On a sunny weekday morning in early November, Smorgasburg common supervisor Zach Brooks arrives at Shlap Muan, a restaurant tucked away in a quiet strip mall in Lengthy Seaside. He’s there to fulfill the house owners, Hawk and Sophia Tea, and discuss in regards to the family-run restaurant, which focuses on Cambodian-style hen wings, but in addition boasts Khmer Chinese language dishes like pork broth noodles and shrimp fried rice. The informal, counter-service restaurant, which opened in 2020, occupies a tiny house with only a handful of tables.
Hawk Tea brings out a sampler of his crispy wings, some dusted in dried lemongrass and pepper, and others slathered in a spicy peanut sauce. Brooks, sporting a 5 o’clock shadow, baseball cap, and hoodie, is informal about the entire expertise. When Hawk asks him what he thinks of the wings, Brooks says, “It’s clearly scrumptious. You understand it’s scrumptious. You don’t should ask and .” He assures Hawk he isn’t there to scrutinize his meals and says he is aware of Shlap Muan already has one thing distinctive to supply.
Only a week prior, Brooks had posted on Instagram that Smorgasburg was on the lookout for new distributors for 2023. The Teas have been considered one of 100 candidates. Whereas Smorgasburg accepts new distributors all 12 months lengthy, the months of January and July are particularly busy as a result of these are the occasions when older distributors sometimes filter out and recent ones are available in. Throughout these months, Brooks will meet with wherever from one to 5 potential distributors per day, working the gamut from house cooks to skilled sous cooks. Not like Shlap Muan, a lot of the candidates don’t have already got an current restaurant, so Brooks will meet for interviews and tastings at their houses, at Smorgasburg, and even on the road, in the event that they’re merchandising.
Getting the prospect to promote meals at Smorgasburg is usually a life-changing expertise. A median of 8,000 to 12,000 friends stroll by the gates each Sunday on the Alameda Produce Market, and numerous distributors have used their stints at Smorgasburg LA as a stepping stone to everlasting areas. Over the previous couple of months, Brooks pored over purposes. On January 8, he welcomed practically a dozen recent ones, together with Champignon Eats, Shlap Muan, and Quarantine Pizza.
Brooks says these conferences aren’t what folks suppose they’re. “Above all, we actually satisfaction ourselves on being an incubator for brand new companies,” he says. “We wish all of our distributors to achieve success, so we undergo this entire course of not as a result of we need to cross judgment on anyone. It’s much less about, will we love this vendor or not? It’s truly extra about ensuring that earlier than we add any person to the market, they perceive what they’re stepping into.”
Earlier than the conferences, Brooks says he and his staff vet potential distributors by asking about dishes and reviewing meals images, social media presences, and backstories. One of many issues they’re most conscientious about is just not bringing in one thing that any person else is already promoting. “The toughest half [about choosing] is we don’t prefer to have an excessive amount of overlap within the distributors, as a result of we wish all people to do nicely and we wish all people to generate income,” he says. “We don’t need to create a dog-eat-dog survival-of-the-fittest state of affairs.”
When Brooks lived in New York Metropolis within the late aughts, he ran a well-liked meals weblog known as Midtown Lunch, the place he ultimately linked with the house owners of the unique Smorgasburg, Jonathan Butler and Eric Demby. After Brooks moved to LA in 2010, Butler and Demby would come go to and he’d take them on meals crawls all through town. Once they received the chance to open an LA market in 2015, they requested Brooks to assist curate the meals lineup. Finally, they requested Brooks to handle your complete market.
When Smorgasburg LA opened in June 2016, it began with a mixture of 100 meals and procuring distributors, with that first Sunday bringing in 10,000 folks. “We received a ton of press, however six months in, similar to any new meals enterprise, we have been struggling and never getting that quantity of individuals each single week,” he says. The variety of distributors shrunk and grew over the following few years, however has stabilized over time to a manageable variety of about 60 meals distributors per week.
Brooks, who works full-time with Smorgasburg LA, is a part of a small staff working with him in operations, advertising, social media, and partnerships. Whereas he’s the one one who drives round scouting the brand new distributors, he leans on his staff to assist determine who makes the ultimate minimize.
At Shlap Muan, as Brooks eats the hen wings, he chats with the Teas in regards to the logistics of taking part in a market like Smorgasburg, discussing every thing from the occasion’s prohibition on mills to the lease for every 10-by-20-foot meals house ($300 per week). Whereas distributors aren’t locked into long-term leases, Brooks stresses that if somebody does signal on, they have to decide to exhibiting up each Sunday, rain or shine. (Generally that comes at a price, as Eater LA reported in September.)
There may be an simple Instagrammable side to most of the distributors’ dishes on the market. “Each one who involves Smorgasburg is coming for one thing they noticed on Instagram and so they need that,” says Brooks. “Whether or not it’s Lobsterdamus or Shrimp Daddy or whoever, they need that one factor, after which they could see different issues and check out them.”
Shrimp Daddy (which dropped out of the market final 12 months to give attention to its first everlasting location) had halved pineapple shells filled with saucy garlic shrimp, and scoops of macaroni salad and white rice. Broad Road Oyster Co.’s lobster rolls are topped with dollops of caviar, and Evil Cooks has a vertical spit layered with charred octopus tentacles.
“Not all of the meals needs to be Instagrammable,” Brooks says, “however it’s essential to make the very best model of one thing.”
Distributors which have discovered success at Smorgasburg, like Tacos 1986, Wanderlust Creamery, and Broad Road Oyster Co., have discovered totally different causes to remain at the marketplace for so lengthy. When Victor Delgado and Jorge “Pleasure” Alvarez-Tostado of Tacos 1986 first launched their Tijuana-style tacos to Brooks, it was only a seed of an concept. Since merchandising on the market recurrently since 2019, enterprise has skyrocketed to the purpose the place Tacos 1986 has six areas from Westwood to Pasadena, with two extra on the best way within the subsequent few months. It continues to promote at Smorgasburg.
“There’s no technique to measure how Smorgasburg grew our enterprise, but it surely’s astronomical,” says Delgado. “The issues that occurred solely occurred as a result of we have been at Smorgasburg each Sunday.” He provides that the model will get publicity to meals writers, cooks, and celebrities, who make their technique to the market on weekends, and that’s helped his enterprise immensely.
When June Quan, one of many co-owners of Shrimp Daddy, utilized for Smorgasburg six years in the past, she remembers how nervous she and her companions have been to have Brooks on their house rooftop sampling their meals. “We have been prepping endlessly the weeks main as much as [the tasting] simply ensuring that every thing was good,” says Quan. “We have been actually excited to have him strive it, and he sat down and ended up consuming the entire thing.”
Smorgasburg was the primary place Shrimp Daddy offered meals to the general public. Quan credit Brooks for encouraging her staff to check out different ideas, like their Junbi matcha drinks. That enterprise has since been franchised, and there are a number of areas round the USA, together with in Hawaii, New Jersey, and Texas.
Adrienne Borlongan, co-owner of Wanderlust Creamery, already had an ice cream store in Tarzana in 2015 previous to beginning at Smorgasburg. She says Smorgasburg put her model on the map and he or she now has a complete of six areas round LA, together with her first Orange County outpost slated to open in March 2023.
“On prime of that, we’ve got an occasions and catering facet that was born out of Smorgasburg,” says Borlongan. “We’re mainly booked each Friday and Saturday on the calendar with weddings and personal occasions, and it’s as a result of they discovered us at Smorgasburg.”
Again at Shlap Muan, Brooks winds up his assembly with the Teas. He reiterates that he loves what they do and says he’s going to depart it of their courtroom to contact him in the event that they’re nonetheless excited by merchandising at Smorgasburg. As Brooks steps out into the strip mall parking zone, he contemplates his subsequent meals journey and heads off to Gusto Bread in Lengthy Seaside.
Smorgasburg takes place on Sundays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at 777 Alameda Road, Downtown LA.