How Smorgasburg Founders Eric Demby and Jonathan Butler Built One of the Biggest Small Business Incubators in NYC
The credit for Brooklyn's status as an international brand may belong to many players, but few represent and commodify the borough quite like Eric Demby and Jonathan Butler. This is the duo behind the Brooklyn Flea, Smorgasburg, and, now, Berg'n (899 Bergen Street, Brooklyn; 718-857-2337) in Crown Heights, a collection of projects that has given their company the platform to serve as an incubator for Brooklyn brands that, thanks to the pair's involvement and vote of confidence, grow and spread, perpetuating the influence of Kings County.
John von Pamer/Berg'n Jonathan Butler and Eric Demby
Smorgasburg booths are now coveted and nearly impossible to get, and the Flea attracts a large and serious lineup of vendors. But it wasn't always that way, and the partners say that despite what it looks like, they had no plan or vision for their offerings to become what they are. In 2007, Butler had just quit his job in finance to run Brownstoner, the Brooklyn real estate blog he launched in 2003, full time. He tossed out the idea of a flea market there, and Demby, a former journalist who'd just left his job as the communications director for Brooklyn borough president Marty Markowitz, got in touch to help make it happen.
The duo staged a trial run called Salvage Fest in the P.S.11 schoolyard, and heartened by its success, signed a contract with Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School to make it a once-a-weekend thing beginning in 2008. "There's no manual for how to put together a flea market," says Butler, and over the next five months, the pair relied on their connections and common sense to bring the project to fruition.
In the early days, says Demby, there was a lot of attrition: "If there was some other event happening, we lost half our crowd. A great vendor would try it out that day and leave because it was a bad day at the market." But over time, those sellers that stuck it out began to develop their own customer bases, and that sowed stability.
By 2011, their reputation was such that a Williamsburg waterfront developer asked if they'd bring the flea there on the weekends. They agreed to throw a flea there on Sundays, and on Saturdays, they launched Smorgasburg.
Last week, the pair opened Berg'n in Crown Heights, giving the neighborhood a beer garden supplied by several of their popular Smorgasburg purveyors.
In this interview, Demby and Butler talk about growing their company into a true small business incubator.