As recently as 20 years ago, Brooklyn had an image of toughness and grittiness, yet in the start of the millennium, Brooklyn’s relatively cheap rents began drawing artists and hip young people. Leaving the rising prices in the East Village and Alphabet City, these people changed the image of the borough from New York’s eyesore to its crown jewel. Previously in the shadow of Manhattan, Brooklyn quickly became a mainstay of New York City’s creative culture and atmosphere. This image has spread beyond New York City and the Northeast, and people from as far off as France and Sweden have become transfixed by the “Brooklyn cool” image.
This “Brooklyn” image with what prompted friends Eric Demby and Jonathan Butler to create a street market that brought together the artistic culture and community spirit of this new Brooklyn. In 2008, they rented out a large school yard and launched a massive street bazaar called “Brooklyn Flea”, which quickly grew in size and popularity. Today, it’s the most popular street vendor market in New York, holding indoor and outdoor locations year-round. Sister business Smorgasburg started in 2011, an all-food street market brought on by the US’s food truck craze that typically hosts 100 vendors.
Butler and Demby were both part of the migration from Manhattan to Brooklyn, having moved there in the early 2000s for the cheaper rents. They met while Demby was working as a speechwriter for the Brooklyn borough president and Butler owned and ran the real estate blog Brownstoner. After coming up with the idea of a street market, they both realized that it had a better chance to succeed in Brooklyn than in Manhattan, where a lack of available and affordable space was conspiring against them. While they both admit that they benefitted from being in the right place at the right time, Butler and Demby had to put a considerable amount of time and effort into their endeavor. Butler sold the real estate blog in 2014, and the two friends now run Flea and Smorgasburg full time.
A large part of these events’ success is that they serve both as a place to buy things and be seen, giving people a chance to rub shoulders and bump into each other. This ability to attract people as a meeting ground ensures that the vendors will continue to flourish. It’s a win-win situation; for many smaller businesses, launching at Flea or Smorgasburg makes more sense, since the rent is much cheaper and it gives them a chance to generate a client base before taking the big plunge and opening a storefront, such as what happened with barbecue chain Mighty Quinn’s.
The model for the success of Flea and Smorgasburg is relatively simple; Butler and Demby rent space for the markets, charging vendors between $150 and $275 to set up stalls for the day. The success of these markets has led to increased competition to become a vendor, letting the two owners be highly selective about which stalls they pick in an effort to maintain the “Brooklyn cool” image. The events have become community institutions, resulting in significant economic impacts throughout New York that allow small businesses to prosper and generate new clientele.
Butler and Demby are looking to expand outside of their traditional locations, although attempts at opening in Philadelphia and DC have been coolly received. Their most recent endeavor is Berg’n, a year-round beer hall in Crown Heights that features four rotating food vendors. Yet this month, the founders will be launching a new round of interviews to find the newest vendors to join the line-ups of these events. Hundreds of applications are expected to come in for just a handful of spots, as vendors look for the chance to tap into the “Brooklyn cool”.