A Feast in Brooklyn: Q & A with Eric Demby of Smorgasburg
May 20, 2011 § 1 Comment
After a tumultuous week in the city – escorting extended family, having them meet my boyfriend’s parents and graduating from NYU – I’m back home in Valencia, California. No time for nostalgia or reality checks during this short vacation back to the nest. Instead, I headed straight to the farmers market in historic Newhall last night, excited to indulge in avocados and other West Coast treats.
Hot tamales, bottled honey and only a handful of seemingly random vendors greeted me and I walked away avocado-less, thinking of the markets that await me back in New York.
One such is Smorgasburg, Brooklyn Flea’s latest food market set to launch tomorrow. Nicknamed Smorg, the Williamsburg bazaar features around 100 food vendors from Bon Chovie, an anchovy dealer, to local farmers. Couched in suburbia, I caught up with Eric Demby, co-founder of Brooklyn Flea, to talk about Brooklyn Flea’s foray into food, the start of Smorg and the birth of Brooklyn’s food scene.
E: Why did you decide to have food vendors at Brooklyn Flea? A recent New York Times article about flea markets says they “encourage a food component as a way to attract new faces” and “provide an inexpensive and low-stakes testing ground for vendors to try out their wares and to perfect their recipes.” Was this your intention as well?
ED: Before the flea first started, I worked for the Brooklyn Borough president, Marty Markowitz, for four years. During that time, the Department of Health was becoming more aware of the Red Hook Food Vendors around the Red Hook Ball Fields and was forcing them to be regulated. While I worked under Marty, I dealt with Cesar Fuentes who became a spokesperson for all those vendors. By the time I stopped working there and was starting the flea in 2007, there was question of whether the vendors would continue to exist. So, I approached Cesar, thinking the flea would be a great satellite location for those vendors because the flea would be on private property instead of on city property. It took some convincing, but as word got out about the flea on food blogs and in the press, people started getting excited. Having food at the flea was something people wanted.
After the Red Hook Food Vendors, I started reaching out to others, like Salvatore Bklyn and Kumquat Cupcakery, which have become the foundation of the flea. The flea was their foray into retail and as more people got excited about the food, more quality vendors start applying and the flea started to evolve. The flea presented itself as a platform for them. Having a retail store is a nice dream, but the reality is pretty different. It’s a high capital investment for a small business with a specialized product, but with the flea, we help you market your business and we present you curious customers. Chefs starting side projects now think of the flea as the best place to launch their project.
E: Did you think it would be as popular as it is now?
ED: No, but very early on we saw how excited people were about the food. Food is like the art of the 80s. It’s the cool commodity. It’s having its little moment in New York City, which coincided with the flea’s existence.
E: How did you come up with the idea for Smorgasburg?
ED: When we decided to have a market in Williamsburg eight or nine months ago, the developer wanted to have a market there more days a week. So, we thought we could have another market on Saturdays. The food thing was the obvious choice – it has been staring at us in the face. We had so many vendors that we couldn’t fit in the flea. So, once we announced that we were going to do that, we realized it was probably going to be a good idea.
E: A lot of Brooklyn Flea vendors get their start with you guys, like Asiadog recently opened a brick-and-mortar location in the Lower East Side. In 2009, The New York Times called Brooklyn Flea a “culinary stage” that garners both local and national recognition. So, what does that make Smorgasburg?
ED: Smorgasburg is a deepening of this food moment in New York City where more and more people are making food their livelihood. But, there are only so many stores you can sell your food to. Smorgasubrg combines the ability to make money without a middle man, affords you an audience of 1,000 people every week and gives you the kind of people aren’t just going to eat your cupcake but are trying to stock their shelves at Dean & Deluca.
We want to offer our vendors more opportunities to sell to the public and having a greenmarket as our anchor tenant combines customers’ growing desire to buy products that are not just made locally, but are sourced locally or responsibly. The long term goal is to create a strong integration between the purveyors, the people producing packaged goods, and the farmers selling in the market. Say someone wants to create a lavender marshmallow. They can go to this lavender farmer at Smorg to create their product, so this farmer can go beyond just selling a bouquet of lavender each weekend.
E: Do you see Smorgasburg as the start of a new movement in food?
ED: I think markets like this already exist in places with more of a connection between food and the land. You have these giant food markets in the great cities of the world, like in Mexico City or Barcelona, where there’s no line between farmer and product. Rather, we’re reinventing something so it’s less of a farm down home thing, but a place where products are more nuanced, polished and ready for their close-up. Smorgasburg is very small, but it seems like a lot. I know personally how much work it is to do these things! It’s hard to say it’s going to catch on everywhere, but we’re trying reconnect where food comes from, who’s making it and why it’s special. Having that healthy, comfortable relationship with food positively impacts humans and, therefore, has some sort of positive impact on society.
E: In Glenn Collins’ rundown of Smorgasburg, you call it “a one-stop culinary clearinghouse and cross-section for folks who are curious about the new Brooklyn.” And this past February, The New York Times restaurant critic Sam Sifton profiled Brooklyn as the travel destination of the moment in the 36 Hours series. Do you think Brooklyn has become a major food destination? How do you foresee Smorgasburg contributing to that?
ED: Yeah, definitely. So among all the people traveling to New York City, more and more are asking themselves, “I’m going to take a half or full day to go to Brooklyn. If I got to Brooklyn, where should I go?” Most people just know Brooklyn’s neighborhoods – Brooklyn Heights promenade and Williamsburg, which aren’t necessarily built-in destinations like in Manhattan where there is the Statue of Liberty and Times Square. So, there’s a cross section of people curious about Brooklyn. They see Brooklyn natives, thinking they dress a little different, they’re friendlier and they’re into food. They can shop there and know they’re getting something that’s special and unique. That’s what New York was until 10 or 15 years ago. You had this experience where you had a quirky interaction with owner of the store. We work hard to share that authentic, urban experience at Smorgasburg where you don’t feel marketed by a big company but you’re in a place with people looking for the same thing.
Stop by Smorgasburg every Saturday, starting this weekend at the Williamsburg waterfront between North 6th and North 7th St., at the East River.