A Smorg is Born

Here’s my completed feature on Smorgasburg. Featuring some delightful cameos from Karen Seiger, Danny Macaroons, People’s Pops, Mighty Quinn’s, Rick’s Picks, and Alchemy Creamery!

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When T.S. Eliot wrote that April is the cruelest month, he did not have Smorgasburg in mind. April in Brooklyn shakes off the lingering bite of winter, and even the under-watered plants for sale outside the bodegas spring to life. Young couples, pushing strollers and tugging on leashes, pour through the brick archways of the Tobacco Warehouse on the DUMBO waterfront, where the Smorgasburg food market is entering its third season.

The space is lined with canopied booths slinging eats for all palates: prepared foods like ramen noodles, grilled cheese, homemade soda, oysters, coffee and sweets, and packaged goods like jams, preserves and pickles. Tourists wander in after photographing the Manhattan skyline. A massive line winds from the Mighty Quinn’s booth, serving the famous slow-smoked ribs also available at their East Village restaurant. A pigtailed child in a sequined skirt tells her mother, “I want dessert first!”

Smorgasburg captures the magic of Brooklyn Flea in food market form. Founded by the minds behind the Flea, Jonathan Butler and Eric Demby, the market launched in 2011 and has been gaining traction ever since. And like Brooklyn Flea, Smorgasburg has two locations: Williamsburg’s East River State Park on Saturdays and DUMBO’s Tobacco Warehouse on Sundays. In a TV segment, Mario Batali called “the Smorg,” as it is affectionately known, “the single greatest thing I’ve ever seen gastronomically in New York.”

Whether or not you subscribe to Batali’s brand of hyperbole, Smorgasburg does sell itself as a distinctive market experience.  Karen Seiger, the “market expert” behind the Markets of New York City guidebook and blog, compares the Smorg to European markets in its sensibility.

“In Paris, you can buy fantastic breakfasts and lunches, fresh bread and roasted chicken or whatever else, in the market. But in New York, the food and farmer’s markets are mostly ingredients, stuff you take home and make. There’s nothing like Smorgasburg.”

And the Smorg’s star is still rising. Whole Foods on Bowery has established a dedicated Smorgasburg counter, where selected vendors set up a month-long mini-restaurant with a menu adapted from their market offerings. Beginning Memorial Day weekend, Butler and Demby are also set to open a 40-table food court and beer garden made up of select Smorgasburg vendors at Manhattan’s South Street Seaport, in the hopes of driving traffic to an area that was devastated by Hurricane Sandy.

Molly Winter, a young nursing student who sells for Danny Macaroons, is approached by two young couples, regulars to the market. They take in the display, golf ball-sized macaroons in flavors like peanut butter and jelly, salted caramel and banana pecan. “We’re here once a week,” one man tells me. “We go to Rice and Miso, and then we come here.”

Winter hands over their sweets with a smile. “I like the spirit that comes with the market,” she says. “I like that you can give somebody food and they’re happy.”

Smorgasburg is no longer just for the hipster set, she adds. The DUMBO location draws families, young couples and tourists of all stripes. “The whole artisanal food movement is exploding,” she says. “People want to have more to do with the food they’re eating, people want to know where their products come from, and also just eat funky things. That’s why we have fun flavors like salted caramel and jalapeno jam and strawberry balsamic. People are into that.”

Some vendors’ products are better suited to one of the two weekend locations. People’s Pops, makers of locally sourced fruit popsicles and shaved ice with flavors like red plum and sour cherry and pear and ginger, have more success with the Williamsburg set, says a tweed-blazered seller named Bryan. In fact, People’s Pops typically have one of the longest lines at the Williamsburg market. The founders of People’s Pops launched their business at Smorgasburg, but have since expanded to four seasonal locations in Manhattan and Brooklyn, and their popsicles are also available at grocers like Whole Foods and Union Market.

“It’s a weird, mixed bag kind of a business,” Bryan says. “Because you have a really great product, but obviously you can’t offer it at all times. Unless they [decide to] get into boozy popsicles,” he suggests.

Another company that catapulted to success on the strength of the Smorg is Mighty Quinn’s. A favorite of Mario Batali’s, the Southern barbeque joint made its debut at the market and quickly expanded to a brick-and-mortar location in the East Village – which Batali has also since visited, and enthusiastically endorsed on Twitter.

Mighty Quinn’s co-founder Micha Magid says, “Smorgasburg is where the brand was born, and we love being part of what the Brooklyn Flea guys are doing. We used Brooklyn as the test trial for what we’re trying to do, and that success is why we leveraged to the next level.” He added that fans of the restaurant should expect more locations to pop up soon.

The Wall Street Journal recently published a piece detailing Smorgasburg’s “secret to success” – a low vendor acceptance rate that rivals that of an Ivy League School. The founders have built up a highly selective acceptance process, choosing their sellers with an eye on product diversity and rigorous health standards. Danny Cohen, the “macaroon master” behind Danny Macaroons, had to track Demby down in person and offer him a tasting before he was accepted.

Butler told the WSJ, “We prefer to have empty stalls rather than let in people who we didn’t think were up to snuff.” Butler and Demby were not available for comment for this article.

“They really focus on serious food entrepreneurs,” market expert Karen Seiger adds. “You have to have a business – you can’t just be making nice little cookies. You have to have production, certification. They’re setting up little mini-restaurants every weekend. You have to have insurance and liability and whatever else the health inspector needs. And yet they feature some incredible people who are following their dreams.”

Although the vendors are all carefully selected, some brands are more established than others. Some are burgeoning businesses using the market as a testing ground before expanding to a permanent location, while others have previously established storefronts or retail partnerships. Rick’s Picks, a retailer that sells a variety of pickled items like relish, corn and beets, already has a presence at New York’s green markets, as well as partnerships with Shake Shack, Bareburger, Whole Foods, Dean and Deluca and Union Market. Smorgasburg is a fairly recent venture for the company.

“The green markets are a little more bureaucratic, a little more staid,” says a Rick’s Picks seller who identifies himself simply as Jason. In addition to the pickled goods, they also offer T-shirts emblazoned with charming cartoon depictions of some of their more popular products, like ‘Phat Beets’ and ‘Mean Beans.’ “Our way of making an impact is a little different here,” he says. “Like, we’re not allowed to sell our T-shirts at green markets. But here that’s totally acceptable.”

On the other hand, the Smorg is also a jumping-off point for sellers like Rob Liano, an affable forty-something with a surfer drawl who launched his barbeque company, Baby Got Back Ribs, just last year. Their limited menu – distinct from Mighty Quinn’s – includes an “artisanal McRib,” with sweet slow-cooked ribs stripped from the bone and topped with fresh pickles and onions on a roll. “It’s based on a recipe that my great-aunt made in Parsons, Kansas,” Liano says.

So far their sales have been restricted to Smorgasburg and the twice-annual Madison Square Eats market in the Flatiron District, but Liano feels like Smorgasburg is giving the business a push in the right direction.

“We started last year, feeling intimidated by the process,” he says. “Brooklyn Flea and the vendor community took us in like a nursing mother. It’s been one of the greatest experiences. Everybody here pushes each other because everybody’s upping the bar constantly, so you’re always trying to make your product better.”

He mentions three vendors: Lumpia Shack, makers of Filipino-inspired spring rolls, Brooklyn Piggies, purveyors of pigs in a blanket, and Mimi and Coco, serving trendy Japanese “teriyaki balls,” who are all poised to open storefronts this summer thanks to exposure gained at the market. And Baby Got Back Ribs may soon take off as well. “[Last year] we were selling out of ribs every Saturday,” Liano says. “Hopefully we have another great season that sets us up for a grown-up location.”

But the upswing in sales translates to a major downside for some visitors. Thanks to Brooklyn Flea’s positive press and delectable dishes, the market and its culinary offshoot are no longer Brooklyn’s treasured little secret. The crowds at Smorgasburg can be overwhelming; in warm weather, lines at the Williamsburg location are anywhere from five to twenty people deep.

Lauren Ritter, who visited the market on a recent trip from Boston, says it can be unbearably cramped, adding that some vendors ran out of food before day’s end.  “It was basically impossible to leisurely stroll while we tried to take everything in,” she wrote in an email. “I definitely would have tried more stuff had the lines not been prohibitive. I waited about 25 minutes to get [a] falafel.”

“I also felt like there could have been a better space for sticking around and eating the food,” she added.

Williamsburg already draws a great deal of weekend foot traffic from tourists and Manhattanites thanks to its recent hipster renaissance, and the extra crowding from the market is unwelcome to some. A student who lives in nearby Greenpoint remarked that the crush of visitors around the Bedford subway stop in Williamsburg, the only point of access to the Saturday market, makes the streets nearly impossible to navigate on weekends.

Still, the crowds translate into major profits for Smorgasburg’s burgeoning vendors, whose cheerful camaraderie is born of the sheer number visitors and sales the market generates.

“These guys give a shit,” Liano says of Butler and Demby. “They’re not out for the buck. They get a lot of press because what they’re doing is right. They’re making good decisions, and they just keep doing cool shit, and people are drawn to it.”

“The anticipation and excitement compared to other markets, it’s just night and day,” says J.D. Gross of Alchemy Creamery, a vegan ice cream operation whose display includes ingredients arranged in beakers and a wooden wand perched on top of a mound of business cards – showmanship is key.

Thanks to Butler and Demby’s emphasis on diversity, competition among sellers is kept to a minimum and friendly collaboration prevails. “We’re all about teaming up,” Gross says. “We team up with any of the drink vendors here to do floats. We provide the cup, we give you your ice cream, and then you decide how you want to float it. I think that’s the spirit of the place: ‘Let’s team up and make something cool.’”

In a city where trash cans are perpetually overflowing, men and women in business attire violently elbow their way through crowds and the subway always slams its doors just a moment too soon, it is important to slow down for even a second, soak in the sunshine and remember that New York is also a place where dreams come true, sometimes in a shape as simple as a popsicle.

Seiger has an apt metaphor for that fleeting feeling of joy. “You know the movie Brigadoon? It’s a story about a Scottish village that appears in the mist every hundred years. So if you come across it, it’s there, but when the mist goes, Brigadoon disappears. It’s sort of like the markets. They create this environment with so much energy and creativity and enthusiasm – and then it’s gone. Until next weekend, when they’re back with all their magic.”

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