pooches. The lineup features Veggie Bark with flax seed and carrots, Peanut Kiss with peanut butter and Cinna-Mint with apple, cinnamon and oatmeal. (niecisgreenbites.com)

Nieci’s Green Bites

• The Seasoning Lady — Denise Taylor — draws in her customers with her stir fry, savory chips and raspberry tea. But it’s her homemade seasonings that keeps them hovering around her table. Her mainstay offering called “Cook All Seasoning” has 36 herbs and spices (take that KFC!), none of which includes salt, msg or gluten. Or there’s “Sweet As Pie Seasoning” or “Spicy Cook All Seasoning” for a different take. (theseasoningladyxyz.com)

The Seasoning Lady, Denise Taylor

• Mimie’s Delect-A-Bowls offers a full taste of West African food, with its oxtails, African goat curry, jerk meat and avocado dream salad. But just to keep things cozy and familiar, don’t pass up the cinnamon rolls, which come in the vegan or all-gooey versions.  (facebook.com/Mdelectabowls/)

• It would be easy to bypass the stall for The Charming Cupcake Company and think, “been there, done that.” But not so fast. First, these bite-size cupcakes are just small enough that you don’t feel instant guilt. Then there’s the moist, cake-like texture followed by homemade icing topped with fresh fruit or gold balls.  When it comes to these cupcakes, it’s the little things that count. (facebook.com/CharmingCupcakes)

Charming Cupcakes

• Talk about a grandma on fire. When she couldn’t find cute, affordable outfits for her granddaughter, the owner of Stitch of Faith took to her sewing machine and came up with creations of her own. For the adult customer, cooking and school spirit aprons are available (stitchoffaith.dj@gmail.com)

Stitch of Faith

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