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.
After 11 weeks at Brooklyn's Smorgasburg, Noah Arenstein is moving on. Over the last three months, we've taken an inside look at the struggles and accomplishments of his Jewish-themed pop up, Scharf & Zoyer, from fine-tuning his menu to figuring out portion control and balancing the costs of his ingredients to the inevitable bumps in the road a first time food vendor experiences. After a brutally rainy May, Noah took a step back to reconsider his plans. Smorgasburg seemed like the perfect place to be, but he realized that, for where his nascent business stands, it's just not the right fit.
"We get visibility at Smorgasburg and somewhere we're at every week, and it's a great opportunity. But at the same time, I can't afford it," Noah told me. "We've gotten the ingredient cost down, but the fixed costs of operating there are such that you have do a certain amount of volume. It takes a certain amount of clarity to know when you need to change something up, or it might not being working."
For potential entrepreneurs eager to give Smorgasburg a shot, it's important to remember how delicate the business is. Money making opportunities come once a week, thin margins are easily obliterated, and the high overhead costs, something that we've explored in the past, leave little wiggle room. It's painfully apparent how limited you are in what kind of food you can produce, and the overhead costs restrict vendors even further. Do not enter lightly.
Despite Smorgasburg not working out as planned, Noah feels like he learned a good deal, and the experience has given him much easier access to press by the likes of Time Out and the New York Post than he would have otherwise gotten. He'll put the lessons to good use as he moves forward.
Giving emphasis to aspects of his menu that are more broadly appealing to others—such as playing up the vegetarian side of his menu—is something he thinks that he could've done a better job at. While Noah felt that those who tried his food nearly always enjoyed it, he came to realize that his "Global Jewish Cuisine" tagline wasn't going to bring any skeptics in. And in hindsight, he feels that he missed the mark by keeping his items small.
"In retrospect maybe what I should've done is larger plates. Because the people who were going to come were going to come, so they would've bought what I sold whether it was $6 to 7 or $10 to 12," which many other vendors sell. This line of thinking is tied up in a key question Noah started asking himself: is Scharf & Zoyer too niche for Smorgasburg?
For Noah, this question is bound to the very sandwich—the kugel double down—that garnered him attention as well as his belief, going in, that a narrower concept was the way to go. While he ended up at "Global Jewish Sandwiches" when applying to Smorgasburg, his original idea for the business was much broader, featuring items like a Chinese sausage egg sandwich and cumin lard bread. Noah tightened his concept for pragmatic reasons—"you can't offer 10 sandwiches unless you're established"—but also because he believed that narrower concepts tend to be more successful at the market. They're easier for potential customers to quickly digest, and stand out more prominently. Take a walk around the market, and its obvious that vendors variously position themselves as, for example, "the anchovies guy."
But the narrowness led Noah into a niche hole, one that he feels didn't necessarily fully translate to his audience. For many vendors, narrowness means focusing on a foodstuff, like giant turkey legs, antojitos, pigs-in-a-blanket, or pie. Noah choose a cuisine, one that is more esoteric and doesn't register strongly on the flavor charts of most Smorgasburg attendees. Many customers are unfamiliar with or skeptical of Jewish food and not, as Noah initially presumed, looking for something new.
"In terms of marketing the booth, there's a large segment that's going to be think, 'what's kugel?' For a while I've been saying how niche we are and, you know, how everything is kind of tongue-in-cheek. It doesn't resonate with them. With so many options especially in Williamsburg, customers aren't just going to take a flyer on something. I get it. Some of the stuff is not as approachable as it needs to be to do well there."
When Smorgasburg moved into its new location at the East River Park, the market nearly doubled in size. A whole new plethora of vendors came onboard, offering more chances to entrepreneurs and more options for customers, but the crowds didn't necessarily grow. It's worth asking whether Smorgasburg's size and success has made it difficult for vendors to succeed. Noah made his decision to drop out last week, when he spoke with fellow vendors at the Dumbo market two Sundays ago.
"I was already pretty convinced that it would really would have taken us breaking even both days for it to really make sense financially. I think I knew before then," Noah said. "Just talking to other vendors, they said, 'look, it gets worse in July and August.' That was even last year, and how much bigger did Smorgasburg [in Williamsburg] get this year? It's just diluting the customer base more. I can see how certain stands would not do that well during the hottest part of the summer."
As Noah said to me during our interview, this is far from the end for Scharf & Zoyer. It's a new beginning. His decision to exit was predicated on the realization that Smorgasburg, despite the benefits of its highly visible platform, was not going to lead him down his personal path to success. The simple fact is that it doesn't make sense to continue operating at a market that demands another 25-30 hours of work on top of a full time job, when you're not breaking even, much less getting what you need from it and connecting with customers in a meaningful way.
What's next for Noah? Last night's pop up at Brooklyn Oneology was his first, and while he doesn't have any set plans aside from "pulling back and assessing what the next step is," he's already plotting. There are whispers of pop ups with other, similarly minded vendors, and Noah plans to start looking at a smaller markets, where there are fewer vendors and a greater sense that you, the customer, should get something you couldn't otherwise get.
"I think once we find our audience, we'll do very well."
While we'll keep tabs on Noah and his progress, this series will turn its attention to some of his fellow vendors to give them the same in-depth look.
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 »
Changing the Menu, Expanding Beyond the Market »
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.