Anatomy of a Smorgasburg Pop Up: How a Vendor Figures Out Portion Control
Editor's note: What's it like to be a vendor at Brooklyn's popular—and competitive—outdoor market Smorgasburg? This series will follow one of the market's new vendors and get the inside story of how a pop-up food business goes from idea to reality.
Since the first week of Smorgasburg, when Noah was running on one hour of sleep and turbocharged ice coffee, he's settled into a groove. Friday nights in the kitchen end at the more reasonable hour of 9 p.m. And while he's no longer cooking deep into the night, he's still working out the kinks of grocery shopping and producing the right amount of food.
During the first week, Noah thought he had an idea about how much he should cook. But he was approaching the task blind, and ended up cooking two and a half to three times as much food as he needed. Producing just the right amount of food, when you need to shop in bulk but are only serving once a week, is a learning process for new vendors.
"I didn't have such a good concept for how many people were going to be there, how much I was going to sell, who would be interested, and what sandwich they would be interested in," Noah explained, discussing his first week of shopping. "I was still working out the portions for the chicken liver (no longer available) and pimento cheese, how much tuna salad to put in each sandwich. I'd made them all before, but this is the first time I made them in that quantity."
When cooking and buying particular ingredients like the everything croissants from Breads Bakery, Noah must contend with the reality that only selling food once a week means any leftovers are a loss. This is one of the distinct issues facing the operators of a food stand, one that is difficult to solve. Making your product affordable means buying bulk—say, four pounds of canned tuna, in 40 oz. jars—and cooking large quantities.
So far, one solution has been to offer free samples, a way of luring in those with what Noah calls "the fear of tuna salad." Other times you're stuck with produce that won't make it through to the next week, and you either need to cook it and make too much or toss it.
For a new business still trying to make a mark on the Smorgascape, as opposed to an established presence like Buttermilk Channel, overproducing seems inevitable. But after three weeks of running Scharf & Zoyer, Noah has a good idea of what he needs to do.
Then there's the issue of getting portions right.
"Am I weighing out portions of how much ajlouk spread I'm putting on each one? I don't necessarily want to do that," Noah said. "I was putting too much tuna salad on sandwiches too, partially because I'm naturally generous. But because I'm doing it once a week, you really have to be precise—it places all the more importance on the amounts."
Noah sees a solution in the Sunday market at Smorgasburg, which despite a second full day at the market wouldn't require more time in the kitchen. The only expenses would be in fixed costs, such as renting the booth and paying his cook, and the one-time Temporary Food Service Establishment Fee. For vendors and the Smorgasburg team alike, the Sunday market is a win-win situation.
"Some of the stuff I can't use over," Noah explained. That's why I'm considering doing Sundays as well—it's cost effective. You aren't making much more food, and anything you don't sell on Saturday you can sell on Sunday."
When planning a menu for your Smorgasburg stall, it's important to take not only the availability of ingredients but their relative cost into consideration. Having your heart set on an ingredient, say a certain kind of Alsatian cheese, doesn't make it right for your business. A budding vendor might have aspirations of using all organic or gourmet ingredients, but the context of Smorgasburg as well as patrons' expectations and tastes make this difficult. Noah's strategy is to highlight his best stuff.
"In each item there's one ingredient that's very high quality or gourmet, but if you do that with every single ingredient it'll be prohibitively expensive. You want to use an expensive ingredient where it's going to stand out the most."
For Noah, these ingredients include the maple syrup and farmers cheese in his kugel double down and the harissa in his ajlouk spread. We talked about his search for different ingredients, and his love of the harissa he uses.
"That's the brand I use at home, I wasn't able to find another one I liked—I didn't like the texture of one I tried the first week," Noah explained. "I've been using it since I bought it at Jewish deli called Katzinger's in Columbus in 2007."
About the author: Chris Crowley is the author of the Bronx Eats and Anatomy of A Smorgasburg Pop Up columns. Follow him on Twitter, if you'd like. In person, your best bet is the window seat at Neerob, or waiting in line at the Lechonera La Piranha trailer.