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Smorgasburg Debuts on the Williamsburg waterfront

By Erica Wilders. Photographs by Donny Tsang

Long lines, hot sun and a lot of food. That was the scene this past weekend in Williamsburg at the kick-off of Smorgasburg, the culinary carnival from the masterminds behind Brooklyn Flea.

The event that had our stomachs growling for weeks started on a high note, with nearly 10,000 people flooding North Sixth Street to see what 100 food vendors really looks like. But according one of the organizers, Eric Demby, the vision behind the event is more than just a parking lot full of food:

“I was born on a rural farm in Central Maine where my family lived off the land…animals, garden, preserves, maple syrup…and have lived in New York since 1990. So Smorgasburg is something of a dream of integrating upstate small farmers who need a larger customer base with local, young New York City purveyors and makers who strive to source ingredients as close to home and as responsibly as possible. This concept gets a lot of lip service but the only way for it to become accessible and affordable is via a platform like this that lends it a certain amount of both scale and wide scale publicity.

And publicity it got.

The media hype surrounding the event created a dense air of anticipation upon walking through the chain-link fence and into the 40,000 square foot lot. The sea of easy-up tents sprawling beneath the periwinkle sky gave life to the otherwise dreary space. Greenmarket farmers displayed their produce, dairy and meat alongside merchants selling jams, mustards and other shelf-stable products. Seasoned Flea veterans like McClure’s Pickles and Porchetta appeared calm, while first-timers kicked up the dusty loose gravel as they scurried to ready their booths.

As the lot continued to swell with gastronomes looking for their next food fix, it was clear the event was a success. Pedestrian traffic jams didn’t deter anyone from waiting and many, including Demby and his co-organizer Jonathan Bulter, declared the day as “awesome.”

We had almost 10,000 people, huge lines, half the vendors sold out early, and everyone seemed really happy that a market like Smorgasburg now exists. So many businesses were literally launching that day, which was also incredibly gratifying.”

But as with any inaugural event, there were a few hiccups. “We lost power!” shouted vendor Renae Holland of Bon Chovie, who, along with her husband Neill, were a favorite with their fried anchovies.  “Someone tripped over our electric cord and now we can’t get our fryers to work.”

“We came here just to see you!” yelled back a hungry patron.

The epitome of grace under pressure, Renae assured her awaiting fans that they’d be up and running shortly and to please come back. Luckily, they did. “We sold out of everything by 11:45 and I had to run home for all of our back-stock,” Neill said. “Then we sold out again by 3:45. Folks came back for seconds and thirds.”

Some vendors weren’t as successful. Mark Andrew Gravel of Bean-In gave himself the award for the “most minimal booth.” Gravel arrived with just two baskets of dried beans, a stack of paper bags and a plethora of legume knowledge. His simple approach may have forced him to get lost amidst flashier set ups like The Meat Hook’s giant grill full of charred sausages and Brooklyn Oyster Party’s live shucking. Gravel is unsure, due to his lack of sales, if he will be able return to Smorgasburg.

Brooklyn Flea and Smorgasburg Founder Eric Demby

Overall, Demby was incredibly happy with the first attempt at an all-food flea.

We’d love to add more packaged and take-home products, and to increase awareness of the farmers market, as we work toward making Smorgasburg a destination for grocery shopping as much as eating. We might also tweak the layout a bit to accommodate some of the lines, but we also know that making big decisions after a huge first day isn’t the best long-term approach. We’ll wait and see how the first month goes before doing anything major.

We hope Smorgasburg becomes a platform for as many people as possible to connect with food, how it’s made, where it’s from, and why it’s important—in a comfortable, non-elite setting. Oh yeah, and everyone should stuff their faces and go home satiated.”

Three days and 4,000 calories later there is much to celebrate about Smorgasburg. The general sentiment from patrons and vendors alike is a true excitement of new ideas, with the obvious one being the event itself – Demby’s dream of creating a self-sustaining culinary incubator. Adding to that excitement is the sheer abundance of new vendors who unveiled their products for the first time at Smorgasburg.

Nothing will replace our love for the greenmarket farmers who supply our weekly vegetables and eggs. And, yes, we will surely continue to stock up on Rick’s Pick’s Phat Beets for our summer picnics. But how often do you get to have fried, fresh anchovies or eat pie on a stick?

Here, we honor a few of the newbies and wish them luck.

Bon Chovie

Bon Chovie

The Vendors: Neill & Renae Holland

The Product: Fried, fresh anchovies

The Story: Neill and Renae Holland say their love for seafood helped spawn their love for each other. Hailing from Seattle, Renae grew up eating Pacific-grown fish, and Neill, from St. Petersburg Florida, spent his life on the sea first on his grandparent’s sailboat and then as part of his own chartering business. Both somehow found their way to New York, more specifically a loft in Williamsburg, which they shared with five other roommates. “Our mutual love of seafood was a conversation starter,” Neill admits. So, first comes love, then comes…anchovies?

How did you decide on anchovies?

N: A friend of ours has a food truck in Portland and we called to pick his brain about our idea of selling a seafood product. He said he’s constantly selling out of his fried, fresh anchovies – and that it’s a common “European seafood.”

Are their fresh anchovies in New York?

R: It’s easier to find a baby tiger in New York than it is to find fresh anchovies. But we found them.

Why Smorgasburg?

N: Renae was working for a fashion designer and needed to get rid of some samples, so we got a booth at Brooklyn Flea and I left saying “Those are my people! Those are my people!” We talked to Eric and he thought it would be the perfect place to launch our idea.

Pie Birds

Pie Birds

The Vendors: Caitlin Bebb & Jessica Giannone

The Product: Pies

The Story: Jessica and Caitlin met while starring in an all-female version of Shakespeare Titus Andronicus. In the play, Caitlin’s character orders Jessica’s to be killed and then baked into a pie. They swear that this has nothing to do with their pie-centric business, rather it stems from a mutual love of baking.

So, you don’t think the play is some sort of morbid irony?

C: No!

And you aren’t baking people into pies?

C: Not yet (laughs)

Phew. So how did you get involved with Smorgasburg?

J: We were applying to be vendors at Brooklyn Flea and then all this Smorgasburg stuff came up. I love Brooklyn because of things like this – individual restaurants, unique one-of-a-kind products.  Smorgasburg is really bringing attention to this and helping everyone who has neat ideas and tasty things.

Speaking of tasty things – tell me about your pies. Where do you make them?

C: We make them mostly out of Jess’ kitchen. We have equipment there but sometimes I make my dough with a fork and knife. I’m pretty old school. Jess thinks I’m crazy.

J: Moving forward we will be renting a commercial kitchen space.

What are some pies you feature?

C: Right now we mostly do fruit pies. We want to start doing savory – I’ve been experimenting with lentil recipes. My personal favorite right now is the peach plum apricot.

I’ve also seen your pie lollipops – what a great idea!

J: Yes, the pie pops. We always want to keep our pies fresh and simple and fun. And so many people are doing things on sticks and we thought – why not pies? It’s so exciting to see people walking around with them!

Are you noticing a lot of new competition in the pie world?

C: Actually I heard a short piece on NPR the other day that pies are the new cupcakes. I thought, no! Pie is old school! It’s ok though. There’s a new pie revolution going on which is awesome and we’re a part of that.

Brooklyn Oyster Party

Brooklyn Oyster Party

The Vendor: Kyle Needham

The Product: Oysters

The Story: What happens when a popular Brookyn bartender wants to throw an oyster party? People come. That’s what Kyle Needham, who grew up in a seafood-centric corner of New Hampshire, found out when he threw his first Brooklyn Oyster Party at The Gibson in Williamsburg, where he works, just a week before Smorgasburg.

So all this happened pretty fast?

K: Yeah. We had the pop up party at The Gibson on May 11. We sold out of oysters in three hours. We were also doing a lobster roll, and sold out of those in one hour. I knew about Smorgasburg and thought it would be a great opportunity so I applied. On May 16, Eric emailed me and said he was interested. I filled my backpack full of oysters on ice and went to shuck them for him in his conference room. And that was that.

I guess so. Are you just going to do pop up parties or will you do catering?

K: Both. The whole idea was to get away from the white tablecloth mentality that surrounds oysters. Make it more of a blue-collar environment in the backyard. That’s really the business model.

What’s the plan for the future of Brooklyn Oyster Party?

K: There’s actually a couple different ones. This is something I wanted to snowball and then buck through the door opening my own place. I’m getting married in January and when I get back I want to make push to open my own place. Also a couple people contacted me and want me to take over carts and do other festivals in the city. I just want to build the brand now – it’s a summer thing.

Bite Size Kitchen

Bite Size Kitchen

The Vendor: Connie Sun

The Product: Dumplings

The Story: This former interior designer quit her day job to follow a passion instilled by her grandparents many years ago. Growing up in a traditional Chinese household, dumplings were a constant presence. Connie Sun’s renditions have a modern twist, with fillings like chili and butternut squash. She has become a bit of a guru and now teaches a monthly dumpling making class at The Brooklyn Kitchen, surely making her grandparents very proud.

How did you get into teaching dumpling making?

C: One night I went to hang out with some friends. I’m usually the one to bring some sort of sustenance and I brought dumplings. They said I should teach them how to make them. The more I thought about it, it became a totally viable option for me. My first class was with 12 girlfriends and now I teach monthly at The Brooklyn Kitchen.

What are the classes like?

C: It’s interactive and people really get into it. I usually do three different kinds of dumplings. The next class is going to be an overall dough-making study.

Yikes, dough’s can be tricky, right?

C: Nah. My recipe is so easy, you kinda can’t mess it up.

What’s next?

C: I would really love to just become a caterer. People are drawn in on the dumpling fact but I can definitely make more things than dumplings. I’d like my emphasis to be on weird Asian street food.

Sea Bean Goods

Sea Bean Goods

The Vendors: Nicole Centeno & Brian Chaszar

The Product: Soups

The Story: This Greenpoint couple wants to change your view on soups. Using their varied backgrounds, the pair pooled their resources and developed a fresh take on this often-overlooked product. Nicole, a graduate of The French Culinary Institute, brings great knowledge to the many preparations, and Brian, who works in marketing, brings an artistic vision for the business – and, as we found out – the name.

How did you come up with the name?

B: I’m kind of a nickname factory. I found out that Nicole’s sister used to call her “Cocoa Bean.” And I shortened it to “C Bean”. After mulling around for names of the business we thought it was kind of cool sounding and changed it to Sea Bean. And after some research, it turns out it’s a real food.

Why did you decide on soup?

B: Soup is in kind of a funny place in our society right now. It has major cultural roots but chains have kind of dumbed it down. It’s a cool task to make them fun again and actually gourmet.

N: It’s been interesting and fun educating people.

What’s the future of Sea Bean?

N: I would love to have the soup jarred and readily assessable. And get more people excited about local agriculture and be proud of the food they eat.

So you must use a lot of the greenmarket vendors?

N: Yes our product is 90 percent local and come straight from the vendors. It’s great; I’ll be able to pick up my ingredients for the week at Smorgasburg from Healthway and Ronnybrook.

Somewhere, we are certain Eric Demby is smiling.

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