Brooklyn's Smorgasburg is more popular than ever, and the competition to be a vendor there has never been more competitive. So what's it actually like to run a stand at the weekend pop up?
In this miniseries we will take a regular look at first time participant Scharf & Zoyer, owned by Real Cheap Eats co-founder Noah Arenstein. The series will provide an insider's perspective on what it's like to run a pop up, with all of its headaches and struggles. In the coming week's we'll delve into the challenges Noah's faced (and will face): securing a kitchen, creating a menu, developing his market niche, and the physical toll of running a food stand. But for now let's say hello.
A native of Cincinnati, Noah grew up immersed in Midwestern Jewish culture. Though his grandparents were raised Orthodox, his family was not particularly religious. But they were serious about their food: His grandmother's baking, his grandfather's family pickle recipe, and a pair of stores that his family oriented their weekend afternoons around.
"It's a kosher bagel bakery run by a non-Jew called Marx Hot Bagels. He calls himself the bagel man, and he's kind of a piece of shit. He's like Shopsin without the charm. But he makes, sadly, still the best bagels and the best tuna salad I've ever eaten," he told me. "That was every Saturday or Sunday. You're watching the Cincinnati Bengals, Reds, or Bearcats, and you'd be sitting there with a spread of bagels and lox. And you get the lox from this old, gone butcher across the street called Bilker's. It was a ritual, a weekend ritual, and that was the stuff I grew up loving."
Noah's interest in starting a food business dates back to 2009, when he found himself laid off from his job at a law firm. He considered commercializing his grandfather's pickles, but had trouble getting a consistent product.
In 2010, Noah met Ben Burakoff, then a sous chef at Marc Forgione. They began talking about starting a restaurant last winter and took their first step, in the fall of 2012, with Torpedo Palace. Operating out of the Fulton Stall Market, they used a wood fired oven to make torpedos, a type of stuffed sandwich, and bialys. The market was most of all a chance to test the waters, teaching them lessons in buying ingredients and planning menus, and Noah saw Smorgasburg as the logical next step.
The first step was to send in an application in January, for which Smorgasburg's organizers ask for a description of the concept, the vendor's experience, and a sample menu. Noah received a quick and positive response, and his next step was to present them food in February. For this, he brought a menu of zucchini ajlouk, 'everything' croissants, pimento cheese, and a monkey bread.
Noah didn't receive his acceptance into the market until the second week of March, at which point he had to get his food handler's permit license, acquire a kitchen space, budget and estimate expenses, and purchase equipment including coolers, electric griddles, and tables. It's been a sprint up until Smorgasburg's opening day.
Arenstein described Scharf and Zoyer, which means "spicy and sour" in Yiddish, as "Russ & Daughters meets No. 7 Sub." Although he sees his business within the context of Mile End, his inspiration is as much derived from Jewish delis as No. 7 and Court Street Grocers.
"It didn't really come together for me as a focused theme until after I read Gil Marks' Encyclopedia of Jewish Food. It goes back to reading a lot, and seeing what used to be on the Lower East Side. The breadth of Jewish cuisine that you could once get, and now there's just a handful of places left. It's a shame that it's gone. And you know from reading, as Jews assimilated, they stopped eating that stuff as much. There was a stigma attached to it. I've seen other restaurants do it. You know, try and revive that stuff in the past couple years and," he says assertively, "I'm going to help bring it back."
About the author: Chris Crowley is the author of the Bronx Eats column. 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.