Whether you are an urban planner, Snapchatting food person, or a bitter food industry veteran, there is no denying that what is going on in an empty lot each Sunday in downtown LA is something to behold.
Getting thousands upon thousands of people to continually come out in the middle of a 90-degree summer day and wait for food for hours on end is harder than it seems—especially in Los Angeles, where traffic and parking become nearly insurmountable obstacles and there is a different food event every other damn week.
Then you have the issue of entitled bloggers or customers who don't quite understand the concept of a food event. Nonetheless, Smorgasburg LA seems to be thriving. Dare I say even more than its Williamsburg-based predecessor in New York? Based on the mix of hungry, thirsty customers—made up of young couples, young families, and everyone in between—who showed up to a 100-year-old lot that is usually empty on weekends in the middle of downtown LA yesterday, absolutely, without a doubt, yes.
Whether you are an urban planner, Snapchatting food person, or a bitter food industry veteran, there is no denying that what is going on here each Sunday is something to behold. And this is all may be thanks to one man: Zach Brooks. He is the market manager and helped with the curation of all the food vendors, along with original market's founders, Eric Demby and Jonathan Butler. You may have heard of Brooks because he is the founder of the popular NYC foodblog, Midtown Lunch. Or maybe you saw the dude's cameo in City of Gold. He moved to LA in 2010 and decided to stay here forever, clearly choosing sides in the battle for best food city. (Though his New York roots would never allow him to say that.)
It is acting as a middle-ground between a pop-up restaurant and a traditional food event that the city has never seen before.
However, the secret to Smorgasburg's success may lie in the fact that their free-to-enter food market is a restaurant incubator of sorts. On a blistering Sunday afternoon, I catch Brooks running up and down the five acres that the event sits on, with a walkie-talkie in hand, making sure that everything is cool. He has certainly earned his stripes among the LA food media world, and the success of this event has surely earned him even more respect.
"If these vendors are happy, then I'm happy. They are all my babies," he says. Brooks knows the personal story of each and every vendor at the event. The list of 75-plus food and shopping vendors includes a young cook who is utterly obsessed with pozole, some renegade bread bakers, LA's hottest rockstar taquero, and even a few bi-coastal vendors that do both the original Smorgasburg and the version in LA.
"The talent in LA right now, I think you could argue, is the best in the country," Brooks says. "But opening up a restaurant in LA is still very difficult and even the restaurants that you think are killing it and making a lot of money really aren't."
This is where Smorgasburg LA comes in. It is acting as a middle-ground between a pop-up restaurant and a traditional food event that the city has never seen before. We may have Alvin Cailan's Unit 120, street vendors and home cooks, and amazingly fun gonzo food events, but nothing like the market that is Smorgasburg LA.
"We're kind of like the carnies of the food world," Nicole Rucker tells me by phone. Her pie stand, Rucker's Pie, is among the first vendors that you see when you walk in. She used to be the pastry chef at Gjelina but is now perfectly happy selling her pie once a week at Smorgasburg. "I don't think I ever want to take this concept to be a brick-and-mortar because I don't think it works like that. My sales have been steady, without much fluctuation. It has been profitable for me and that has been great." She tells me she gets a kick from seeing the rest of the vendors figuring out firsthand what it takes to run a successful food business: "Don't get me wrong, it still is a lot of work." She also says that she wouldn't be too surprised if some of the first wave of vendors start to fall by the wayside because of the heavy workload.
As for how the LA and NYC markets differ, the hipster food jerk crowds are surprisingly more alike than you would think. Duvaldi Marneweck, the chef and owner of NY-based Goa Taco, a vendor that participates in both the NY and LA market, tells me, "Originally, I thought we were going to struggle because we called our product a 'taco' because tacos are so big over here, but we kind experienced the opposite. People have gotten on board with our taco that isn't really a taco." He hasn't noticed a major difference in the two crowds yet. "Overall, people have embraced us—and wait in line for us—just like in New York."
Now all we need is a super-ultra Smorgasburg market where both the NYC and LA vendors can duke it out Royal Rumble-style to find out which city's food scene is truly the best.