This artisanal food fair is a smart stepping-stone for its vendors, nurturing startup producers to become full-fledged businesses that bring quality, creativity and care to the spotlight.

By Eva Meszaros

Crowds of young urbanites flood the grounds of Smorgasburg in Brooklyn, N.Y., like clockwork every summer weekend. With rumbling stomachs, wallets in hand, and often dogs or kids in tow, locals and tourists alike head to the outdoor, food-centric market to see what all the fuss is about—or return week after week once they know.

With its two locations that have long drawn crowds on their own—the Manhattan skyline–facing waterfront in Williamsburg, and Dumbo’s Brooklyn Bridge Park, in the shadow of the iconic Brooklyn Bridge—Smorgasburg has positioned itself as a mainstay in the Brooklyn artisanal landscape and a veritable New York destination.

Creating a Crowd-Pleaser

For a festival-like market that relies solely on the desire to devour, Smorgasburg is an impressive feat. The name is a composite of smorgasbord and Williamsburg. The market’s vision took some tailoring to become the behemoth it is today, with a formula that even its creators couldn’t have predicted.

“We’re sort of like Frankenstein scientists, in that we create an organism that takes on its own life,” says co-founder Eric Demby, who with business partner Jonathan Butler founded the wildly successful Brooklyn Flea in 2008, which today runs at multiple locations in the borough year-round. Demby says plans for Smorgasburg began with an eclectic mix of offerings in mind. “The name was almost less to do with food and more to do with how many different things you could do at the market,” he says, recalling the spring 2011 launch that featured a GrowNYC Greenmarket with upstate farmers alongside local artisanal producers, as well as a Kickstarter booth and children’s play area.

That first season’s mixed results revealed the true crowd-pleaser. “One of the things that we learned fairly quickly was that people just wanted to come and stuff their faces,” Demby says. The team regrouped, stripped away the excesses, and in spring of 2012, Smorgasburg relaunched with around 100 local vendors serving prepared and packaged foods, from gourmet hot dogs, pickles and Japanese-style tacos to fresh-fruit sodas, herbal ice pops and alternative milks. The second Dumbo venue started up later that fall.

The Selection Process

Already Smorgasburg is widely known for its highly competitive application process to become a vendor. The process involves a comprehensive review of candidates. Anywhere from one to five applications come in every day; of those, fewer than 20 percent are invited to drop off a taste of their wares or provide a lunch to the team, says Demby, who has the final say on who earns a coveted 10-by-10-foot stall. “We just got done doing that, like, every day for three months,” he says in early March, sounding more weary than boastful.

This degree of competition means only the cream of the crop make it in, which has helped earn the food market its reputation as a food-lover’s destination. “The baseline is that their food has to be spectacular,” Demby says. After the tastings, the team examines the business as a whole, looking for a level of professionalism, know-how and identity. Having these factors in place is, Demby explains, “a more reliable predictor of how long they’re going to last at the market.” Packaging, branding and business goals help complete the assessment and guide the ultimate decisions.

“All that being said, we also love people who come out of nowhere who have never done anything before and don’t know what they’re doing,” Demby admits. “That can be refreshing.”

Gathering feedback from Twitter and Facebook, as well as patrons on-site, Demby reviews the vendor lineup at the end of each season, to adjust any gaps and excesses in each market’s offerings, whether that means trimming back on meat-centric foods, adding more healthful options or responding to requests for gluten-free goods. “We keep a balance so that there’s something for everyone,” he says. Savvy vendors often help with those needs, he adds. “They can add to their menus so that they fill the void themselves.”

Vendor Mix and Loyalty

As the variety keeps growing, so does the number of vendors and, in turn, attendees. “We used to think there were only a certain amount of vendors that could coexist at a single location,” Demby recalls—too many, they thought, ran the risk of spreading sales too thin. Testing those waters has instead revealed a happy result. “We’re finding that more volume actually just brings more people in—somehow, they eat more too.”

This freedom to grow has led to a vast, eclectic mix of prepared and packaged foods—savory and sweet, hot and cold, indulgent and healthy—as well as representation from both small-scale producers and beloved restaurants in the borough. Chicken burgers from Bossa Nova, fried fish from Handsome Hank’s Fish Hut, pork sandwiches from Porchetta, Japanese-inspired Mexican food from Takumi Taco and many more offerings cover meat cravings. Global cuisine abounds, from the likes of Bombay Sandwich Co., Lumpia Shack, Taste of Ethiopia and others. And dietary wishes are granted with Home by the Range (organic), Chickpea & Olive (vegan) and Krumville Bake Shop (gluten-free), to name a few. Thirst quenchers help beat the summer heat, with bubble tea from Thirstea Cafe, smoothies from Salud and slushies from Kelvin Natural Slush Co. Sweets are hardly in short supply, thanks to vendors like Blue Marble Ice Cream, Dough, Liddabit Sweets, People’s Pops and Raaka Virgin Chocolate.

Many vendors serve up small bites in addition to hearty entrees, helping eager attendees sample as much as possible. Diners also can pick up a number of goodies to go, such as Saucy by Nature spreads and toppings, Rick’s Picks pickles, Anarchy in a Jar jams and Mrs. Kim’s kimchi.

A Package Deal

Vendors’ relationship with Smorgasburg has revealed benefits that extend beyond making a lot of sales. Marketing and press opportunities, direct customer interaction and a sense of community have proven invaluable for a number of participating businesses.

Instant marketing. Smorgasburg draws more than just hungry locals. Wholesale customers see a curated marketplace of value-added products, and reporters from around the globe have visited to cover the growing Brooklyn food scene.

“The more exposure you have to the ever-growing pool of food-savvy customers in the New York area, the better,” says Caroline Mak, co-founder of Brooklyn Soda Works, a producer of small-batch sodas and carbonated juices made with fresh ingredients, sold in kegs to area bars and restaurants. Mak says her business’ participation in Smorgasburg and Brooklyn Flea has brought in new wholesale and catering clients, including James Beard Award–winning restaurant Blue Hill.

“I kind of consider Smorgasburg and Brooklyn Flea a way for us to not have to heavily advertise,” Mak says. “We rely on word of mouth and our continued regular presence at the markets.” Offering cold beverages in such seasonal creations as rhubarb ginger in spring, cucumber, lime and sea salt at the height of summer and apple ginger come autumn, the soda maker goes through as many as eight to 10 kegs on its busiest weekends.

As prices can be on the high end overall, the convivial atmosphere and face-to-face interactions can help move products that might otherwise be a tough sell. Kings County Jerky Co. sells 2-ounce bags of handcrafted beef jerky for $10 a pop each weekend at the Williamsburg and Dumbo locations. “It’s been a great opportunity for us to present ourselves to people where they can try the product, which is important for a more high-priced artisanal food,” says founder Chris Woehrle.

Kari Morris, co-founder of Morris Kitchen, echoes the added benefit of marketing. She started the business with her chef brother, Tyler, in 2009, producing a line of simple syrups, and later adding drink mixers. Getting their start at Brooklyn Flea, they signed on for Smorgasburg’s Williamsburg debut. “As a small business and a startup, you don’t have a budget for [marketing],” she explains. Having one setting to sell product, meet customers and get press earns a return on investment even the smallest businesses can get behind.

Face time. Purveyors have found value in constant customer interaction—from learning how to pitch their wares effectively to testing new recipes.

Feedback at Smorgasburg helped drive Morris Kitchen’s growth—and its founders’ confidence. “It was an opportunity to see firsthand what people thought of the product, see how they reacted to it, what they liked and what they didn’t like,” Morris says. “And it was a way for us to learn how to talk about our products.” The duo learned to sell customers on recipes and creative uses, and found an opportunity to test new products in small batches. Realizing attendees’ desire for instant gratification, they began serving up cold beverages featuring the products, such as preserved lemon syrup and ginger syrup, at $4 a cup. It’s become such a success, Morris reveals, that the business began a new line of drink mixers, in flavors like ginger-chile lime and ginger-grapefruit hibiscus, expected to come to market this fall.

Until this year, Smorgasburg customers could buy Brooklyn Soda Works’ cold beverages by the glass or in a growler. This season the business is working out a new option: a 1-liter bottle at about $10, in apple ginger, hibiscus mint and more flavors. The popularity of this bottle at Smorgasburg will help Mak and co-founder Antonio Ramos decide whether to pursue bottle production for retail.

A sense of community. “I like to refer to it as summer camp,” Morris says of convening with fellow food producers each weekend. “It’s been great for us to build connections with other vendors in the area.”

The gathering of likeminded and friendly peers can help a young business learn and thrive. Mak says vendors regularly share tips on sourcing everything from farm-fresh ingredients to cost-efficient cups. “It’s a way for a small business to slowly and carefully ramp up,” she says.

Woehrle agrees that Smorgasburg is a smart stepping stone. “It’s tough for people to go into distribution and deal with stores and all that,” he says. “Most people aren’t making enough product in the beginning to actually satisfy store orders.” Himself included: Kings County Jerky had to turn down Whole Foods when it expressed interest early on. A setting like Smorgasburg is ideal for small vendors, he says, “to be able to sell the inventory they have in a way that make sense for them.”

Potential collaborations abound with ambitious entrepreneurs in such close quarters. Two long-time Smorgasburg and Brooklyn Flea sweets vendors, Kumquat Cupcakery and First Prize Pies, are planning to open a libation-infused cupcake bakery in 2013 under the name Butter & Scotch. And vendor Saucy By Nature launched Fare Trade, an alliance of food artisans that pool resources to help member businesses—many of them Smorgasburg vendors, including Kings County Jerky—succeed and grow.

Smorgasburg’s broad success has engendered a more intangible benefit, too. “The stamp of approval,” Woehrle calls it. “It makes people take you more seriously when they know you’re a vendor there,” he explains. “They know that you’re not in there if you’re a joker and that you’re going to have a good product.”

Growth and Evolution

Now into its third season, running Saturdays in Williamsburg and Sundays in Dumbo, April through November, Smorgasburg continues to undergo tweaks and updates. Among the newest entrants are fresh-baked breads from Orwasher’s, from-scratch nachos from El Gato Nacho, teamaker Bellocq and Kyotofu, making fresh tofu on-site. A beer, wine and spirits bar that debuted last summer is expected to return, pending a renewed liquor license, with additional vendors beyond Brooklyn’s borders.

Fine-tuning is an endless, cautious pursuit. Demby describes keeping a balance between quality and authenticity as the market evolves. “It’s almost like a nightclub, because every weekend you’re like, It’s got to stay cool, it’s got to stay someplace that people want to keep coming to,” he says.

Attracting new attendees is part of the challenge to stay relevant. “You always have to keep broadening your audience, because you know a certain segment of people is going to stop coming at a certain point or get tired of it,” Demby explains.

And the vendors remain the heart of the effort. “That’s often the most gratifying part of what we do—bringing folks in at the very beginning, the dream stage of their timeline,” he says, “and then watching them catch fire.”

Following on the heels of a recent successful mini-Smorgasburg residency at a Manhattan Whole Foods that featured a selection of Flea and Smorgasburg vendors, Demby and Butler are already working on a new food and beer hall project, slated to open by year’s end in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood, and pulling from their seasoned vendors to select five for a potentially permanent spot.

The mutual sense of commitment between the market founders and their vendors is evident in not only the continued growth of Smorgasburg and its many venues, but in the vendors’ individual successes as small businesses. “It’s been a bedrock. Without it we wouldn’t have survived,” says Kings County Jerky’s Woehrle of his involvement in the markets. “We definitely have no intention of leaving.” |SFM|

Market Stats

Open: Williamsburg: 2011; Dumbo: 2012

Total square footage: Williamsburg: 50,000 square feet; Dumbo: 30,000 square feet

Cost of 10x10 stall: $120–$225 per day, depending on food, electricity, etc.

Staff: 3 fulltime, 40 part-time