How Brooklyn Flea Founders Eric Demby and Jonathan Butler Also Started a Foodie Empire
If you’re a fan of food, fun, or just good, thrifty fashion finds, chances are you’ve hit up Brooklyn Flea, Smorgasburg, or Berg’n. And even if you’re not, you might be curious to hear how Eric Demby and Jonathan Butler turned their Williamsburg flea market into a global food brand with outposts everywhere from Prospect Park to Japan. We were curious too. And to find out how that all happened, we visited the duo at Berg’n, their Prospect Heights food hall to snap some photos and interview Eric. Read on, and get inspired (or at least get a little bit hungry).
So, as an outside observer, it seems like Brooklyn Flea came first, then Smorgasburg, and finally Berg’n. Did you always envision rolling things out like that, or did you simply capitalize on opportunities that appeared one Brooklyn Flea started?
Honestly we didn’t have much of a plan when the Flea launched back in 2008 in a schoolyard in Fort Greene. When 20,000 people showed up on opening day, we figured we might be onto something, but we’re both kind of overly realistic and never thought the momentum would a) last as long as it has (11 years!) or b) translate into multiple markets and opportunities around the world. We’re the kind of company that comes up with a new vision for the future every week or so, and then a great project comes out of nowhere and we just jump on that train.
It’s been really cool to see your company’s success, especially with things like taking Smorgasburg to Japan. When did you know you could take things international and how has that shape your overall company?
The Japan project came about through our sort of friend/professional network, like most stuff we do. Harry from Brooklyn Kitchen introduced us to our now-partner in Osaka, Yuko Suzuki, almost 5 years ago over lunch at Ivan Ramen at Gotham Market in the city. After four years of meetings, late-night phone calls, and international visits, what seemed almost funny at the time—expanding internationally—became a reality in October of 2017 with a three-day Smorgasburg for 25,000 people. We did it again last fall, and added a market outside Tokyo, in Saitama, the following weekend. And in May, the Osaka chefs are coming to Smorgasburg in Brooklyn for the weekend. May 4 and 5, can’t wait. We’re also putting together a big market in Sao Paulo at the end of May, which is gonna be awesome.
With Brooklyn Flea and Smorgasburg, you’re talking outdoor locations that are mobile, but Berg’n is very much a permanent spot, albeit with tons of options on beer, coffee, and cuisine. Was that a conscious move, to set up a permanent spot while keeping Brooklyn Flea and Smorgasburg more flexible?
If you go back to the genesis of Berg’n, in 2012, there wasn’t a food hall on every corner, and it seemed natural to give our most successful vendors a place to put down roots and go brick-and-mortar—to graduate, in a way. Two original Smorgasburg vendors, Mighty Quinn’s and Landhaus, still anchor the food at Berg’n, and another, Jianbing Co., recently joined, alongside our pizza vendor from the markets, so in some ways it’s worked out as envisioned. And the outdoor markets continue to act as a sort of feeder for fresh faces for the beer hall.
I feel like Smorgasburg has been really influential. Did you know it would be so popular and has anyone every mentioned that they started something because they were inspired by Smorgasburg?
People tell us that all the time, and lots of new market operators mention Smorgasburg and the Flea as inspiration in the press when they launch, so we get those Google Alerts. Twelve years in, I think the larger idea of giving an entrepreneur (food or otherwise) a less expensive/risky way to launch a business—and within a community of like-minded people to boot—is our most lasting legacy, particularly in the two most expensive cities in America. And then just the idea of starting your own business has become so integral to what’s cool and desirable all over the world, so markets that allow you to do that in front of a big audience on Day One feels like a big cultural shift that we played some small role in.
After all this success, what comes next for you?
We have a cool new weekly Friday venue in the city we’ll be launching next month. Stay tuned for that. The success of Smorgasburg LA—10,000+ people every Sunday, such great food and vibes—has put California in general on the brain for us, so we’re poking around out west, where I love to travel. It would be a dream to do a market more than once a year in Japan, so we’re working on that. The Sao Paulo event will be big in May. And we’re always talking to at least half a dozen new cities at the same time, hoping something pans out, which it usually does!