Brooklyn's Smorgasburg Plants Its Banner in Kingston
Brooklyn, Manhattan, Los Angeles and … Kingston? If that grouping sounds jarring to you, then you haven’t been paying attention. In that, you differ from Jonathan Butler, who has been paying very close attention to the Hudson Valley. The most recent outpost of his Smorgasburg market at Hutton Brickyards in Kingston opened this past August, to great fanfare and astounding crowds, and will run each Saturday through October of this year (and, no doubt, will return next spring).
Butler, who is co-founder with Eric Demby of this mini-empire of culinary and craft, has a trio of New York City markets—Brooklyn Flea (debuted in 2008), Smorgasburg (2011) and Berg’n (2014)— and all embody what may be the perfect storm of Millennial aesthetics. The markets function like modern town squares built into the industrial remnants of the city; they’re the places where all things vintage, handmade, artisanal, locally grown and Instagrammable are celebrated and consumed. In Williamsburg, Smorgasburg attracts up to 10,000 visitors on each Saturday and Sunday. The market has earned almost 70,000 followers on Instagram and has been geo and hashtagged in nearly 93,000 posts. Even if you don’t accept that social media is the contemporary version of word-of-mouth, Smorgasburg is a juggernaut. Its success is so profound that, this past June, Smorgasburg exported its Brooklyn chic to Los Angeles, the organization’s first West Coast outpost.
Hutton Brickyards, the location of Butler’s Smorgasburg Upstate, is a sprawling industrial compound, positioned on the western banks of the Hudson River, whose site was chosen in the 1870s for a miraculous confluence of natural features. Not only did Kingston’s soil offer the rich clay deposits necessary for brickmaking, but nearby lay ample firewood for the brickyard’s kilns and a high-speed conduit—the Hudson River—to the southern brick-hungry market of an expanding New York City. Currently, the 10-acre site still bears the soaring, rusted structures of industry (Hutton was operational until 1980), but its frontage also offers expansive views of the river. For modern purposes, Hutton Brickyards has two other merits. It is centrally located in the increasingly hip Hudson Valley, and Kingston’s star is still ascendant.
Feeling the Pulse
Butler is no stranger to surfing upcoming hotspots. His first commercial venture was a website called Brownstoner—it tracks Brooklyn real estate and was there at the borough’s most recent boom. (Butler recently sold the site.) He admits, “You never really know when something is going to big up. After Brooklyn had its boom, it was like, ‘Well, duh. Of course: You’ve got this beautiful place with beautiful housing stock and it’s so close to Manhattan.’” He continues, “But you’ve got a similar thing in upstate New York. It’s a stunningly beautiful place and very accessible to New York City. And the housing stock is pretty incredible.” Of course, the best opportunities go to early adopters. “I feel like it’s still pretty early in Kingston. It’s not Hudson. And it’s much more interesting for me to get in early and have an impact than to go to Hudson where Warren Street is pretty much done. But, you know,” he laughs, “in a very nice way.”
“What we’ve been successful doing—and this is going back 10 years to when we started Brooklyn Flea and then Smorgasburg—is to give a center to a movement that is already palpable,” says Butler. “And I think that over the last, say, five years or so, there have been increasingly interesting things happening in the Hudson Valley region, food-wise. What we’re doing in Kingston is similar to what we did with Brooklyn Flea and Smorgasburg; we’re trying to create a single spot where a visitor can go and get a pretty good snapshot of the scene.”
At its debut in August, Smorgasburg Upstate hosted 20 food and drink vendors (including craft breweries), plus a variety of traders in what Smorgasburg Upstate’s site calls “a curated selection of handmade design, vintage clothing and antiques.” The stalls are primarily located outdoors under large, open-sided coverage comprised of the remaining brickyard structure. Says Butler, “The great thing about this plan is its sight lines. From all over the site, you have incredible views of the river. Hopefully, we’ll be hitting the perfect balance: pretty well hedged against the weather, but it’s still gonna feel like you’re outside.” Butler anticipated three or four thousand visitors at Smorgasburg Upstate’s debut; the first week exceeded his expectations by about double.
A Place to Stuff your Face
Take a look at any upscale supermarket, and you’ll see the same story. More and more of its coveted real estate—floor space formerly devoted to, say, produce—is being converted to sneeze-guarded steam tables that hold hot, prepared food. The same goes for farmers’ markets, where, increasingly, wood-fired pizza trucks and barbecue rigs are shouldering up next to farmers. Smorgasburg is the ultimate expression of that trend. Says Butler, “The first year of Smorgasburg Brooklyn, we tried to put a farmers’ market in the middle of it and no one, no one wanted to buy lettuce. His takeaway? “Smorgasburg is more a place to go and stuff your face than to buy your weekly produce.”
Given this—and the fact that Kingston already has a thriving farmers’ market on Saturdays (“and the last thing I want to do is cannibalize their business”)—Butler’s stated intention for the market is to showcase Hudson Valley–grown foodstuffs in the dishes of his vendors. “I’m more interested in finding ways to integrate the Hudson Valley farmer supply chain with the Smorgasburg vendors than I am in competing with the local farm stand.” At its debut, fewer than 10 percent of Smorgasburg Upstate’s vendors will hail from Butler’s Brooklyn markets. Instead, the dishes featured at the market will overwhelmingly be created in the Hudson Valley by Hudson Valley chefs.
The curation of the prepared food vendors at Smorgasburg Upstate includes such regional brick and mortar mainstays as Santa Fe, Bread Alone and Terrapin, as well as less established locals like Raven & Boar and PAKT. When considering the selection process, Butler heard from Hudson Valley residents that great Asian food is scarce in the region. Both of the Brooklyn food vendors that have committed to Smorgasburg Upstate will sell Asian food. “We’re trying to have some stuff that’s fun and Instagrammable, but, at the end of the day, it’s pretty accessible stuff.” This “Instgrammable” offering comes in the form of the Ramen Burger, a whimsical creation by chef Keizo Shimamoto, that consists of a fried ramen cake wedged into a stacked burger—an invention that has garnered formidable queues throughout Brooklyn.
Here is the power of something like Smorgasburg. When Keizo Shimamoto introduced the Ramen Burger at Smorgasburg in Brooklyn back in 2013, the dish became an immediate media sensation. Not only was the burger covered in countless city and national publications and websites, but, so far, it has been hashtagged in some 45,000 Instagram posts. Given each poster’s network of followers, that impact is vast. For a start-up food business, Smorgasburg offers a huge platform for a comparably miniscule investment. Says Butler, “Take somebody who thought he made great fish tacos 10 years ago, and, you know, he had his friends taste them. There was a point where his decision became, ‘Alright, am I gonna spend $200,000 fixing up a hole-in-the-wall restaurant to see if this concept works?’ Nowadays, that same person could spend $2,000 on some outdoor cooking equipment and have 10 thousand people be exposed to his food. That’s pretty empowering.” Such exposure can lead to much more than buzz. “When they go to open their restaurant a few years later, they’ve got press clippings, 10 thousand Facebook followers and a group of well-developed concepts to show investors.”
Butler admits that social media has played a huge role in the success of Smorgasburg. For many visitors, a trip to Smorgasburg is “not only about discovering food but a chance to Instagram what they’re eating. It’s, like, if you’re on a trip, you want to document all the statues and museums you saw. Nowadays, it’s ‘I went to Smorgasburg and here is the popsicle I got,’ with the skyline in the background.” Butler laughs, “It’s like planting your flag.”
Markets Sprouting Around the Region
There are a lot of large, beautiful, historic and disused buildings in the Hudson Valley, and it’s hard to ignore the buzz surrounding New York City’s Smorgasburg, Chelsea Market, Gotham Market or Anthony Bourdain’s hotly anticipated Pier 57 market project (which has been delayed until 2019). Further, such markets are often embraced by local governments because they support local agriculture while offering opportunities to small, start-up businesses. Not surprisingly, there are several similar market projects in the region at various stages of rumor or initial planning.
In June 2015, a trio of investors purchased the 17,700-square-foot former Woolworth Building at 311 Wall Street (also in Kingston) with the intention to create a year-round, indoor food hall. In Poughkeepsie, a 22,000-square-foot brick building (ca. 1874— initially built to house a foundation garment manufacturer) is being recast as the Underwear Factory. It will house North River Roasters and North River Roaster Café. Additionally, the site will contain POK (Poughkeepsie Open Kitchen), a shared-use commercial kitchen available for rent to “small food entrepreneurs, food retail operations, caterers, food truck operators, food educators and chefs seeking space for pop-up restaurants.”
That said, there have also been well-publicized failures. In New Rochelle, in 2012, the legendary chef Jeremiah Tower—subject of Anthony Bourdain’s recent documentary, The Last Magnificent—headed up a project to transform the city’s Depression- era Naval Armory into a multiuse food hall on the Long Island Sound. Though the city initially greenlit the project, its trajectory ended when its organizers couldn’t demonstrate sufficient financial resources to undertake the work.
Yet Butler is unfazed by the idea of competition or failure. “I think the idea of markets was pretty new when we first started doing it, but the concept has now been around for a while. There are certainly a lot of food halls popping up. And look at music festivals and sports arenas—they’re trying to upgrade their food. None of that was done when we started having food at the Brooklyn Flea in 2008. Obviously, Smorgasburg put it on a different level, but food has always had a communal aspect to it, right? You go and there’s a discovery process, there’s a feeling like you’re part of something, you’re meeting your neighbors. And I think one of the great things that has happened in the last 10 years is that people are more interested in the food that they eat. In most cases, at Smorgasburg, you’re buying your food directly from the owner—the person whose idea it was and who is actually making it. You can talk to him about it, and the owner is excited for the direct contact. There’s a certain immediacy to that. It’s fun.”