What's it like to be a vendor at Brooklyn's popular—and competitive—outdoor market Smorgasburg? Here's Sun Noodle Factory and Rockville Market Farm.
Up until our last post on The White Moustache, we've focused on vendors exclusively serving hot prepared food, with ambitions of opening up a restaurant, deli, or the like in this series. But there's a whole other side to Smorgasburg beyond nascent hot food. There are yogurt companies like White Moustache and others involved in an aspect of the industry not usually seen on the retail level.
Take, for example, noodle company Sun Noodle, which presents some unfamiliar styles of ramen to market goers through their Ramen Lab. Or Rockville Market Farm, who come down from Vermont to sell food made from ingredients almost entirely grown on their farm. What do a New Jersey noodle factory and a Vermont farm have to gain by slinging grub at New York's hippest market? As it turns out, plenty.
Three years ago, Sun Noodle began work on their Peterborough, New Jersey noodle factory. (They also have a factory in California.) As construction on the facility would not be finished until 2012, the company, which was born in Hawaii and has been in business for over three decades, looked for an alternate outlet for their mission of spreading the noodle gospel. Kenshiro Uki, son of Sun Noodle's founder, reached out to market co-founder Eric Demby, and they were granted a stand in the market's inaugural year.
"While New York was saturated with tonkutsu, or pork ramen, the landscape didn't reflect the huge variety of styles of ramen available in Japan," Kenshiro said. "I spoke to Eric about educating people about different styles of ramen as a localized style of ramen. Every week in that first year we would do different styles of ramen."
Offerings continue to change regularly, though the company has stuck to cold mazemen preparations through the heat. Earlier this summer they were offering such unusual dishes as mazemen made with cheese water from a Hoboken pizzeria.
Since their factory opened, Ramen Lab has evolved from a place to expand New York's perceptions of what constitutes ramen into a incubator-within-an-incubator. Kenshiro and his team have used Ramen Lab to give potential ramen-ya an opportunity to test out their product, deal with large crowds, and establish their business identity. Their scope, however, is not just limited to New York, as Ramen Lab serves as incubator for Sun Noodle customers and hopeful restaurateurs in cities like Atlanta and Washington D.C. Changing our perception about ramen can be is not just about making and introducing noodles. It's about helping the businesses that are trying to do something new.
"A lot of our customers had ideas of presenting ramen in their restaurants, but they didn't know how they could do it," Kenshiro added. "Whether it was Yebisu Ramen in Williamsburg or Yuji Ramen, all these guys wanted to do something. But they needed a platform to tell it themselves. I just felt that I could support them in that way."
Even more so than the Ramen lab, Starksboro, Vermont's Rockville Market Farm is an unconventional vendor for Smorgasburg. Founded by Eric Rozendaal, a Vermont native, Rockville is the only vendor at Smorgasburg that sells hot food made almost entirely with self-grown produce. An 18-year veteran of the Burlington Farmer's market, Eric was looking for a bigger venue to sell his food when he stumbled upon Smorgasburg.
Rockville began by selling fresh eggs, gorditas with arugula and sausage, butternut squash doughnuts, and maple lemonade, the stand's runaway hit. It's say to safe Eric didn't know what he was in store for.
For their first weekend at Smorgasburg, he and his crew brought down just 20 gallons of maple lemonade, made with maple syrup from a neighboring farm. (Eric does hope to start producing his own maple syrup, as his ambition is to sell only food he farmed.) They figured that'd be enough, as his friend who sells the drink at the Burlington market and from whom he acquired the recipe only sells 18 gallons. They sold out in 90 minutes, and now regularly sell 1,000 servings.
"I just wanted to have the farm cook more, and I still do. The more we do this, I'm really fascinated by the concept of growing food, cooking it, and serving it to people hot," Eric explained. "I know Blue Hill, I've been there, they're amazing. But that's not what I want to do. More like a roadside farm stand."
Smorgasburg has, Eric tells me, allowed him to streamline production at his farm. The market is his most profitable part of the week, and he spends very little on travel and living expenses to attend Smorgasburg—despite the five-hour trip down from Vermont.
Rockville, in many ways, is a tangible representation of the exchange between the city and country. If nothing less, Smorgasburg gives their operation—and by extension everything great going on in Vermont—exposure to people who may otherwise not be aware. Tourists don't go to the Burlington Farmer's market, where business is driven largely by regulars who come again and again. They do, however, come in droves to Smorgasburg. The aspect of exchange is not lost on Eric; when I mentioned Smorgasburg's figure of 5,000 patrons rolling through on any given Saturday, Eric pointed out that that's over 2 times as many people as live in his town.
"One of the things I've really been thrilled about at Smorgasburg," Eric said, "is that it's given me this insight into New York City street food that has been phenomenal. I'd like to take some of that and bring it up here to Burlington."
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