“Let it come up from the pupik,” says Eric Demby, referring to the Yiddish word for “bellybutton” to describe the instinct regarding how he and business partner Jonathan Butler choose vendors for their mammoth foodie market Smorgasburg, which takes place in Williamsburg and Queens on Saturdays, and at Prospect Park on Sundays. They also run a full-time multi-concession eatery called BERG’N at their Crown Heights headquarters. And the duo oversees additional food courts at South Street Seaport and Coney Island, as well as pop-ups at Summer Stage in Central Park.
The offerings span from “New Jersey style” fried anchovies, care of Bon Chovie, to overflowing brisket sandwiches and hot wings from Mighty Quinn’s BBQ; buttery lobster rolls from the Red Hook Lobster Pound; and Blue Marble organic ice cream, to name but a few of over a hundred mostly local vendors. “A couple dozen started at the market with a dream,” says Demby, of their debut at Williamsburg’s Brooklyn Flea four years ago, when folks in day jobs they hated could test certain recipes on weekends at booths (rental $100-$325/day) and build clientele. Some notables that blew up include Bombay Sandwich, Bunna Cafe (Ethiopian), and Early Bird Granola. “Most of the folks stayed loyal to the market. It’s the proudest part of what we do.”
Renae Holland, owner of Bon Chovie and a self trained chef, left her job as a music supervisor to create fish sandwiches and the famed anchovies “from Turkey” that she brushes with egg wash and dusts with seasoned bread crumbs. She calls the little fishes “an underutilized product” that “freaked out” Americans. But she took the risk.
Ditto for Manolo Lopez of Mofongo NY. When the native Puerto Rican came to the original Smorgasburg in Williamsburg four years ago, he noticed that “Williamsburg used to be such a heavy Latin area, yet there were no Latin vendors there.” So he whipped up his signature Mofongo, consisting of mashed fried plantains, broth, and pork cracklings (his family recipe), and it caught on.
Demby, 43, in glasses, a Grateful Dead tee shirt, and white sneakers on a blazing hot post-Labor Day afternoon, casually told CRAVE how it all started when he was working a decade ago as Communications Director for Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz. His partner, Butler, 45, had been running a real estate site called Brownstoner and was shopping around the idea of a flea market, when he found Demby, who expressed interest.
They began talking about putting together a Salvage Fest, a flea market of authentic architectural pieces from other homes, which could be re-purposed. And so it started as a weekly architectural hunting ground on the lot of Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School in Fort Greene in 2008.
But once they started feeding visitors at the Salvage Fest – a detail Demby calls “an accessory”– people began to express more interest in the eats than the fixtures. Thus, the concept split from the Flea and ultimately morphed into a full food fair.
While the weekend crowds fill all locations with hungry families sampling several stands at once, the recent BERG’N location was based on a slightly different concept. “We had no illusions that this neighborhood would draw a daytime lunch crowd,” says Demby. The inside ambiance remains a local affair: Jamaican guy drinking coffee with a guitar case at his side; a few gals and guys deep into their laptops with nary a crumb nearby; and only a couple folks sidling up to the beer bar. But the office building that houses BERG’N also serves as home to the BAM film archives; the Brooklyn Community Foundation; a film editing company; and a TV show called High Maintenance that is shot there.
Asking Demby to select his favorite tastes from Smorgasburg is like pressuring him to choose his favorite child. He has two kids – daughter Loe, 6, and son Sam, 3 – who, he admits, influence his eating habits. “Milk Truck grilled cheese, Blue Marble strawberry ice cream, quesadillas. And I love french fries. I get them with different sauces.”
So, what about the beer? “Other Half from Gowanus, Brooklyn. They have an IPA I really like. Finback Brewery, Queens. And Peeper beer, from Maine, in a bigger bottle. I think it’s more expensive. Delicious.”
Peeper? We ask. Like a Peeping Tom?
Demby chuckles. “I think it’s a bird…”