Editor's note: What's it like to be a vendor at Brooklyn's popular—and competitive—outdoor market Smorgasburg? Here's market co-founder Eric Demby on the future of Smorgasburg and what it means for vendors.
In just three years, Smorgasburg has far outgrown its modest origins in the East River State Park. After planting roots in Dumbo, co-founders Eric Demby and Jonathan Butler secured a partnership with Whole Foods, launched Smorasburg in the South Street Seaport, expanded to Washington D.C. and Philadelphia (where they opened a now-closed satellite of sister market Brooklyn Flea), and inked a deal to become part of the new Essex Crossing development.
In addition to these ventures, the Smorgasburg crew will be launching their own beer hall in Crown Heights which will feature a food court with concessions from vendors like Pipcorn as well as hot food prepared. This is it for now, though, as Demby doesn't want to stretch the brand too thin. And while Eric says that everybody at Smorgasburg would love to open in some more cities, there are no plans for further expansion for now.
What does all of this mean for the market's vendors?
"The best part of what we do, both as operators and for vendors, is how we grow together," Demby told us.
Demby sees Smorgasburg's expansion into these new spaces and cities as a riding tide. Increased opportunities make Smorgasburg—which Demby sees as a less risky route for small business owners in price prohibitive New York—an even more viable path. To do that meant they needed to address the issue of the off season.
"That was partly in response to the fact that so many of these vendors are selling two, three, four times a week with us, and to shut down completely for four to five months every year is tough for them. For many of them, they have the capacity to do more than just sell on the weekend," Demby said, alluding to developments he is not "able to talk about." But it's clear they're moving towards trying to make Smorgasburg a self-contained entity, not just a stopgap for food entrepreneurs. Though they still get enticing applicants every week, all this expansion does not mean a plethora of new vendors.
Over the winter they'll be running an indoor market in Williamsburg with 200 vendors. 75 of these will be selling food, though fewer than half will be cooking. "We're working really hard to make this space work for food vendors, and we're really excited that Smorgasburg will be able to operate, in essence, year-round."
While Demby and his team are concentrating on local businesses in their new cities, a few New York vendors did tag along and open shop at the District Flea. Demby said they're hoping to work with a handful of vendors to see if they can bring them down to D.C. This, of course, may not be possible for Smorgasburg's less established vendors, who might be prohibited by finances, manpower, or a second job. One of the most exciting things Demby touched on in our conversation suggests possibilities for limited exchanges.
"We're doing an ongoing exchange with this market [Feirinha Gastronmica] down in Sao Paulo, where the ramen burger guys went down to sell a couple weeks ago, too," Demby explained. "They're sending up this up-and-coming pastry chef who is going to sell with us this weekend."
The exchange is the product of conversations Demby and his team have had with the couple who run Feirinha, which he said is inspired by Smorgasburg. Before opening their own market, the couple visited Smorgasburg. "How similar it is and how excited people are is really awesome."
The Brooklyn to Sao Paulo exchange may very well not be a one-off, as Demby recently spoke with individuals who run markets in Tokyo and Helsinki who expressed interest in doing collaborations. Whether there will be more such collaborations depends on how the Brazil exchange works out, and if, assuming all goes well, they can get a sponsor to help make global collaborations possible. But it certainly suggests possible exchanges between Smorgasburg markets in various U.S. cities, and ways for food entrepreneurs to expose their products to new audiences.
"Those conversations are great because it teaches me how far the reach of the markets has gone," Demby said, admitting he never thought people would be coming to him from other cities and countries for advice. "It proved that Smorgasburg is something of a global phenomenon. It's not just something that's here in New York."