Anatomy of a Smorgasburg Pop Up: On the Importance of Mentors
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 Bombay Sandwich Co.
As we wrote in last week's column, co-owner Shiv Puri's business acumen in banking and finance has been fundamental to Bombay Sandwich Co.'s pursuit of a brick and mortar location. But just as important to their success here, they would be quick to tell you, have been their mentors.
After deciding to make a go for a brick and mortar location last fall, Shiv and Shikah first reached out to an old mentor, who, like Shiv, did not come from a restaurant background. The most crucial piece of advice he gave them? Don't be afraid to reach out to your fellow restaurateurs.
Before launching Bombay Sandwich Co., Shiv's plan was to open a Neapolitan-style pizzeria in Delhi. He and Shikah subsequently went on a thorough tour of the city's finer pizzerias, and they landed on Paulie Gee's as their undisputed favorite. Shiv approached Paulie, who took him on as an apprentice. That the two shared similar pasts—Paulie, as many around here know, came to food from IT—has both given Shiv encouragement and confidence. Although Shiv elected not to go the route of opening that pizzeria, for reasons we previously explored, he has continued to turn to Paulie as a source of advice and inspiration.
"Talking to Paulie, who had a very different career like me and was not a restaurateur, helped convince me that I could do this," Shiv said.
After the couple finished their first season at Smorgasburg and decided to make the transition into brick and mortar, he was one of the first people they reached out to. They met with him at Roebling Tea House last December, and posed their essential question.
"I asked him, how did you go from wanting to do it to doing it? That was my biggest fear—this sounds great, we want to open a restaurant, but how do we take that step? Aside from capital, aside from permits and licenses and all these other things," Shiv said. Shikah added, "the biggest thing he said was don't be afraid to go up to a restaurant owner or a cafe owner and ask them how to do it. That has been the biggest catalyst for us in getting ahead."
On Paulie's advice, they approached every cafe they felt had a similar business model with a host of questions: What are your numbers? Does this make sense? What mistakes have you made? They found that owners were quick to open up, and picked up two crucial mentors along the way.
The advice they've received has covered everything from the minutiae of everyday operations—"make sure you buy 20 volts for your sandwich press because if you go for 10 volts it won't stay hot enough"—to the big picture—"plan on success, because I didn't and I don't have a delivery business because my space is too small."
Thanks to these mentors, they've been able to absorb the lessons that many first business owners have to learn the hard way. Since beginning work on their storefront, Shiv and Shikah have been able to turn to them for a whole new set of questions.
"Now contractors are quoting you, architects and plumbers are quoting you, so just getting a ballpark figure and being able to ask them, 'Does this sound right to you? I don't know what it should be.' That is huge. We've learned some very valuable things from people who have done it and opened up multiple stores," Shiv said.
It is safe to say that Shiv and Shikah would not feel the same sense of preparedness without these individuals, or that their experience would have gone as smoothly. Being absolutely certain you have all the kinks worked out and that you are ready for the demand is something their mentors stressed.
"The guy was telling us, we were so busy the first month, we did a big PR push, this was our second cafe and we thought we had it all figured out," Shiv told me. "But we couldn't properly service all the demand there was--and that was the worst thing that happened."
What they do know for certain is that it's vitally important for them to keep the focus squarely on their store. In the past, we had talked about their interest in producing pre-made food. That's being put on the back burner for now, as the commitments required—to sales volume, for example—wouldn't allow them to focus on making sure they nail their first opening. They understand how important it is not to overextend themselves; for this same reason, they dropped plans to package their chutneys this past winter.
"Our thing is, we can have great visions for the future, but what's in front of us has to succeed or we won't ever get there," Shikah said. "At this point, we'd want to grow more organically. This is our first place: we're making sure everything is smooth, we've got it all down. Every day we're learning something new."
A Look at Couscous Specialists NY Shuk »
Changing the Menu, Expanding Beyond the Market »
Moving On From Smorgasburg »
A Couscous Vendor's Evolutionary Strategy »
How To Pay For Smorgasburg »
Introducing Bombay Sandwich Co. »
Capitalizing On The Off Season and The Real Estate Hunt»
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.