Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series by fledgling Smorgasburg and Brooklyn Flea vendor Erica Wilders. Erica is co-owner of The Brooklyn Bean Co., with her partner Will De Filippis. She’ll continue to chronicle their adventures as their small business grows.
by Erica Wilders
When I was a child I loved to build forts with my sister in our basement. We’d rummage through our mother’s linens in search of the perfect walls. Using our gray sectional as scaffolding we would drape mismatched curtains and worn sheets over the arms until our fabric castle was complete. There was something rewarding about constructing a space to call our own. And while I don’t remember my exact juvenile motivation for building those forts, on some level I think I was preparing for my inevitable future as a food vendor.
Every Saturday until the outdoor season ended a few weeks ago, I wheeled our heavy E-Z Up tent to spot R42 at Smorgasburg, the weekly culinary carnival on the Williamsburg waterfront. By the end of the season, the once crisp white canopy was smudged and ripped. The strong metal legs were bowed from a few viciously windy days. But still it stood proudly, anchored by sandbags and two hard-working owners. Each Saturday I stood under our tent and marveled at how we turned our fort into a business.
As the Smorgasburg season ended, and we prepared to move indoors with Brooklyn Flea for the winter, we had a moment to look back at just how far we’d come in a few short months.
The Real Bean People
Selling beans is hard. Growing them is harder. And the more we burrowed into this world the more we felt a need to visit a real, live bean farm. Luckily for us, our summer vacation happened to be planned for one of the country’s legume-growing hotspots – the Pacific Northwest. In between visiting Mount Rainier and some shenanigans on Capitol Hill we spent a day with farmer Harry MacCormack at Sunbow Organic Farms in Corvallis, Oregon.
The Southern Willamette Valley is an amazing place. Grass fields spread to the horizon, interrupted only by vineyards and farms. Lots and lots of farms. On the day of our excursion the sky was an uncommon shade of periwinkle, perfectly matching the color of the barn at the end of Sunbow’s long gravel driveway. We emerged from our Jeep and were first greeted by the sound of wind cutting through leaves and then by a gentle shout, “You’re the people from New York?”
Harry is a kind man with the vocabulary of a college professor and the energy of a toddler. He did most of the talking as Will and I tried desperately to absorb every word that came from his sun-drenched lips. Harry’s knowledge of beans is fanatical (in a good way) and meeting him was probably one of our wisest decisions yet.
His resume reads like an agricultural novel. Not only has he been a farmer for more than 40 years, he’s an accomplished author and co-founder of the Corvallis Saturday Market, the Peoples Wednesday Market in Portland and the Oregon Tilth, for which he was the first executive director. But probably his most notable triumph, and our reason for visiting, was his creation of the Southern Willamette Valley Bean and Grain Project. The purpose behind the project, as the name implies, is the “cultivation and local marketing of organically grown staple crops like beans and grains to provide a foundation for year-round food resources in the Willamette Valley.”
While we aren’t farmers and clearly don’t yet have the experience with beans that Harry has, we instantly related to the project. We may be on opposite coasts and in different settings, but our objective is the same – to get people to eat more beans.
We sat quietly for a while on our drive back through the Valley. Will opened the bag of fresh English peas Harry gave us and handed me one. It snapped loudly between my teeth. If just for that moment, our collective mission was accomplished.
Slow and Steady
We came back from our trip invigorated, ready to pass on even more bean knowledge to our ever-growing customer base. It was peak season and Smorgasburg was in full-swing, gaining more notoriety each weekend. Our sales, in step with the temperatures, were increasing as we started carrying more local beans and grains from Ithaca’s Cayuga Pure Organics.
As our once-full sacks of beans began to dwindle, we eagerly sought a new challenge. Will had been testing various bean recipes – ones we were hoping to package. Thanks to our previous attempt with tomato sauce, we were no strangers to the process, but we still needed advice – Someone who understood our vision, someone accessible, someone seasoned. Enter Beth Linsky.
During a routine bean pickup from Cayuga at the Union Square Greenmarket, Will was introduced to Beth, the market matriarch, owner of Beth’s Farm Kitchen and fellow Smorgasburg vendor. She seemed confident she could help us start our product line and promised to stop by our booth the following week. With her signature red apron and wireless frames, Beth was warm and approachable, the perfect counterpart to our overeager newbie attitudes.
“We want to do a hummus,” Will declared. “But we want to do it with local ingredients.”
Scrunching her nose, as if to say “you know Garbanzos don’t grow here,” Beth accepted the challenge to help us and so began our relationship.
Much like Harry, Beth is a veteran in this business, so we hung on her every syllable like eager students. The first step was for her and her “girls” to taste what we had created and offer feedback. Months later, in a true testament to the “slow and steady” approach, we are still in this phase. Liz Beals, Beth’s “head jammer,” and Will exchange weekly emails and phone calls trying to perfect the product, which is now somewhere between a hummus and a bean spread. Evoking our motto of never settling for anything less than exactly what we want, we’re taking our time. And when it’s ready, it’s ready.
The great thing about slowing down is it gave us a moment to reflect on why we started this business. For us, it has always been inspired by our mutual love of food. We had become so focused on creating a bean revolution that we weren’t utilizing one of our best resources – Will. Sometimes I forget that he is a chef, and a good one at that. So we decided to offer some prepared bean-centric foods at our tent.
Up to this point everything we had accomplished was based on well-calculated whims. But I knew that whatever Will put into our pristine aluminum pots would taste incredible. For weeks he proudly watched as patrons scraped the bottom of their 16-ounce cups of chili or split pea soup and lovingly cradled warm cups of vanilla soy hot chocolate. From across the market, we’d get a thumbs-up or a genuinely motioned belly rub. I’m lucky enough to eat his food every week, so these gestures came as no surprise to me.
Our menu continues to grow and with it I see a rebirth in Will. With every text or phone call illustrating a new idea (“how do you feel about pumpkin soy egg nog?”) I am further amazed by his creativity and thankful he is my partner.
We know every groove in the pavement on the Smorgasburg grounds at the end of North 6th Street. We know not to affix walls to our tent in the August heat. We know it’s wise to remove our canopy if the wind gusts above 20 miles per hour. This knowledge was gained quickly. The three lessons listed below? These took all six months.
Lesson #1: The company you keep.
If you want to test the strength of your relationship, open a vending business together.
A 10×10 space.
Do the math.
Behind every Smorgasburg vending team is a good relationship. It has to be. Whether you are standing alongside your parents, best friend or husband, no one subjects themselves to the elements of this market unless they really like the person beside them.
Most days things were great with Will and I. But there were moments when we mutually wanted to throw the other into the choppy East River and call it a day. To prevent this from happening, we set up three hard-and-fast Brooklyn Bean Co. market rules:
1. No talking during set-up or breakdown. (Unless someone is in imminent danger.)
2. Always know the location of the hand truck.
3. Will holds the car keys. (I’ll let you figure out why.)
Lesson #2: Believe in your idea.
At least 20 times a day someone approaches the booth asking for coffee.
“Oh, it’s beans, beans,” they reply, with a twinge of embarrassment.
“Yes. Beans, beans.”
Sometimes they walk away, but once in a while they’ll stick around and listen to our pitch. Even if they don’t purchase anything, we feel a great sense of accomplishment knowing they walked away with a nugget of information that might come in handy one day.
People really eat beans. And our customers are thankful to have a source for a food they love – and sometimes need – to eat. We aren’t looking to make a quick buck with this business and the path of Brooklyn Bean is still undetermined. It might take the form of a gourmet souk or, who knows, we might end up as 60-year-old Flea vendors. But what we do know is the beans will sustain us. They were one of the first traceable foods on this planet and they will probably be one of the last. And that, my friends, makes for the foundation of a solid business plan.
Lesson #3: Your business is only as strong as its community.
There was a time when my sister was the only person eccentric enough to play with me in our fort. Now I have a market full of entrepreneurial playmates who share that same wacky vision and infallible drive. These vendors weave an unbreakable fabric that sustains the pulse of the market. We might exist individually but we survive collectively. We feel the pain when we see someone’s equipment break. We share in the laughter when they realize their sign has been upside down all day. And, most importantly, we taste the love behind every sandwich, macaroon, anchovy, grilled cheese, cupcake, oyster, beef jerky, teriyaki ball, donut, pickle, pepper and noodle we’ve tasted. For that, fellow vendors, we thank you.
As the sun dipped below the Manhattan skyline a few weekends ago so did our first season at Smorgasburg. Last Sunday we traded in our E-Z Up tent for the concrete walls at Skylight One Hanson as we moved indoors with the Brooklyn Flea for the winter. Who knows what the coming months will bring, but one thing is certain – our fort has legs and for now they are firmly planted in Brooklyn.
You can find Erica, Will and their beans each weekend at Brooklyn Flea’s winter location in the old Williamsburg Savings Bank building at One Hanson Place.