What's it like to be a vendor at Brooklyn's popular—and competitive—outdoor market Smorgasburg? This series will follow one of the market's new vendors and get the inside story of how a pop-up food business goes from idea to reality.
For a new vendor at Smorgasburg, sunny skies are crucial. Even so much as a whisper of rain can drive customers away, essentially emptying out the place before it even gets going. (Unfortunately, the operating costs don't wash away with the customers.) So what are such vendors, at Smorgasburg or elsewhere, supposed to do when faced with inclement weather? For Noah and other entrepreneurs still trying to make a name for themselves, showing up on these rainy days is a no-win situation.
Going into Smorgasburg on May 11th, Noah knew it was going to rain and, in anticipation, produced only half as much food as he had for previous weeks. It was a smart decision. There were few attendees throughout the day, and the nail in the coffin came when the skies opened up at 4. But despite planning well and keeping his food costs in check, the high fixed costs of running the stall meant Noah left the market with a big loss.
"We were screwed regardless because there were half as many people there as the weekend before and we had half as much food," Noah admitted. "Even if we sold all our food we wouldn't have broken even."
Despite the washout, there was a silver lining. Though Scharf & Zoyer's overall sales were cut in half, they sold more of one kind of sandwich on May 11th than on any previous Saturday. The boost, he thinks, was all in a name: rebranding his zucchini spread and egg sandwich from "Ajlouk" to "Berber Breakfast Sandwich." "The customer just gets it much easier that way than before." Breakfast sandwiches are, after all, New Yorker catnip.
Fast forward to May 15th and the weatherman is predicting yet another gloomy Saturday. Unable to lose more money, Noah was planning on skipping out. But then those rainy reports gave way to proclamations of sunshine. He felt confident enough to produce a day's worth of food, gearing up for a return to form. There was, to be sure, a steady flow of business—until 1, when the rain started and the customers disappeared. He ended up packing up just after 5, nearly a full hour before closing time.
Capricious weather doesn't compromise, and doesn't take slow weeks for a vendor into consideration. A single week of slow business is one thing, but two, when you add them up, is much, much worse. Those two days account for over 15% of his seasonal business, a significant loss when just showing up at the market costs $275 in fees to Smorgasburg. Noah was inching close to breaking even at his stall; the setback is hard to swallow.
"Because I'm only doing it one day of the weekend, I've put myself so much more at the hands of fate. The margin for error at Smorgasburg is very small."
Still, Noah isn't complaining. After all, he choose to sell at Smorgasburg knowing full well that he would be exposed to the elements. He doesn't feel like the organization owes him anything—"[it is] essentially the cheapest way to get maximum publicity and be able to sell your food to the public"—and realizes that anticipating these kinds of events is something you need to build into your operating costs. (When talking about Smorgasburg's entry fees, it's important to remember that the city has a heavy hand in the high operating costs of a legitimate street or market business.)
"Realistically, what is Smorgasburg's obligation? They do the selection process and provide you with a license to operate there. They ask certain things. You conform to their agreement to sell what you said you were going to sell and use biodegradable material," Noah explained. "I mean, they can't control the weather. This is the nature of an outdoor food business. You're dependent on the weather, and if you're not willing to accept that risk, there are definitely other vendors lined up who want to get in and take your spot. That's how I see it. It's more like you kind of get squeezed, and they have leverage because there's so much demand for the spaces."
Last Thursday, Time Out: New York pinned Scharf & Zoyer (along with fellow Smorgasburg newbie NYShuk) as one of the best new vendors at New York's outdoor food markets.
While he wasn't holding his breath, Noah had hopes that the publicity from the piece would have a big impact on his sales. After back-to-back market-wide busts, skipping out was something he couldn't afford. But with the L train not running and another dreary forecast, attending looked like a no-win situation.
Introducing Scharf & Zoyer »
Opening Day on 1 Hour of Sleep »
Getting in Focus, Developing a 'Killer App' »
How a Vendor Figures Out Portion Control »
Meeting Customer Expectations and the Bottom Line »
The Physical & Psychological Toll, Part 1 »
A Look at Couscous Specialists NY Shuk »