What's it like to be a vendor at Brooklyn's popular—and competitive—outdoor market Smorgasburg? For the next few weeks we'll be turning our attention to Bombay Sandwich Co.
As Bombay Sandwich Co. would tell it, capitalizing on your off season is vital to the success of a Smorgasburg vendor. This is particularly true for vendors with ambitions of going brick and mortar, for whom juggling a grueling real estate market with the commitment Smorgasburg demands would be overwhelming.
Last year, Bombay Sandwich Co.'s Shikah Jane and Shiv Puri knew they'd have to put any future plans on the back burner once Smorgasburg started back up in April this year, and immediately went to task. Their decision to start their search for a storefront—a direction which, in the past, they had expressed less certainty about—was encouraged by their catering experiences. Near the end of their inaugural season, they began cooking for clients through startup Cater2Me in September of 2012. As for other vendors, catering was a great opportunity to work on their products, reach new customers, and—most importantly—gauge the appeal of their brand and food."
"The catering sustained us in the offseason, it brought in much needed revenue but it also got us thinking, 'how big can our business get?' It's very, very relevant because you're still growing that business," Shiv explained.
Though they started Bombay Sandwich Co. with a greater vision in mind, they were unsure of how the stand would translate into a quick service store serving everyday people. Smorgasburg is somewhere people come to eat with friends, to have fun; Shikha and Shiv cautioned future vendors not to assume that success at Smorgasburg will necessarily translate into success as a brick and mortar. But catering gave Shiv and Shikah a serious dose of confidence regarding Bombay Sandwich's prospects.
"Once we started getting repeats with [Cater2Me], what we saw is that the people who weren't initially ordering our food but would eat it because that was what was ordered by their bosses," Shiv explained. "They started ordering it because they loved it themselves. People would call us for parties, art galleries, fundraisers, and it was always the same thing: 'we like the novelty of your product, and the taste, and the health benefits are great.' It was more like the whole thing was something people desired. That put us out in the market and gave us a wider perspective."
While Shiv and Shikah have been grateful for the money catering has brought in, the side business hasn't been their primary focus. As he explained to me, their vision out of the gates was to use the six months until this year's Smorgasburg to "really just buckle down and focus on opening up this store as soon as possible." April would arrive in no time, and they have accordingly been on a constant hunt for real estate. By April, they had looked at and analyzed as many as 200 different locations for their store. Shiv's background in banking and financial, as well as his predilection for spreadsheets, have been particularly helpful here.
"We have notes and spreadsheets and calculations on every space we've looked at. For this space, for this neighborhood: this is the crowd, the demographic, the hours it'd have to be open, this is the kind of revenue we'd have to have for it to happen," Shiv told me.
The search has been predictably difficult.
They began by looking in Brooklyn, which they quickly found undesirable because of the prices, and then looked "everywhere south of 96th street." Neighborhoods were analyzed by demographics, and they considered how other vegetarian and quick service stores had fared throughout Manhattan. Chelsea, the Flatiron, and the Upper West Side were all keen on their radar. But most every space they found, whether it was in Greenwich Village or Midtown, was either out of their price range, or on the market because the location was no good. Those they did go after they lost to bidding wars, because a good location at a fair price in Manhattan will always attract the big fish.
After nearly a whole off season of searching, Shiv and Shikah finally happened upon a place they fell in love with. They told me they knew right away it was "the perfect location." But after not hearing back from the landlord for a month—and already knee deep into Smorgasburg—they realized they might need to wait until next year to make good on their ambitions.
"We were saying, 'Let's realize that it may not happen this year, because we're not in a rush to open in the wrong location. We really want to wait it out and find the one that speaks to us. That has good foot traffic, that is affordable, and that we're going to succeed at.' But it worked out," Shiv told me, and they signed a lease for a space on June 1st. "Thinking back to November, we got exactly what we were looking for: budget, location, everything."
"The market is going to wind down in November; it's going to be a good transition," Shikah added. "It will give us time to focus just on the cafe for 6 months."
With their space secured, Shikah and Shiv are quickly moving forward. Construction began last week, and they're reworking and expanding their menu, which Shiv told me is about 80% there. But Brooklyn-based fans shouldn't fear, as they have no plans of abandoning Smorgasburg. Their plan is to open their first store in the fall, beginning with a soft opening and catering to ensure they everything down pat before opening to the public. This calculated, gradual approach is evident in the rigor with which they've tackled Smorgasburg—but also something they've learned from mentors, who have been as essential to making the most of their offseason as Shiv's business acumen.
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