The Brooklyn Flea has famously become a dream incubator for many fledgling Brooklyn food makers. Stories abound of passionate, hard-working makers and chefs getting a shot to share their creations with the masses at Flea, and using that chance to parlay a table, tent and dream into an actual business.
And for many, that’s where things get interesting. As anyone who’s actually done it will tell you, running a small business is no joke. For many, it’s complicated and it’s hard, but if you’re passionate about what you do, it can be uniquely rewarding.
Liddabit Sweets is one of the many burgeoning Brooklyn food outfits that achieved liftoff at Flea. Their signature candy bars and caramels quickly garnered a dedicated following when they debuted at the now-legendary market two years ago. After starting with a handful of candy bars on a table at Flea, their treats are now in over thirty stores, they’ve got a growing mail-order business…and they’re still at Flea, every weekend, all year long.
We met with Liddabit co-owner Liz Gutman at their shared Sunset Park kitchen space to find out how they broke into The Flea, and about some of the unexpected realities (and rewards) of growing into a real, live business.
So Liz, congrats on Liddabit’s almost-two year anniversary. Tell us how it all started.
Well I’m originally from Southern California. New York is pretty much as far as you can get from Southern California here in the Continental U.S., which is of course why I wanted to come here for college.
I went to Tisch at NYU to study acting. I graduated in 2005 and I did the acting thing for a couple of years. It was making me totally miserable. I was a slave to casting calls and all that and it was awful! I miss performing, but I wasn’t cut out for trying to make a living at it. It just wasn’t my thing. On top of that I had a really shitty office job, so I pretty quickly started trying to figure out where to go from there.
I had always joked that I’d go back to school to be a hairdresser or a chef. At the time I was in a relationship with a really serious foodie, so I started cooking a lot more than I had been before and I remembered that I really actually liked cooking. So I actually did go back to school to be a chef!
I looked at a lot of programs and I settled on the French Culinary Institute in Soho. And that’s where I met Jen. We were in the same class. Jen is from Ann Arbor, Michigan. She used to work in politics which cracks me up because she just has food in her soul. I can’t imagine her doing anything other than cooking. She just needs to cook. It wouldn’t make any sense for her to do anything else.
Anyway, we became friends and started working on projects together, bouncing ideas off each other…About two years ago we kind of started kicking around the idea of making some stuff on our own and selling it on weekends to have some fun and make a little extra cash.
We had heard about Brooklyn Flea, and we figured, “Well…we’re not really sure what exactly we’re gonna do yet, but it couldn’t hurt to just send in an application.” And then much to our surprise they actually got back to us and wanted to meet with us! So we were like, “Oh Crap! We’d better come up with something to actually make, fast!”
So we started thinking. I was working at Roni Sue’s Chocolate at The Essex Market making their little molded and rolled bonbons. That’s what I wanted to do. But Bespoke Chocolates and Bond Street Chocolate had both opened right around then and they were making really amazing bonbons and other things, so we were like, “Hmmm…bonbons are already all over the place…Maybe we should try candy bars!”
We figured we could make an amazing version of a Snickers bar. So we tried it. We reverse-engineered a Snickers bar and called it our ‘Snacker.’
We started selling at the Flea in May of 2009. We both kept our other jobs until November of that year, and then we both started doing Liddabit full time.
So how do you actually get into Flea?
I’m sure it’s different now, probably WAY more difficult, but back then they had a basic online application form asking about who you are and what you have to sell. On the form it said that if you don’t hear back within two weeks, assume you haven’t been accepted. We assumed we wouldn’t hear back.
When Eric Demby, the guy who runs Brooklyn Flea, did get back to us, we were pretty shocked. He asked if we had any photos or a website or anything at all that he could use to learn a little more about us. And of course, we didn’t have ANY of that stuff. So we scrambled around and set up a whole candy bar glamour shoot – I did the whole macro setting on the camera and tried to take beauty shots of the candy bars! They came out ok, but we assumed that he’d see immediately that we had no CLUE what we were doing!
He wanted to meet up, but throughout all this he was super-busy and he kept having to postpone our meeting. We’d get all nervous and think he was blowing us off, but he’d always reschedule, so we ended up having a little extra time to get our shit together. We were FREAKING out because we had no idea what we were really going to do.
While we were scrambling to figure everything out, The Times published their kind-of-famous article on ‘The New Brooklyn Food Movement.’ It led off with this super-serious photo of all these kind of scary cool looking famous Brooklyn food people. Eric Demby was right there in the front of the photo, kind of GLARING at us! And we were just like, “Oh god, they’re never going to let us in! They’re going to see right through us!”
Eric said something in the article about how some people thought Flea was just a glorified bake sale, and it’s really not…he talked about being really serious about how they select their vendors…We pretty much gave up all hope at that point!
Anyway, we ended up getting our first round of packaging the DAY before we met with him, and we madly packaged up a bunch of samples. When we met up with him, I think that what really got his attention was our Honeycomb candy. He’s into Crunchie Bars, a British honeycomb candy bar, so that seemed to catch his eye.
Oh my god – there was one really funny thing that happened in that meeting. Our Snacker bar – the reverse-engineered Snicker, was HUGE. It must have weighed like half a pound. We were like terrified of it! Eric was very polite about it. He just kind of looked at it and said, “We’ll try the rest of the stuff later and get back to you.”
So a week or so later he had this very professional feedback. He said, “You know, I really like the Snacker Bar, but it’s kind of BIG, and a little hard to get in your mouth…you might want to consider making it a little smaller…”
Ha ha – seriously – it was MASSIVE! We were like, “Thanks Eric! Yeah, we’re still kind of working on that one!”
He asked us to work on a few other things, and then just casually dropped this, like, BOMB on us. He was like, “Oh and hey…New York Magazine is going to want some samples because they’re doing a feature on some of our new food vendors.”
We couldn’t believe it. We were just over the moon. They mentioned us with Saxelby Cheese, Early Bird Granola, and a few other people. It was unbelievable that in the course of basically a few weeks all this had happened.
We still had never actually gotten confirmation from Eric as to whether we were officially in or when he wanted us to start. Opening day for Flea kept getting closer, and finally I was like, “Soooo, ummm Eric – just wondering what you’re thinking? What’s the verdict!?”
And he just said, “Oh yeah, well, can you sell on opening day? We’d love to have you!”
That was just two weeks away! We both had full time jobs, and there was no way we could pull it off that quickly, so we were like, “Ummm, noooo, but houw about the week after that?”
Wow – sounds like a wild ride! How did that first day at Flea go?
The first day was crazy. We got there at like 7am, because we wanted to be sure we’d have everything set up by 10am when they opened. We were driving this car that was literally FALLING APART. We struggled for what seemed like hours to get our tent set up. Our candy wrappers were scotch-taped shut. We were totally exhausted. It was comical.
My dad was there that day so we have these hilarious photos – we were just totally zonked out, wearing our obviously brand-new Liddabit t-shirts, trying to convince people to buy our fancy $6 candy bars. We couldn’t believe anyone would buy anything from us – we felt so shady!
And at the end of the day we actually had done pretty well. It was totally solid, even by our standards today! I think we did a few hundred dollars in sales and we were like, “OH MY GOD! WE’RE RICH!”
Of course, we had no clue. This was before we took business classes and learned about things like profit margin and factoring in your costs. We were just thrilled that people wanted to buy our stuff. And that they liked it! We were both living in Williamsburg at the time and we went out to dinner that night at Marlow & Sons to celebrate. It was just a crazy and exciting day.
Looking back, there have been so many ups and downs and insane hours and stress since then. It was a fun start, but we really had no idea what we were getting ourselves into.
Let’s talk about the Liddabit lineup for a minute. What did you debut with? How has it evolved since then?
It’s funny. On those first few weekends at Flea we had this big table with just like three things out on it. Early on, we had the beer and pretzel caramel, a chocolate caramel, the Snacker, our Lime Coconut bar, and a couple of other things.
A few weeks in, when we were making stuff for that weekend’s Flea, we had a batch of caramel that set up before we could add the peanuts to it for the Snacker bar. Jen was just like, “Why don’t we sprinkle some sea salt on it and see what happens!” They were so good! We took them to Flea and they sold out in like an hour and a half, and people were coming over all day asking, “Were you the ones with those sea salt caramels?” We were like, “I guess we’ll have them back next week!”
Those Sea Salt caramels became one of our top sellers, and they started out as a mistake. So that’s how we got started expanding our product line. Now we can barely fit all our stuff on our table at Flea each weekend.
As of today, we have a few core candy bars: The King, which is the peanut butter banana one; the PB&J; the Snacker; the Coconut Lime, and the Passion Spice.
We also do caramel corn – one with honeycomb bits and dark chocolate, and one with bourbon bacon, that everyone seems to love.
With the caramels, the beer and pretzel and the sea salt are the two big ones. We also do the chocolate sea salt. We use taza chocolate for that.
And then we do lots of seasonal ones. We do a chocolate gingerbread one for winter, we have an orange ricotta one, an apple cider, and a chocolate black truffle cinnamon. We do smores bars and other stuff in spring and summer…
Doing seasonal things and trying new things keeps it fun. So when we really need to blow off some steam, we can just make something new. Stretch our creative muscles a bit. That’s what keeps it fun and makes it worth all the heartache and stress! We work in food because we love the creativity of making it well and seeing people enjoy what we make. Trying lots of new things keeps it exciting for us and for our customers.
Any special or favorite ingredients that go into your candies?
When we started we really wanted to source our ingredients from people who cared as much about their products as we do about ours. We make candy, so we can’t source all of our ingredients locally, but we do whenever we can.
We use Ronnybrook Farm’s cream from upstate, and we get honey from Tremblay Apiaries, also from upstate, who are at some of the Greenmarkets. They’re like the most hilarious honey-obsessed people I’ve ever met. They have all this honey set up at their Greenmarket table – pollen and cones and things, and they will not let you buy anything without trying like four different things. We use Martin’s Pretzels from Pennsylvania. They’re at a bunch of Greenmarkets too. We use peanut butter from Peanut Butter & Company. Brooklyn Brewery is huge – we use their beer in the beer and pretzel caramel. They changed our lives by allowing us to work with them. They’re just some of the most generous, coolest people.
We just always try to use the best ingredients we can find, that are made by people who really care.
You mentioned that neither of you guys had any experience running a business before diving into this. It must be a real adventure figuring all that out and managing the whole business end of things. How’s it going?
It’s really hard! I mean, it is really really hard.
Things got pretty crazy pretty quickly after we started selling at Flea. Even when we were only selling at Flea, we both had full-time jobs. We were renting kitchen space in Williamsburg, and we’d work all night a few nights each week, getting things ready for that weekend’s Flea. We’d go from work to the kitchen, work until two in the morning, go home, sleep for a few hours, then go back to work. It was rough.
And it just got harder as we started selling more. A bunch of stores in Brooklyn and Manhattan started carrying our stuff…it was just a struggle to keep up. We realized pretty quickly that we had to quit our jobs and do this full time.
Now we’re at Flea each weekend, and we’re in over thirty stores, and we do mail-order. It’s such hard work, but there’s not really any choice but to keep going. There are constantly problems and crises that pop up and need to be dealt with NOW. We always have to stop and remind ourselves how this all happened and why we’re doing this.
Just the fact that we started a business more or less by accident, based on food that we came up with on our own, recipes we developed…and that enough people liked what we were doing and bought our stuff to make this into an actual business, and that that business is now supporting us, and Joan (our first full-time employee), and we’ve become a part of the community…I just find it all kind of unbelievable.
We’ll have these moments all the time – our friends and family are so supportive and encouraging and they’re always saying things like, “You’re doing such an amazing job! We’re so proud of you!” And we’ll be like, “Yeah, but you don’t understand! We’re totally broke, and totally exhausted all the time!”
Which is true, but in reality we wouldn’t be doing this if we weren’t getting more out of it than it’s taking out of us. The fact that we make really awesome stuff that we both really like, and that our customers really like, and to have that be OURS, is what keeps us going through the battles that come with running a small business every day. We OWN this. It’s up to me and Jen to make this work. It’s a huge amount of pressure. It’s terrifying sometimes, but it’s our responsibility and we’re really happy to have it.
To be honest, I think that for a long time we didn’t really think about where this would all go. We just had so much work to do to keep it going that it was hard to really think about where it might go. We’d joke around and say things like, “Well, this is fun, we’ll just keep doing it until we run it into the ground and then we’ll go back and work for someone else again!”
But after this past holiday season we started really recognizing for the first time that this could actually work. We’ve been through enough rough times now that we know it’s all going to be ok. Even if we do run this thing into the ground, it’s opened up so many doors for us.
I mean Jen & I are working on a cookbook. You know, because we don’t have enough to do! That blows my mind. We’re actually writing a book. I’ve been writing the chocolate column for Serious Eats for the past year. People actually read my column! These are things that never would have happened if we hadn’t done this.
And we’ve met so many amazing people in the food community here. It’s very much an extended family. No matter what happens, we’ll always have the friendships of the people we’ve become close to, and the professional relationships with the people we’ve worked with.
We started this with basically less than nothing. We were lucky to get into Flea. If we hadn’t gotten into Flea it’s hard to imagine where we’d be. We had no business experience and next to no savings, but we’ve somehow built this into an actual business that actually supports people and is part of the community. It’s all been really humbling but at the same time I’m proud of it. Jen is too. We’ve worked our asses off but we’ve been lucky too.
Any advice for people thinking of diving in and starting their own food business?
Food is very fashionable right now, and there are a lot of people who think they’d like to start their own food business. My advice to anyone considering it would just be to intern with someone. Do it once a week or whatever you can manage, but do that first. You don’t want to be sinking money into school and a business unless you know, you’re absolutely convinced, it’s what you want to do. Working with food is a grind. It’s physically grueling. You’re on your feet all day, you’re working with your hands, you’re getting burns and cuts…the reality of it is really not glamorous! And that’s probably true for lots of things that people romanticize.
But if you’re really passionate about food, and you understand how hard working in food and running a small business can be, it can be the best thing ever. If you’re really really passionate about food, you almost don’t have a choice!
For more on Liddabit Sweets, including locations where you can find their treats, check their website at www.liddabitsweets.com