Anatomy of a Smorgasburg Pop Up: Meeting Customer Expectations and the Bottom Line
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.
When I met Noah on Tuesday night, he was busy prepping kirby cucumbers for pickling and testing out egg cream preparations. He had just finished a long conversation with his grandmother about how to make the best salt-brined pickles. (For the record, Grandma Slovin does not recognize the legitimacy of vinegar pickles.) Last week, we discussed the issues of cooking the right amount of food and using your best ingredients where they count. But the relative costs of ingredients isn't the only thing a new vendor must take into consideration when working out his menu—it's just as important to respond and adjust to customer expectations.
Just because you, as a vendor, really and truly love a food doesn't mean it will connect with your customers. (There is, we suspect, a good reason why no one is hawking fūqī fèipiàn, the Sichuanese cold appetizer of beef offal and meat, in New York.) Many customers seem to come regularly and visit vendors they're familiar with; Smorgasburg is not necessarily a place where come to eat something "weird."
For a new and unknown vendor still working on building customer trust, an unfamiliar food is a hard sell. While the stall has been a hit with his Jewish customers, Noah—like a manager forced to bench a former All-Star who just can't hit anymore—has had to drop the chopped liver from his lineup for that very reason.
"I've always been pragmatic. Obviously I want to keep it, but before anything else I gotta pay my bills," Noah said. "So if the chopped liver is not selling its not selling. I can't force it on people."
For the same reason, Noah has been hesitant to add a favorite invention of his to the menu: the gefilte filet of fish.
"It sums up what Global Jewish Sandwiches is in its essence. It's taking an old, classic Eastern European recipe I grew up on and putting it in a modern context. It's a play off the McDonald's filet-o-fish, and it just tastes good," Noah paused. "But it's so niche, and Williamsburg isn't necessarily the right place for it."
Noah sees the sandwich as an uphill battle that would require justifying it to customers on two levels. There's what he calls "the gefilte fish aversion," and then there's convincing the customer that the sandwich is better cold. (It operates on the principles established by cold fried chicken, that much beloved staple of leftovers cuisine.) It doesn't help that the sandwich is a beast to make: a labor-intensive process that would keep him in the kitchen far longer than his current commitment.
In these last few weeks, practicality has been Noah's chief adversary as he tries to refine and curtail the Scharf & Zoyer menu to better fit Smorgasburg.
Last week, Noah introduced his savory counterpart to the original kugel double down. For this test run, he served it with a filling of carrot and cabbage coleslaw and gribenes (fried chicken skin), an ingredient which he had been jonesing to feature. Noah felt the sandwich needed a binder, and so replaced the slaw with a ramp pkhali and a caramelized onion and dill cheese spread this weekend. The story behind how the sandwich came together is as quintessentially New York as a Yemeni-run Jewish deli in Bed-Stuy.
He couldn't find a butcher to sell him chicken skin alone, and doesn't have a dish that could use the meat from chicken parts. So unless he wanted to eat chicken for every meal, he had to find another source of gribenes.
Through his Scharf & Zoyer social media accounts, Noah put out a call for gribenes. Queens food maven, and friend of Noah's, Joe DiStefano delivered, alerting him that the Thai restaurant SriPraPhai sold containers of chicken skins cooked with ginger and garlic.
So here you have a vendor peddling modernized Jewish sandwiches in New York's hippest food market, one of which was made possible by a Thai restaurant in Queens and a Long Island-born Italian-American food writer. If that isn't New York, what is? Well, those Dr. Brown black cherry egg creams Noah is now selling are a good candidate.
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.