How to Land a Spot at Smorgasburg and What to Expect
Smorgasburg L.A. Market Manager Zach Brooks advised ICE students how to participate as a food vendor during a guest lecture on Zoom.
As someone who highlighted the unsung food heroes of New York on his blog Midtown Lunch, Zach Brooks sought out a similar community upon relocating to Los Angeles more than a decade ago. When Brooklyn’s food vendor collective, Smorgasburg, set out to open a market in downtown L.A., Zach was the person tapped to curate the vendors. Now in its fourth year, the West Coast Smorgasburg that Zach cultivated is thriving, with more than 10,000 weekly visitors to the open-air food market at Row DTLA on Sundays.
We met with Zach via Zoom to find out what it takes for chefs and food entrepreneurs to land a coveted spot at Smorgasburg and his advice on how to establish a solid following.
Know Smorgasburg’s roots.
Smorgasburg stemmed from Jonathan Butler and Eric Denby's popular Brooklyn blog called Brownstoner. The platform spurred an idea for readers to have a place to gather offline, called the Brooklyn Flea, which offered some food in addition to crafts and antiques. “The Flea’s food became so popular that eventually, they spun it off into its own event called Smorgasburg when they were offered a space on the Brooklyn waterfront,” Zach said. The concept was a smorgasbord of food purveyors in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood, hence the name, and it has reportedly grown to become the country's largest weekly open-air food market. In Los Angeles, Smorgasburg is located at Row DTLA, which happens to be the home of the 7th Street Produce Market, an L.A. institution.
Make your food drive-worthy.
Before applying to become a vendor, the one question to ask yourself, according to Zach: Is my food worthy of a drive through L.A.’s traffic? More importantly, is it worth someone coming back again and again? As Zach told Restaurant & Culinary Management students, “While social media is a big part of our marketing and a really important part of how we get people to come to the market, if the food is not good, if it’s not delicious, if it’s not something you want to eat a second or a third time, all the social media in the world is not going to help you.”
Mind your business.
Before considering opening at Smorgasburg, establish your business with the proper credentials. “There are formal things in the sense that you need to be a real business, you need to have a business license and you need to have insurance,” Zach explained.
Be committed and consistent.
“If it doesn’t work out for you, we don’t force you to stay, but we do ask that vendors vend every single Sunday as long as they want to be at Smorgasburg,” Zach said. “Running a successful food business requires consistency – being in the same place every single week. Whether it’s a restaurant being opened Monday through Sunday or whether it is Smorgasburg being there every single Sunday, we understand that to build a successful business you have to commit to being open on a consistent basis and so that is one of the big requirements for us.”
Don’t forget about being social.
“If a vendor does not put a social media handle on their application, chances are we are not going to engage with them,” Zach said. “You would have to have an incredibly special business or an amazing story to be able to leave that Instagram account blank when applying to a market like ours. That’s not to say our vendors need to have tens of thousands of followers, it just needs to show that you understand the importance of having an account, and that you understand the importance of posting decent-looking photos of your food and caring what your social media looks like.” He added that you do not need to be a social media influencer to get into Smorgasburg.
Do the math.
Smorgasburg is a once-per-week market in Los Angeles, open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. “If you were applying to Smorgasburg, I would ask you how many people you feel like you needed to sell to every week to be successful,” Zach said. “Some people would say they need to sell to 500 every week, and then I say, ‘well, let’s walk through that.’ We’re open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., you want to sell to 500 people, and you sell hamburgers. From 10-11 a.m. you’re probably not going to sell many or from 3-4 p.m., when the market is winding down, unless you’re one of our most popular vendors. That means you’re vending from 11 a.m. -3 p.m., that’s four hours, 500 burgers, 125 per hour, two burgers a minute. Can you make two burgers a minute and sell with your front of house and staff?”
Follow your passion, not the paycheck.
“If you’re in this to make money, then you’re probably in the wrong business,” Zach warned. “I don’t see that as a negative comment, I just mean it as, if this is what you love, you should do this because this is what you love to do. And if the passion truly comes through and if you’re lucky, that passionate thing can hit the zeitgeist and also make you money.”
Meet two ICE alumni at NYC's Smorgasburg.