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Inside the Smorgasburg Vendor Taste Test

A look at how New York's most popular market selects its vendors

Smorgasburg has a low acceptance rate. About three people apply to the wildly popular market daily, and after all the previous vendors commit to returning, just about a dozen spots are available for the April opening. Only 10 to 20 percent of applicants get invited in for tastings, which are scheduled in Brooklyn Flea's Crown Heights offices throughout the winter. And even fewer make it into the market. Some vendors have gone on to quit their day jobs and open their own restaurants. One Smorgasburg vendor, Ramen Burger, achieved a considerable amount of viral fame because of the market. Since Smorgasburg launched in 2011, the tastings themselves have been held in relative secrecy — they're private to keep the pressure as low as possible for the already nervous new vendors. "For them, it's their dream," co-founder Eric Demby says. "You see their hands shaking." This year, Demby and co-founder Jonathan Butler invited Eater into a day with three tastings to see what it's like. Things are more established now, and as popularity has grown, applicants are increasingly more trained chefs with experience in high pressure situations. But as Elliott Anderson, a co-founder of Smorgasburg vendor Big Mozz says, "Still, the stakes are pretty high. Whether it's your first booth or your second or your third."

Day: Monday, January 4, four months before the debut of Smorgasburg

Location: Brooklyn Flea office break room and Berg'n, 1000 Dean St.

Tasters: Eric Demby, Jonathan Butler, Director of Operations Rob Blackman, Director of Marketing Georgia Frierson, and Kyle Huebbe, who works on strategy and management.

11:30 a.m. First up: The veteran vendors, Big Mozz

Jimmy Warren and Elliott Anderson of Big Mozz
Nick Solares

Anderson and Big Mozz executive chef Jimmy Warren have been in the Berg'n space prepping for their pizza tasting for a while. Since they need an oven, they're using the Samesa kitchen and are having the tasting in Berg'n, which is unusual for the Smorgasburg taste test. Usually, they're held in the break room in the Brooklyn Flea office.

Also unlike typical tastings, Warren and Anderson have been in front of the tasting crew several times already, including a few times for other pizza ideas. Since they joined the market last year, they've been reliable vendors with both Big Mozz, a stand that serves freshly made mozzarella on a stick, and Mozz Sticks, a stand with fried mozzarella sticks. The company started as a sauce producer called Atlantic Ave., and when the market needed a pizza vendor, Demby and Butler encouraged Big Mozz to combine their products and give pizza a shot.

Jimmy Warren and Elliott Anderson make a pizza at Berg'n.
Nick Solares

Anderson and Big Mozz co-founder Matthew Gallira initially bet on Smorgasburg as their start into the food business. They just recently quit their day jobs to grow the company, close to a year after starting at Smorgasburg. Despite having a relationship with the Flea already, this taste test was a big step for them in making the business sustainable. Demby and Butler are still evaluating them alongside all the other competitors, and it's no guarantee they'll get a spot. "This one’s more important because it gives us more access to a market share," Warren says. "At Smorgasburg, there's no one that does pizza anymore....If we were to get this, it's the potential to have instead of two stalls, seven stalls. For us, especially for the growth that we want, it's very important."

Big Mozz tasting
Jimmy Warren presents a pie to the tasting crew.
Nick Solares

At 12 p.m., the tasting crew goes down to Berg'n for the first meal of the day. As Jimmy finishes making a fresh pie, they chat with Anderson about logistics of the pie making, including the cost of each mobile wood-fire pizza oven (about $24,000), where they'll keep their supplies (a walk-in fridge may be needed), and the dangers of making pizza outdoors (high temperatures will make the dough rise too much). Anderson notes: "I was asking my dad, does it make sense to buy $70,000 worth of pizza ovens? He says, 'I mean, some people buy $70,000 cars.'' Demby speculates that the cost of the ovens alone could be earned back in about a month.

More than 10,000 people come to Smorgasburg on a given day, and some 35,000 people have shown up on good days, so professionalism — and adapting to cooking outdoors — is just as important as the menu. Tastings bring some of those questions out. The first pizza, a classic Margherita, is received well, but Demby uses a fork to eat the first bite of his slice, where the pizza is slightly soggier. "The crust should be firmer, in theory," he later notes, using his hands to mimic people carrying it outside. On another pie, loaded with ricotta, hot sausage, and broccoli rabe, the toppings slide off as Frierson picks up her slice. "That should be instructive," Demby says.

ricotta, hot sausage, and broccoli rabe pizza
On a ricotta pie, some of the toppings slid off, leading to questions about fewer toppings in the future.
Nick Solares

The questions are often intended to hear how much chefs have thought about conditions and how committed they are to the product, according to Demby. "It's so easy to get lazy in there and make a Country Time powder lemonade, whereas if someone has a brand they're trying to create, and it's based on sourcing and being serious, they're going to stick with that over time," Demby later explains. Anderson and Warren acknowledge that things will need to be tweaked in real time. They've been studying pizza intensely, learning from many local wood-fired pizza makers, including Bruno. "Every day, depending on the temperature and humidity, we'll change the recipe," Anderson tells the table.

Four pies later and already getting full, the group grabs the remaining pizza for the rest of the office and heads back up. "We usually don't do one every day," Demby says of tastings. "It gets difficult physically."

1:00 p.m. Second Tasting: Izakaya, a new East Village restaurant, looking to get to the next level

An Izakaya employee fries chicken for a Smorgasburg tasting.
Nick Solares

The office already smells like fried food when the tasters get back. Three people from Izakaya, a small year-old Japanese restaurant in the East Village, have been cooking up their take on chicken and rice using deep fryers, set up in the Brooklyn Flea break room. It's not often that already-established restaurants apply to be vendors at Smorgasburg, but when they do, they're required to bring an item that would only be sold at the market.

Izakaya owner Yudai Kanayama, who used to sell vintage clothing at Brooklyn Flea, hopes that gaining a spot at Smorgasburg will bring more people to the restaurant. A mention as one of Ligaya Mishan's top ten restaurants in 2015 brought more people in, Kanayama says, but it still feels like a new place. "I think we are getting popular," he says. "We need to be even more popular."

Izakaya's chicken and rice
Nick Solares

Kanayama and two Izakaya employees — all wearing vintage gear or wide-brimmed hats — set down plastic bowls lined with salad, rice, fried yellow potatoes, peppers, and fried chicken with a sweet, sticky sauce. As the Flea crew digs in with chopsticks, they question Kanayama. Why do you want to be here? Do you have experience with markets? What are some other Smorgasburg vendors you like? Do you know what your booth would look like?

Izakaya's owner talks to the Smorgasburg taste testers.
Nick Solares

Kanayama practically mumbles some of his responses, but he ultimately has answers for nearly all the questions. Their food is different, he adds. The new chef at the restaurant, who created the dish, uses a special recipe to coat the chicken that's not like typical Japanese fried chicken, Kanayama says. "We don't use flour," he says. "It's not regular karage or tempura." Demby explains later that he likes to get the vendors talking generally about their restaurant and food. "You'll get a sense for how serious they are as a chef," he says.

The Izakaya cooks pack up, and Blackman, the director of operations, takes Kanamaya aside to thank him and explain the timetable. It's competitive for them, especially since they need one of the coveted spot with access to electricity for their deep fryers. But Kanamaya — and all other new vendors — won't find out if he'll get a booth until March, just a month before Smorgasburg's debut.

1:30 p.m. Third Tasting: Kotti Brooklyn, the unknown entity looking for a chance

Nick Solares

Kotti Brooklyn exemplifies an unknown entity that Smorgasburg might invite in, Demby says, even if the application was a little quirky. Their bio was longer than Demby typically prefers — "shows someone might have too much theory," he says — and they listed Smorgasburg as a location on their mock-up website. "A bit presumptuous," Demby says.

Still, the website looked professional. Co-founders Erkan Emre and Michael Stark had their story about Berliner street food, a version of the well-known Mediterranean diet that Turkish immigrants brought to Germany. There were even renderings of what a potential brick-and-mortar restaurant would look like, which is rare for applicants. "They definitely got invited in," Demby says. "They have their shit together. They have a menu. And the menu looked delicious to me."

Smorgasburg receives applications from mostly new concepts because it's a good way for people with new products to test them out. It's a lot of hard work to be a part of it, and each day costs $300 regardless of money earned, but it's still cheaper than opening a new restaurant. Plus, Smorgasburg takes care of all the promotions and marketing, and vendors don't have to worry about people showing up — people always show up. "The increasing cost of real estate is almost prohibitive to start off with a project that is brick-and-mortar," Emre says. "For us, it was almost a no brainer to say Smorsgasburg."

Jonathan Butler listens as Kotti Brooklyn's Erkan Emre pitches the concept.
Nick Solares

Kotti has no store. Kotti has a brand and a menu and the team has hosted six tastings with about 500 people each, but there's still nowhere you can get the group's doner, which is a sandwich with focaccia -like bread, spit roasted chicken, and fresh veggies. Smorgasburg is an opportunity to show people what they're about and hopefully show investors something tangible, says Emre, who currently works as a real estate developer. He and Stark are both from Germany and missed the ubiquitous street food from home. "This is really our proof of concept to see how many people we can draw in," he tells the tasters.

The tasters start off the session by warning that they may not finish off the food; they're getting pretty full at this point. "Don't be insulted," Butler says. "Everything will be fair," Demby adds. Still, everybody takes a generous bite of the doner. Although the bread is packed with zucchini, tomato, and chicken, it holds together fairly well — a point that Frierson notes. Kotti is intended to be food on-the-go, just as it is in Germany. Demby has lived in Germany and recognized Kotti's version quickly. Butler's wife, who is also German, is called in at some point to try it as well. "It's really good, it's very authentic," Demby says. "I don't know if I've had one of these sober. Usually it's really late."

Georgia Frierson takes a bite out of a doner as Jonathan Butler watches.
Nick Solares

During the tasting, the crew asks a lot of questions they asked of the other vendors — where the bread is from, where they sold, what they're looking for, etc — and both of Emre and Stark answer confidently. Butler points out that the size of the sandwiches may be a bit big for Smorgasburg. "A lot of people go to the market, they want to sample several different things," he says. "If they get this, they're not eating anything else." But the duo responds with a potential solution of a smaller version, made by cutting the pita in half and selling it for about $5 instead of $10. Turns out, Stark has a lot of experience in the food business. He has been working at Fresh Direct for years, in operations and in prepared meal research and development, a fact that's received positively. Demby says he's not worried about them dealing with operational details like insurance or certificates.

Demby and Butler say they have to run to a 2 p.m. meeting, and Emre and Stark start to pack up their equipment and food. They both felt that the meeting was "overall very very positive," Emre says. They're crossing their fingers that they'll get in, but if they don't, they'll try other routes, like food trucks or pop-ups. It's their dream, and feedback has already been so positive that it would be a shame to abandon it, Emre says. "If it doesn't work out with Smorgasburg, it is not in our DNA to give up," he says. "We'll make it work."

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