Last year’s Hester Street Fair taught Suchin Pak a lesson that should come as no surprise to anyone who’s attempted to navigate the crowds at the Brooklyn Flea or New Amsterdam Market. “We learned very quickly that food seemed to be not only a huge draw in general, but also that bloggers and writers are obsessed with food, particularly in the setting of a stall or stand,” she says.
So Pak, who founded the market last year, decided to apply that knowledge to this summer’s Hester Street Fair: When it returns this Saturday, it will be decidedly food-focused, with Sunday dedicated entirely to, as Pak says, “very unique food experiences and food events.” Right now she’s toying with a number of ideas — special brunches where attendees can buy seats at a picnic table, food contests, classes, a night market.
And regardless of what those events entail, there will be plenty of vendors in attendance. It seems that the idea that everyone and their laid-off boyfriend wants to start a food business isn’t a myth, at least judging by Pak’s recent experience.
“I’m just so shocked at the amount of food that we’re getting,” she says. “I assumed that because there were so many other markets opening up there would be less to go around. But in fact, that’s so not the case.”
Last year, she received fewer than 30 applications for vendor spots over the course of the season. This year, “we haven’t even opened the market and already have 100 applicants for seven spots throughout the season.” And incidentally, “everyone wants to make baked goods.”
Deciding who gets in requires a calculus more befitting a college admissions office. Although the addition of the food-only Sunday market has opened up more spots for rotating vendors (Pak notes that certain established vendors, such as Luke’s Lobster, will have permanent spots at the market), they’re chosen in part based on how their products will complement those of other vendors.
“We want to have a balance,” Pak explains. “Small stuff versus bigger stuff. We don’t want too much because they can cancel each other out. We’d rather have a select number of really awesome foods than a large number of OK, semi-uninteresting foods. We have to so carefully weigh everyone coming in. I think that’s why food lovers and vendors gravitate towards the market — it’s like the food Olympics.”
It’s a formula that gets tweaked every week based on a few factors, Pak says. First, “we look at the menu like it’s a menu at a restaurant,” meaning there has to be a lot of variety. “Five chocolate-chip cookie vendors is not what we’re interested in,” she says. Next, the market’s staff monitor the crowd to see what everyone is eating, and how much. “We can’t taste all the food” before the market, Pak explains, “so every week is a trial for our vendors. If the vendor gets there and the food is not good, they don’t come back.
“We’ve tasted a lot of empanadas,” she adds dryly.
For the vendors to be successful, Pak says, the market has to have “at least 2,000 people” to support each vendor. “The food-to-person ratio is a very specific and delicate balance. If our vendors don’t do well, it feels like a bit of a failure. We’re always invested in what’s working for them.” That investment, she adds, also means that she doesn’t restrict its vendors from selling at other markets, unlike some of her counterparts. “That’s ridiculous,” she says of the prohibition. “How is a meatball vendor going to make a living?”
Regardless of what they sell, all of Hester Street’s vendors must make their food in production kitchens. Not only because it’s the law, but also because to succeed, Pak believes, vendors need to be fully invested in making high-quality products. “This is food that really takes a lot of handmade effort,” she says. “In this business, you can’t just grill a hot dog. It’s got to be a grass-fed German bratwurst from a local Brooklyn meat factory that has a wasabi-marinated relish. It’s complicated.” Requiring the market’s vendors to comply with the health code, she adds, “weeds out the serious from the not-so-serious. It creates a filter system that works in our favor.”
This year’s roster of vendors would appear to bear that out. In addition to returning vendors such as Luke’s Lobster, Roni-Sue’s Chocolates, and La Newyorkina, Pak’s excited about new additions like the Brooklyn Taco Company, MilkMade ice cream, and Bruce Cost, who will sell fresh ginger ale and bao.
Pak is still hammering out the details of the market’s vendor lineup. The Sunday roster could potentially have spots for 30, so “we’ll see if people aren’t really eating as much as we thought they would be.” But as tricky as the process can be, it’s not exactly as fraught as, say, air-traffic control. “This stuff is really fun,” Pak says. “That’s why we do it.”
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