On a sunny weekday morning in early November, Smorgasburg general manager Zach Brooks arrives at Shlap Muan, a restaurant tucked away in a quiet strip mall in Long Beach. He’s there to meet the owners, Hawk and Sophia Tea, and talk about the family-run restaurant, which focuses on Cambodian-style chicken wings, but also boasts Khmer Chinese dishes like pork broth noodles and shrimp fried rice. The casual, counter-service restaurant, which opened in 2020, occupies a tiny space with just a handful of tables.
Hawk Tea brings out a sampler of his crispy wings, some dusted in dried lemongrass and pepper, and others slathered in a spicy peanut sauce. Brooks, sporting a five o’clock shadow, baseball cap, and hoodie, is casual about the whole experience. When Hawk asks him what he thinks of the wings, Brooks says, “It’s obviously delicious. You know it’s delicious. You don’t have to ask and you know.” He assures Hawk he isn’t there to scrutinize his food and says he knows Shlap Muan already has something unique to offer.
Just a week prior, Brooks had posted on Instagram that Smorgasburg was looking for new vendors for 2023. The Teas were one of a hundred applicants. While Smorgasburg accepts new vendors all year long, the months of January and July are especially busy because those are the times when older vendors typically filter out and fresh ones come in. During these months, Brooks will meet with anywhere from one to five prospective vendors per day, running the gamut from home cooks to experienced sous chefs. Unlike Shlap Muan, most of the applicants don’t already have an existing restaurant, so Brooks will meet for interviews and tastings at their homes, at Smorgasburg, or even on the street, if they’re vending.
Getting the chance to sell food at Smorgasburg can be a life-changing experience. An average of 8,000 to 12,000 guests walk through the gates every Sunday at the Alameda Produce Market, and countless vendors have used their stints at Smorgasburg LA as a stepping stone to permanent locations. Over the last few months, Brooks pored over applications. On January 8, he welcomed nearly a dozen fresh ones, including Champignon Eats, Shlap Muan, and Quarantine Pizza.
Brooks says these meetings aren’t what people think they are. “Above all, we really pride ourselves on being an incubator for new businesses,” he says. “We want all of our vendors to be successful, so we go through this whole process not because we want to pass judgment on anybody. It’s less about, do we love this vendor or not? It’s actually more about making sure that before we add somebody to the market, they understand what they’re getting into.”
Before the meetings, Brooks says he and his team vet potential vendors by asking about dishes and reviewing food photos, social media presences, and backstories. One of the things they’re most conscientious about is not bringing in something that somebody else is already selling. “The hardest part [about choosing] is we don’t like to have too much overlap in the vendors, because we want everybody to do well and we want everybody to make money,” he says. “We don’t want to create a dog-eat-dog survival-of-the-fittest situation.”
When Brooks lived in New York City in the late aughts, he ran a popular food blog called Midtown Lunch, where he eventually connected with the owners of the original Smorgasburg, Jonathan Butler and Eric Demby. After Brooks moved to LA in 2010, Butler and Demby would come visit and he’d take them on food crawls throughout the city. When they got the opportunity to open an LA market in 2015, they asked Brooks to help curate the food lineup. Eventually, they asked Brooks to manage the entire market.
When Smorgasburg LA opened in June 2016, it started with a mix of 100 food and shopping vendors, with that first Sunday bringing in 10,000 people. “We got a ton of press, but six months in, just like any new food business, we were struggling and not getting that amount of people every single week,” he says. The number of vendors shrunk and grew over the next few years, but has stabilized over time to a manageable number of about 60 food vendors a week.
Brooks, who works full-time with Smorgasburg LA, is part of a small team working with him in operations, marketing, social media, and partnerships. While he is the only person who drives around scouting the new vendors, he leans on his team to help decide who makes the final cut.
At Shlap Muan, as Brooks eats the chicken wings, he chats with the Teas about the logistics of participating in a market like Smorgasburg, discussing everything from the event’s prohibition on generators to the rent for each 10-by-20-foot food space ($300 per week). While vendors aren’t locked into long-term leases, Brooks stresses that if someone does sign on, they must commit to showing up every Sunday, rain or shine. (Sometimes that comes at a cost, as Eater LA reported in September.)
There is an undeniable Instagrammable aspect to many of the vendors’ dishes at the market. “Every person who comes to Smorgasburg is coming for something they saw on Instagram and they want that,” says Brooks. “Whether it’s Lobsterdamus or Shrimp Daddy or whoever, they want that one thing, and then they might see other things and try them.”
Shrimp Daddy (which dropped out of the market last year to focus on its first permanent location) had halved pineapple shells stuffed with saucy garlic shrimp, and scoops of macaroni salad and white rice. Broad Street Oyster Co.’s lobster rolls are topped with dollops of caviar, and Evil Cooks has a vertical spit layered with charred octopus tentacles.
“Not all the food has to be Instagrammable,” Brooks says, “but you need to make the best version of something.”
Vendors that have found success at Smorgasburg, like Tacos 1986, Wanderlust Creamery, and Broad Street Oyster Co., have found different reasons to stay at the market for so long. When Victor Delgado and Jorge “Joy” Alvarez-Tostado of Tacos 1986 first introduced their Tijuana-style tacos to Brooks, it was just a seed of an idea. Since vending at the market regularly since 2019, business has skyrocketed to the point where Tacos 1986 has six locations from Westwood to Pasadena, with two more on the way in the next few months. It continues to sell at Smorgasburg.
“There’s no way to measure how Smorgasburg grew our business, but it’s astronomical,” says Delgado. “The things that happened only happened because we were at Smorgasburg every Sunday.” He adds that the brand gets exposure to food writers, chefs, and celebrities, who make their way to the market on weekends, and that’s helped his business immensely.
When June Quan, one of the co-owners of Shrimp Daddy, applied for Smorgasburg six years ago, she recalls how nervous she and her partners were to have Brooks on their apartment rooftop sampling their food. “We were prepping endlessly the weeks leading up to [the tasting] just making sure that everything was perfect,” says Quan. “We were really excited to have him try it, and he sat down and ended up eating the whole thing.”
Smorgasburg was the first place Shrimp Daddy sold food to the public. Quan credits Brooks for encouraging her team to try out other concepts, like their Junbi matcha drinks. That business has since been franchised, and there are several locations around the United States, including in Hawaii, New Jersey, and Texas.
Adrienne Borlongan, co-owner of Wanderlust Creamery, already had an ice cream shop in Tarzana in 2015 prior to starting at Smorgasburg. She says Smorgasburg put her brand on the map and she now has a total of six locations around LA, with her first Orange County outpost slated to open in March 2023.
“On top of that, we have an events and catering side that was born out of Smorgasburg,” says Borlongan. “We’re basically booked every Friday and Saturday on the calendar with weddings and private events, and it’s because they found us at Smorgasburg.”
Back at Shlap Muan, Brooks finishes up his meeting with the Teas. He reiterates that he loves what they do and says he’s going to leave it in their court to contact him if they’re still interested in vending at Smorgasburg. As Brooks steps out into the strip mall parking lot, he contemplates his next food adventure and heads off to Gusto Bread in Long Beach.
Smorgasburg takes place on Sundays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at 777 Alameda Street, Downtown LA.