On Labor Day weekend, Smoke Queen BBQ owner Winnie Yee-Lakhani woke up prepared.
Every Sunday, Yee-Lakhani sets up a stand at Smorgasburg LA, Downtown LA’s weekly open-air food market. But this past Sunday, September 4, was the hottest day of the year; the start of the “worst September heat wave on record,” according to the Los Angeles Times, with highs reaching up to 105 degrees on Sunday afternoon.
At Smorgasburg, it was considerably hotter. The black asphalt at the Row likely increased the thermometer by five to 10 degrees. The market sits in direct sunlight from 8 a.m. until vendors start disposing their cooking oil and packing up gas stoves, deep-fryers, leftover food, tables, signs, and plancha flat-top grills at 4 p.m. “We knew going in that it was gonna be a hard day, so we brought an extra fan and misters, extra hydration, watermelon, and water in the cooler,” says Yee-Lakhani. By the time Smoke Queen opened its stand, there was a line of people trying her smoky, thick slices of brisket before the heat became unbearable.
Yee-Lakhani was one of 55 Smorgasburg vendors who showed up last week, as compared to the 61 that usually set up shop. There were varied reasons for the absences, with vendors citing health concerns, needing a weekend off, or not wanting to put employees in harm’s way. Others assumed customers would not show up on the hottest day of the year, thereby elevating the possibility of incurring a loss of revenue.
Sam Augé owns Super Frites, which operates exclusively at Smorgasburg. “As a business, I can’t miss a week there,” says Augé. “And my employees, they can’t miss a weekend either. I considered not doing it, but if I don’t show up at Smorgasburg, I’m already $375 in the hole. But I feel like I have a social contract with LA.”
Augé is referring to a $150 to $300 weekly fee vendors must always pay to Smorgasburg organizers, no matter the circumstance. Brooks says that food vendor rates shift depending on booth size and power source. In all, 61 vendors typically line the courtyard — which is stacked with produce wholesalers on other days — but on Sunday businesses like Wanderlust Creamery, Mama Musubi, Ensaymada Project, Two Wings Chicken, and Domi opted out. Still, most businesses showed up with food and equipment, in hopes that customers would too.
Smorgasburg general manager Zach Brooks considered closing the market as he kept a close watch on weather reports earlier in the week. Brooks alleges that he discussed Sunday’s event with different vendors, who he says still wanted to give it a go. “The vendors and their employees rely on Smorgasburg for their income,” says Brooks. “We’ve only canceled the market once in six years. So we rented misters and let the vendors know that if they felt like they needed to take the week off, they could.” However, vendors would still have to pay the standing $375 fee, even if they decided not to participate in the September 4 event.
Multiple vendors, as well as Brooks, agree that Smorgasburg crowds are generally lighter in 2022 regardless of the weather. The trend reflects an industry-wide slowdown in line with the American response to inflation, which reached a 40-year high in June, reports Nation’s Restaurant News. Consumers are not spending as much when dining out, with a steep spending decline at fine-dining restaurants over the last three months.
Brooks also compares Smorgasburg’s dip against the fair’s explosive attendance in 2021. After months of lockdowns and shutdowns, locals and visitors craved being out of their homes, especially outdoors. With an exceptionally busy year like 2021, Brooks says the record numbers and circumstances made it impossible to meet the same crowds in 2022. “Last summer, we had one of our busiest summers ever in the history of Smorgasburg,” says Brooks. “We are also outdoors, so a lot of people were more comfortable coming to a place like Smorgasburg. But this year was never going to be able to live up to that.”
According to Super Frites’s Augé, the high temperature affected his bottom line. His business serves beef tallow fries that are triple-cooked in deep fryers that drive up the heat factor for his team. “My booth is hot no matter what. Last week, that heat was bad for business all-around. I definitely lost more than $375 because [crowds didn’t] show up.”
As swaths of LA locals and visitors remained indoors, Smoke Queen’s Yee-Lakhani saw no other option than to pack her things and prepare for 105 degrees. Yee-Lakhani says her choice had to do with a loyal customer base. “Even though it was one of our slowest days, our customers support us,” says Yee-Lakhani. “Come hell or high water, they still showed up. If we didn’t open, would it be a disservice to them, and they are the pillars of our business.”
She adds, “I’ve been in this business for a long time. I deal with a lot of grumpy, unpleasant, ungrateful, and entitled people, and that’s not what Smorgasburg customers are. And that’s why I love to go there — even though I’m a mom with a full-time job. I still make it to Smorgasburg almost every week because of those customers.”