When Eric Demby and Jonathan Bulter founded the Brooklyn Flea in 2008, it helped usher in a new era of flea markets in New York, with a focus more on high-quality, carefully curated products than the usual tchotchkies and junk. Now, with the success of the Flea, and in particular, the food vendors there, Demby and Butler are launching an all-food market this Saturday at their Williamsburg waterfront site. The cheekily named Smorgasburg, featuring over 100 local vendors selling everything from homemade mustard to banana-ricotta spring rolls (a full lineup can be found in PDF form on the Smorgasburg site), is poised to be a major success. We recently spoke with Demby and Butler a day before their grand opening and chatted about what to expect, why a food market matters, and their deep love of noodles.
There are so many exciting things happening with you guys this weekend. I guess I'll start by asking you how the idea for Smorgasburg came about to begin with?
Jonathan: To be honest with you, how it came about is that we got this new location in Williamsburg, where The Flea started on Sundays back in April. When we first started talking to the developers about it, they wanted to have something going on there on both weekend days. We wanted to do something that would complement the Flea and still be in our wheelhouse, but not compete too directly or do anything to undermine The Flea that was going on in Fort Greene. We spent last fall knocking around ideas and just kept coming back to food. Food is really the growth industry within The Flea. We started doing food on a whim back in 2008 when the market launched originally, and it very quickly became a key component to The Flea that has provided not only a lot of growth among the vendors, but it's also been very important in terms of getting attention and turning into side businesses. We just kept coming back and it ultimately became the obvious thing to do.
Eric: You could sort of say that Smorgasburg is the "Joanie Loves Chachi" to Happy Days. The obvious spinoff. There're our stars, everyone loves them. Hopefully Smorgasburg will be more successful than that show was. We don’t want to jump the shark. The reality is that there's a huge amount of demand for it, both from shoppers and from people making it and selling it. We almost view it as a platform as much as a business. It's something that needs to exist right now and I think that's why people are excited about it. It's not just, "Oh there's gonna be cool stuff there!" There needs to be a place where you can get all this stuff and talk to the people who make it.
Jonathan: What The Flea does and what Smorgasburg will continue to do, hopefully, is act as an incubator for all these creative, start-up business and give them that first customer interaction. A place to test our their product, test out their brand and hopefully get the footing that will then allow them to grow their businesses. Hopefully this will be a place where people can do that in a fun, nurturing environment.
How did you find these vendors? Did you put out a call for submissions? Or were there just so many people coming to you that you didn't really need to look?
Eric: People have been applying through The Flea website since November 2007. We get, literally, five or ten applications every day in all different categories. A lot of them are food and, increasingly, there are more and more food people applying. You'd be amazed by the quality of the people that apply. So really people just come to us, is the short answer. I think it goes back to what I was saying about the platform: in the scheme of things, it's a low-cost, high-traffic option to try something out. A lot of people have things that they really want to do.
Kate Glicksberg/Brooklyn Flea
When making your selections for who to have in the market, how do you pick and choose who goes where?
Eric:There's an algorithm. It's sort of like the beginning of The Social Network where he's drawing on the windowpane. [Laughs.] Frankly, after three plus years of curating a market there's a sort of sixth sense that you get when you see an application, and you can tell if someone is going to be serious and committed and interesting to work with and fit within our community. There are a few criteria: one is that there are so many food vendors that have been selling there for so long that there is this "intra-vendor" community. We don't want a bad apple to spoil the bunch so we want people who are going to "fit in." You don't have to fit in as in a clique but you have to fit in to the market as a whole. And obviously they have to make good food. But a lot of it is about this sense of professionalism; that they're going to be committed, that they're going to grown their own business as a corollary with the Flea. That they're not going to abandon us after a month of getting a little bit of hype. That they have some sort of long-term plan. We also like people doing random whims but the reality is that if you want people coming every week for a market where you can go shopping you kind of need people who have their act together.
What are some of the vendors that you're most excited about?
Eric: I'm going to be diplomatic with my response, which is to say that I'm just excited to see everything. This is the beginning of something; the market is not even really close to being full, we anticipate that it will get more full over time. So the coolest thing is going to be seeing it on the first day, watching some people sell for the very first time, that excitement, the look in people's eyes. It's a very gratifying thing. The vendors—maybe they make mustard, it's the first time they've ever sold their mustard. They have some sense that people are excited to try their mustard and then their mustard sells really well and they sell out. Walking around and seeing the collective impact of starting a project like this...that's the thing I'm most looking forward to.
If I have to be specific, I'm really excited about the guys that make Asian noodles that are opening a big East Coast factory and trying to move into the East Coast market. They supply a lot of top ramen and soba shops with their noodles. They don't start until June 11th but they're going to make some sort of special ramen based on ingredients that they buy at the food market. I'm a big ramen guy. The guys who make the cold sesame noodles, their dad...
I sense a strong noodle theme here.
Eric: Well that's okay! The guys that make the cold sesame noodles, their Dad had this restaurant...everybody's had cold sesame noodles a million times but theirs are really special and tasty and not too heavy. I love those. This woman Connie Sun who works in the Citigroup executive dining room and also teaches the dumpling-making class at Brooklyn Kitchen, she makes all these Chinese-American street food snacks. She had a pork dumpling that was wrapped in cabbage instead of dough, she had these banana-ricotta spring rolls that were amazing. She's just going to bring different stuff every week. I love those kinds of people who are just like, "Well, I'm going to bring different stuff every week." There are these other guys, who are not mentioned in any of the press because they just confirmed yesterday, that both work at big restaurants and their company is called "I8NY." They're going to just make these sandwiches based on whatever’s in the Greenmarket that week.
Kate Glicksberg/Brooklyn Flea
Is that sort of partnership—having the vendors source directly from the Greenmarket that’s in Smorgasburg—something you've been trying to foster? How else are the vendors working together?
Eric: We've been encouraging it for the last month already. A lot of it is already happening and I think more and more it will happen over time. Not everybody knows exactly what's going to be on offer there and some of the people are like, ‘Oh yeah, Grady's Farm is going to be there, I'll get my eggs from him.’
We'll also have guest chefs serving food with at least one ingredient that's from either a farmer or a Smorgasburg vendor. We're going to have a food awareness organization, Slow Food, there the first day. We sort of view this as a phase two of the way that Greenmarket has connected local farmers with New York City shoppers and restaurants. Directly integrating the sourcing and the manufacturing, both in the sense that small farmers benefit from it and in the sense that there's a geographic proximity. That's actually a message that we're trying to get out and it's also something that we see evolving a lot over time, where Smorgasburg will probably transform from a trendy place to get interesting snacks to being a real model/showcase for the next phase of food production and stuff, while also being affordable and accessible. And without being overly highbrow. That's part of the reason for the name Smorgasburg, it's just going to be a place to not feel self-conscious about your awareness or lack thereof about food. It's really just to go there and enjoy your food and have a healthy relationship with it.
My last question is, overall, why do you think flea markets, particularly in the past few years, have gotten so popular in the city? You've really been at the forefront of it for a couple years now, so I feel like you’d have some good insight.
Jonathan: I think it's probably a couple of things. For years now there's kind of been this swinging back, and yearning for connection with something that feels more homemade and more local. A reaction against the big box stores and chaining of America. It's sort of a search for authenticity that fits hand in hand with people increasingly reconnecting with their communities. Part of what we think about, especially in Fort Greene because we've been there since the beginning, is that it serves kind of a town square purpose, so even if you're not coming out to buy a new dresser or something, instead of sitting in your house isolated you can come out and walk around and probably bump into people you know and feel like part of a community.
On the vendor side, for people who are searching for meaning in their own lives and in what they're doing, being a vendor where you sell things that you make or you spend a lot of time finding and selecting, allows you to find some meaning. Markets enable people to be entrepreneurial and do the things that they like to do and that they feel like are the true representation of themselves.
Eric: Jonathan is very humble and modest and I would also argue, to a certain extent, that we sort of hesitate to toot our own horn too much. I do think that the quality of the vendors and the quality of the antiques and the handmade items and the food at The Flea and the international recognition that those folks have gotten for the quality of the stuff at The Flea has something to do with the popularity of the flea market. I do think that when you go there, you've read about it and you're from Finland and you us on Finnish TV and you're like, "Oh I'm going to check that out it sounds really exciting." And then you get there and you're like, "Oh it's actually amazing here! The people are really nice and interesting, totally different from any sort of shopping experience in New York City." It's not anti-New York, but it's really surprising how good the stuff is for a quote-unquote flea market.
Jonathan: I think it's fair to say that we did reinvent what a modern day flea market is and we do get people from other cities all the time emailing us, "We love Brooklyn Flea and we want to recreate the Brooklyn Flea in Portland or in Austin or Cincinnati" or whatever it is. It has come to represent this new model for what a public market can be.