Anatomy of a Smorgasburg Pop Up: A Couscous Vendor's Evolutionary Strategy
Editor's note: What's it like to be a vendor at Brooklyn's popular—and competitive—outdoor market Smorgasburg? For the next few weeks we'll be turning our attention to NY Shuk, who we introduced you to in May.
The last time we checked in with NY Shuk, Smorgasburg's couscous experts, co-owners Ron and Leetal Arazi were teaching their first cooking class and working on their initial line of products, a trio of tanzeya, harissa, and chooma.
Since then, they've been featured in Time Out as one of New York's best new outdoor market vendors and made some serious progress on their product line. Despite a final hurdle to getting their harissa out on the market, they're inching ever closer to making that final step. At Smorgasburg, they've refined their menu, cutting dishes like hummus with sourdough, Ayran, and shamishi to focus on what defines them: couscous.
At Smorgasburg's outset, the husband and wife team's intention was to include items that might attract customers otherwise unfamiliar with homemade couscous. They also wanted to show off as much of their cuisine as possible. So they latched onto hummus, and sold specials like fish kebabs, injera, and variations on rose-scented semolina cake. Their menu was changing every week, and had a dynamism rare at Smorgasburg.
But since those early weeks they've decided to keep a tighter focus and constrict their menu. When they started out, they were looking for ways to attract and bring in customers. People fell for the hummus, but it wasn't making any kind of statement.
"It's not like we're going to convert anyone," Leetal said of the hummus. And by selling items beyond couscous, they were diluting the essence of their brand. "It just turned out to be noise, and it proved that we need to focus on what we're doing and that's that. It's harder, it's more frustrating, less people buy it but at least whoever buys it, they take the essence of what we're trying to do."
"I think what we're trying to say is that we're trying to do something significant, something that will make some sort of a change," Ron added. "We couldn't do that with hummus."
Introducing new items every week allowed the first year vendors to feel out the market. But after they tested the waters, they found that their best approach was to focus on one item. Customers have come to expect such specialization at Smorgasburg, and a tighter focus helped the company stand out in the crowd. The more you offer, the more you overwhelm your customers, who are already barraged with choices.
These days at the NY Shuk stand you'll find only two options: couscous with short rib hash, the dish that garnered them praise from Time Out, and couscous with a tomato and harissa salsa and a yogurt sauce. Like other vendors, Ron and Leetal have had to accommodate their menu to reflect the change of season from spring to summer. This has been, as it was for Scharf & Zoyer's Noah Arenstein, an uphill battle. But they're as confident, and convinced, as ever.
We talked about their goals, and whether their vision—to open a deli, not a restaurant—has changed since we last spoke about it in May.
"I think we're even more focused," Leetal said. "We started selling hummus and this and that. But we're focusing on the real stuff now. We kind of figured out that we don't need to let anything sidetrack us, and that we can keep our eyes on the target. Its not because of [the popularity of hummus], because people know harissa too. For us, though, it was going the easy way out. You know, the people are going to come and they know hummus so they're going to buy it. So it's kind of opting out in a way."
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.