Anatomy of a Smorgasburg Pop Up: Changing the Menu, Expanding Beyond the Market

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Gefilte filet o' fish, with horseradish mayo and carrot slaw. [Photograph: Chris Crowley]

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.

Summer is in session at Smorgasburg, and with the increased crowds come a new set of obstacles to overcome. Chiefly, adjusting the menu to accommodate the heat, something that Noah immediately realized he'd need to do. Beginning vendors need to consider how their menu items will be received over the course of a season, not just the first few weeks of spring.

"I had high hopes for the week after [Memorial Day] and it wasn't that good," Noah said. "So I thought, then what's it going to be like in July and August? It really made me open my eyes and say, we have to figure some stuff out, lighten it up and make it more palatable for the summer." The stand's modern Jewish sandwiches make a smart theme, but they're not as ideal come 90 degree days.

On Saturday, Noah enacted his first change for the summer: 86ing his tuna salad. In our early conversations, we talked a lot about "his comfort food," and each sandwich on Noah's menu incorporates some ingredient from that pantry. There is the berber breakfast sandwich's rye bread, his grandmother's kugel recipe for the double down, and, until now, the tuna salad and everything bagel spices served on a croissant.

But the tuna melt may have been too comforting. American comfort food may be having a moment right now, but that moment has been limited to a small set of trendy dishes like mac and cheese, nachos, and fried chicken. Tuna salad? Not so much. And Smorgasburg isn't where you go to change minds or culinary prejudices.

On the ground, it's been difficult for Noah to explain to customers how the tuna melt fits into his Global Jewish milieu. "It wasn't so much the tuna salad that made it my comfort food," Noah said. "It was the everything bagel."

All of this, though, takes a backseat to economics. In order to make the sandwich affordable and practical, Noah had to buy much larger quantities of tuna than he has been selling. Keeping the low-selling sandwich on the menu meant creating more tuna salad than he could sell, and it doesn't last. For all these reasons, and the heaviness of the sandwich, he's dropping it for the summer.

What he's replacing it with is a sandwich both more personal and updated: the gefilte filet o'fish. This is despite his reservations about introducing the sandwich, one that he had believed in from the start but felt was impractical for the market, which we detailed in a previous column. What makes the sandwich impractical is that the gefilte takes three days to prepare. First it is poached, then cooled overnight, fried, and cooled overnight again.

A play on the popular McDonald's sandwich, spun with the yarn of traditional Jewish cooking, the gefilte filet o'fish is served cold on a Martin's potato bread slider bun. Noah sees the sandwich's smaller size as an advantage in the warm weather. The larger tuna melt wasn't necessarily appealing on a 95 degree day; customers don't, after all, come to Smorgasburg just to eat one thing.

Economically, the sandwich is a mixed bag. It's cheaper to produce than the tuna melt but comes with a greater labor cost. But Noah's ready to take the plunge, despite once worrying that it might be out of place in the Williamsburg market.

As Noah tests the waters at Smorgasburg with this new fish sandwich, he'll be pivoting his stand on the steadily increasing sales of the berber breakfast sandwich and the kugel double down. We talked about the ripples of a lost May—"looking back, we were starting to get into a groove, starting to break even, and it set us back"—and growing the business. Smorgasburg provides its vendors with a big platform, but that does not mean they can or should stay put and hold tight.

"The problem is the limitations of Smorgasburg mean you can only do so much while you're there," Noah explained, echoing a theme we've explored before. For a vendor like Scharf & Zoyer, success at Smorgasburg means tiptoeing a fine line between exploiting your niche and not being reduced to a single product in the eyes of the consumer.

Looking to expand his profile, Noah will be hosting his first ever pop up, "Scharf and Snickered," at Brooklyn Oenology on June 25th. The menu will include such dishes as chopped liver with gribenes on a bagel chip, sweet and sour meatball sliders with mushroom ketchup and provolone, and chocolate- and cardamom-dipped mandel bread, which he will be selling as a special next Saturday. The dinner, as Noah sees it, is a chance to spread Scharf & Zoyer's wings.

"It's to show off all the good stuff that we make that's not necessarily going to work one day a week at Smorgasburg," Noah told me. In the coming weeks, we'll deal with more of the obstacles Noah is facing as Scharf & Zoyer transitions into the summer, the lessons from their first pop up dinner, and the other ways in which Noah is expanding his brand.

Previously

Introducing Scharf & Zoyer »
Opening Day on 1 Hour of Sleep »
Getting in Focus, Developing a 'Killer App' »
How a Vendor Figures Out Portion Control »
Meeting Customer Expectations and the Bottom Line »
The Physical & Psychological Toll, Part 1 »
A Look at Couscous Specialists NY Shuk »
The Setbacks of Bad Weather »
The Psychological Stress of Lost Opportunities »

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.

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