In 2007, when Eric Demby and Jonathan Butler first had the idea for the Brooklyn Flea, an outdoor market stocked with handmade goods and antique finds that a certain type of Brooklynite was beginning to crave, Etsy was hot and there was no Instagram.
The idea was simple, says Demby, now 43. “Everyone was moving to Brooklyn and starting their families there. A lot of people were doing interesting things with their lives. The Flea became a place where people could hang out on the weekends. Get something to eat. Buy something.”
Flash forward to 2016. With strong, multilocation success in NYC of both the Flea and its food-centric offshoot Smorgasburg (as well as some learning experiences in D.C. and Philly), Demby and Butler are poised to make the leap that a growing number of New Yorkers have made before them: They’re coming to L.A. Starting June 19, they’ll be taking over the five-acre Alameda Produce Market in the Arts District on Sundays, when the market is closed. “Hopefully there’s a similar moment in the air [in L.A.],” says Demby of the timing of the expansion.
To be clear, neither of them is abandoning their Brooklyn home. But they are exporting their idea of a large, outdoor, curated market to the West Coast and have issued a call to creatives to apply for around 100 vendor spots.
This being L.A., the West Coast version of Smorgasburg will look a little different from NYC. Right now Demby envisions it about half food and half “other things.” There’s talk of a “wellness area of goods and experiences” led by Manhattan’s CAP Beauty, which tested the L.A. waters with a recent pop-up at Jenni Kayne at the Brentwood Country Market; and of a section where strolling shoppers might be able to stop and make something or have an in-depth interaction with one of the market’s makers or products.
There are a handful of confirmed vendors so far. Ramen Burger has signed up for a booth, and Mixed Business, a clothing shop in Silver Lake run by a former Brooklyn Flea vendor, will have a spot. Also look for L.A.-based artist Clare Crespo to excite the kiddos with something out of her Yummy Fun food project wonderland.
“When these markets click, there’s a collaborative spirit. If a market can do well on a big scale, it’s good for everyone and the city,” says Demby, whose vision is for Smorgasburg L.A. to offer a cross-section of the city that can be consumed in a day.
If it works as it did in Brooklyn, it will be a “nice in-between step” for entrepreneurial food people who have an idea they want to explore but don’t yet have the time and money for a brick-and-mortar, he says.
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One thing Smorgasburg L.A. has going for it (besides the year-round sunny weather, El Niño be damned) is its location within Row DTLA, a 30-acre property that developer Atlas Capital Group is in the midst of transforming into a giant mixed-use campus with creative office space, high-end retail stores and restaurants. The idea of not “just being a boat in the middle of the ocean” was appealing to Demby and Butler. Oh, and there will be plenty of parking. There's a new, 10-story, 5,000-space structure on the southern end of the complex.
Of course, the elephant in the room is that New York-vs.-L.A. divide. Will the City of Angels embrace something so New York that in 2012 the paper of record did a story in which the Flea and Smorgasburg cofounders were described thusly: “Perhaps more than any other entrepreneurs in a borough chock-full of kale and crafts, Mr. Butler and Mr. Demby have helped create, curate and nurture the booming Brooklyn artisanal complex”?
“New York has always pissed on L.A.,” Demby admits. “My experience is that the two cities have never been as close as they are now. And there’s more of a mutual love affair.
“The markets we do are ways of bringing people together. So it’s very 'Oh, my friend sells there. I want to go buy something from them,'” he says. “It’s not like we’re transplanting what we do. We’re bringing the soil, but the seeds are from [L.A.].”