On a hot Saturday morning in July, Taryn Garcia is busy organizing her colorful array of French pastries as the crowd grows at Smorgasburg, an open-air food market in the trendy Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg. Her macarons come in every hue her customers can imagine and, at several dollars per cookie, are high-end treats for those who patronize her food stall.
Garcia is one of 23 female food entrepreneurs at Smorgasburg, the edible extension of Brooklyn Flea. She’s been there since the market started in 2011, and her business, Vendome Macaron, has developed enough of a loyal following to attract an investor and secure a spot at Saks Fifth Avenue. She plans to open a brick-and-mortar location in nearby DUMBO in time for the holiday season.
Smorgasburg attendees, organizers and vendors “have just been really supportive of our business,” she says. “Everyone is phenomenal [and] it’s a really well-curated food market.”
The congenial atmosphere of open-air food markets seems a far cry from the militaristic and often male-dominated kitchens of the restaurant world, which tend to leave women in the food business feeling alienated. It’s a serious issue, as sexism in the restaurant industry manifests itself in myriad ways — including the exclusion of women from the top tiers. (For more, see our two-part series: Why We Care About Female Chefs.)
But at open-air food markets, the mood and spirit are different. The New York Times once referred to Smorgasburg as “the Woodstock of Eating.” And the Project for Public Space cites another institution, GrowNYC‘s famous Union Square Greenmarket, as a prime example of how a properly maintained open-air food market can transform previously neglected neighborhoods – talk about supportive.
With such naturally welcoming environments to offer vendors, it’s perhaps no surprise that open-air markets have been drawing in women – like Beth Linskey of Beth’s Farm Kitchen, a mainstay at the Union Square market – for decades.
Linskey is no stranger herself to dealing with sexism – she did, after all, begin her jam business back in 1981, when women still needed a male co-signer for a business loan.
Yet despite early difficulties, on a recent summer Wednesday she could be found chatting with her employees at the Union Square Greenmarket as they set up her display – a long, gingham-covered table packed with an array of jams, jellies, sauces and chutneys ranging in flavor from strawberry-rhubarb and blueberry to garlic rosemary and habanero.
As they worked, Linskey praised the market’s atmosphere.
“The greenmarket is a real community, and you really get to know the people – not just the customers, but you really get to know all of the people that you are working with,” she says. “We really consider ourselves neighbors.”
Linskey, a former catering professional, can recall when it wasn’t so easy to be a female food entrepreneur. Back in the 1980s, “it was hard for me to get loans, and they did not have the kinds of loans that they have today for people who are starting small businesses – especially food businesses,” she says. “So I had to use pretty ordinary sources, which meant going to a bank and then being criticized because I didn’t have good credit, or because my husband wasn’t going to co-sign.”
Linskey has been selling at Union Square since she opened Beth’s Farm Kitchen. And she gives the greenmarket a good deal of credit for her business’ success; it’s helped her not only sell goods, but also forge relationships with farmers and green grocer wholesalers throughout the state.
Both markets are popular destinations for denizens and visitors of New York City alike; Smorgasburg boasts attendance of over 5,000 people per day, on the Saturdays and Sundays it’s open. The Union Square Greenmarket is even larger, with an estimated 250,000 customers making their way through the stalls each week.
For some, the success of these markets highlights a silver lining to the controversial gentrification of certain areas — younger residents bring with them a collective passion for food, allowing for entrepreneurs without brick-and-mortar locations to sell their wares and establish loyal followings despite their lack of “home.”
But for women business owners who set up shop at them, there is another benefit — the opportunity to market and grow a food-centric business in a supportive and positive environment. That is why, back at Smorgasburg, several female food entrepreneurs say the open-air market – besides being merely hospitable to women – has also allowed them to secure crucial profits and gain popularity.
Related: Flourishing at Food Markets
Near the entrance of East River State Park where Smorgasburg sets up shop on Saturdays, Keavy Blueher and Allison Kave, co-owners of Butter & Scotch, portion cake to sell to attendees with a sweet tooth. They say one of their best sellers is a decadent Sticky Toffee Trifle, which comes topped with a bourbon whipped cream (though, they explain while laughing and fanning their faces, it’s far too warm to offer that dish on this particular day).
While cooling off, they explain how Smorgasburg has helped them realize their dreams for their venture.
“Being attached to Smorgasburg really gives you street ‘cred’… so people know that you’re a legit business,” Blueher says. “It’s always nice being able to name-drop Smorgasburg.”
Kave adds, “It’s almost like a combination of sales and advertising here because you’re being exposed to such a huge audience of people that you wouldn’t be exposed to, even in your own retail space.”
The two came up with their idea for a joint venture – a dessert and craft cocktail bar – in 2012, and used Smorgasburg as a place to win over early fans. They then ran a successful Kickstarter campaign last November, resulting in $50,000 of capital to secure necessary licenses, hire employees and purchase kitchen supplies. Now, their goods can be found at stores such as Dean and Deluca and Whole Foods, and demolition of their future venue began in May of this year.
The professional success they’ve enjoyed at the market has helped them get over some lingering hesitation they have when it comes to fund raising.
“My one issue so far has been asking for money – from men, specifically – and worrying that they don’t think I deserve it,” Blueher says. “It’s insanely frustrating, because I know we do, but at every meeting I wonder if they are going to get past the fact that I’m a foot shorter than them and in a baby doll dress.”
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To be sure, the markets haven’t resolved the gender gap in the food industry. Even at Smorgasburg, women make up just over a fourth of its 84 vendors. And some of the day-to-day challenges of the restaurants industry – notably, high food costs – are also present for entrepreneurs at the food stalls.
Closer to the water, Lane Li, founder of Noodle Lane, watches as her employees dole out dish after dish of plump noodles covered in a creamy peanut sauce. A commercial banker by day, Li has been bringing bona fide Sichuan cuisine to market since 2011. The expense of high-quality ingredients can significantly impact her profit margins, she says – especially since she opts to import spices and other items to ensure authenticity.
“When I first started the business, I was more loose with my spending due to the fact that I didn’t know how hard it would be to make money,” she says. “I learned that, to have and maintain a profitable business, I had to keep a tighter purse string and think before I spend. Controlling spending is just as important as making sales.”
A degree in the Culinary Arts from the French Culinary Institute helped her hone the skills she first learned as a child helping her mother in her kitchen. And a career in finance helped Li properly manager her money, so that she was able to make use of her personal savings to get the business up and running.
It was an ideal recipe for success, though there was still a learning curve as she began her path to food entrepreneurship. But now, Li’s looking for a physical restaurant space in Williamsburg, and is renting commercial kitchen space in Long Island City in the meantime.
Though she grapples with money matters, she’s found a supportive and enthusiastic community at Smorgasburg.
“It creates a platform where there is a low-cost of entry, you can focus on your food and you are guaranteed publicity,” she says. “[And now] everyone knows about it. People from Italy, people from Germany, they come here. It’s a go-to spot for tourists now.”
The open-air food market has also given her fans a chance to experience her unique cuisine – and now they’re hooked. “Our regular customers [at Smorgasburg] always ask us, ‘When are your going to open a store?” Li says. “’We really need a Sichuan-style place here.’”
Can’t get the song from our intro video out of your head? Neither can we! To enjoy “Summer in the City” by The Lovin’ Spoonful in its entirety, please click here.