Tour Recap: Berg’n

Posted Ben Pardee Post
 

In a city as culturally dense as New York, and in a world where the next social media fad can single-handedly launch an entire brand, finding a niche as an independent restaurateur has become increasingly difficult. That makes the story of Brooklyn entrepreneurs Jonathan Butler and Eric Demby’s foray into the New York food scene all the more remarkable. Butler and Demby have become household names for their joint ventures Brooklyn Flea, Smorgasburg, and more recently Berg’n.

Launched in 2008, Brooklyn Flea is an outdoor flea market (indoor during the colder months in Industry City) featuring a highly curated selection of artisan vendors. Operating across multiple locations in Brooklyn, the Flea has become “one of the great urban experiences in New York,” according to The New York Times. Not surprisingly, Smorgasburg, the duo’s food-centric spin-off launched in 2011, quickly became equally if not more successful than the Flea. With locations at East River State Park in Williamsburg, Prospect Park, the South Street Seaport, and Central Park SummerStage, Smorgasburg attracts thousands of visitors every week to sample hundreds of local food vendors.

But the more recent success of their latest venture, Berg’n, which opened in 2014, offers a significant departure for Butler and Demby from the large-scale, outdoor marketplace of Smorgasburg. While working on a Crown Heights office and creative space redevelopment, the business partners saw an opportunity to translate their bread and butter into a new kind of food hall through fixed architecture.

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Selldorf partner Lisa Green (center right) started off with an introduction to the project in the lobby of 1000 Dean Street, Butler and Demby’s creative office development, which is directly connected to Berg’n. (Photo: OHNY)

On a windy, rainy Wednesday evening Open House New York hosted visitors at Berg’n for a tour and talk with Lisa Green, a partner at Selldorf Architects, and Jen Watson, general manager of Berg’n. Green and Watson began in the lobby of 1000 Dean Street. The property directly abuts what became Berg’n and was the project that led to the idea for opening a new food hall. A former Studebaker showroom, 1000 Dean was designed by Selldorf Architects as flexible office space for smaller, creative companies that were in transition from co-working spaces to larger offices. Located in the heart of Crown Heights, one of the most rapidly-gentrifying parts of Brooklyn, 1000 Dean features offices ranging from 500 to 3,000 sq ft.

With an influx of creative professionals, there was a need for a place to grab a coffee, a quick lunch, or a beer after work. The team behind 1000 Dean quickly realized they could fill this need in the adjoining garage space with a food hall. A short staircase and hallway provides easy access for office tenants between Berg’n and the lobby of 1000 Dean. Building on the popularity of Smorgasburg, the Berg’n team created a 9,000 sq ft beer hall with four rotating food vendors offering a variety of cuisines in addition to a small coffee and pastry bar that is open during the day.

Watson and Green discussed the process of creating Berg'n in the event space.

Watson and Green discussed the process of creating Berg’n in the event space, which often plays host to private parties and gatherings. (Photo: OHNY)

From the outset, Butler and Demby worked with Selldorf with the intention of creating a communal space that was inviting to everyone, both the workers at 1000 Dean as well as the larger community of which Berg’n is a part. To channel that aspiration, Selldorf designed a series of long picnic tables to facilitate sociability. Since the food vendors were locally curated, Selldorf also wanted to source their materials locally, and the minimalist design, Green explained, made that easier to achieve. The picnic tables are made from reclaimed pinewood sourced from a local wallpaper factory that was torn down and the vintage bar was also found locally.

Formerly a row of four garages, the architects completely gutted the interior to open the space up, with one of the middle garages removed entirely to create an outdoor courtyard. New garage doors were installed on the remaining garages that could retract in warmer months to connect with the life of the street. The food kiosk design was intended to draw customers to the self-contained kitchens, where 85% of the cooking occurs (Watson noted that to be successful, vendors must have an offsite commissary kitchen where the initial 15% of food prep takes place).

In the year and a half since it opened, Berg’n has successfully established itself as a destination and a hub. In addition to weddings and bar mitzvahs, Berg’n also hosts community meetings and even card and game nights for local residents and families. Watson noted the demographic diversity of Berg’n guests in terms of age and ethnicity. She also explained how the great diversity of New York’s food scene, and in particular Crown Heights, is reflected in the vendors themselves. Berg’n features Ed & Bev’s* (a Detroit style “Coney” diner), Lumpia Shack, (Filipino), Samesa (Mediterranean), and the Smorgasburg staple, Mighty Quinn’s BBQ. (*Since OHNY’s tour, Berg’n replaced Ed & Bev’s with sandwich/burger/taco shop El Meat Hook.)

Berg’n’s vintage bar was found locally. (Photo: Selldorf Architects)

That diversity is in turn supported by Berg’n’s business model. Unlike some of the larger food halls, which rent space to tenants for a fixed monthly fee, Berg’n vendors pay a percentage of their overall monthly revenue. This fosters a more collaborative business arrangement; as Watson put it, Berg’n is “operating with” its vendors to ensure their mutual success. This also allows Berg’n to be flexible with its vendors. Individual contracts are specific to a vendor’s needs; some only want to be in the space for five weeks as a pop-up, while others prefer longer leases that they can renew. In much the same way that Smorgasburg does, this model enables Berg’n to serve as an incubator for chefs looking to experiment or refine their craft without the huge capital investment of their own brick-and-mortar establishment. Mighty Quinn’s, for example, started at Smorgasburg, then opened at Berg’n, and has since expanded to multiple locations throughout New York.

The rotation of vendors, of which there have been several so far, is also an important draw for Berg’n; Watson hinted that they would soon be announcing a new lineup, with some exciting surprises ahead. As New York’s food hall landscape becomes more and more crowded, Berg’n has firmly established itself and has already made a lasting impression on the community it calls home.

Tour Recap: Eataly

Posted Ben Pardee Post
 

If there is an architectural symbol of New Yorkers’ current food obsession, it has to be the food hall. As one of the first to open during this most recent food hall boom, Eataly provided an excellent jumping-off point for Open House New York to launch its series of food hall tours. Organized as part of The Final Mile: Food Systems of New York, OHNY hosted a group of visitors at Eataly for a tour with Diana Revkin, managing director of the retail studio at TPG Architecture. As the architect behind Eataly, TPG played an integral role in the design and execution of the “largest Italian marketplace in the world,” which was developed in partnership with the in-house creative team at Batali and Bastianich Hospitality Group (B&BHG) and the Italian planning team from Eataly.

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Diana Revkin (center), managing director of the retail studio at TPG Architecture, led the tour. (Photo: OHNY)

A joint venture between Italian businessman Oscar Farinetti and B&BHG, Eataly opened in 2010 to much fanfare and has sustained great success ever since. The market features distinctly Italian flavors, in both the food and the design, for a dining and shopping experience that is inspired as much by Italy as it is by the frenetic city just outside the market’s doors.

Fresh produce is displayed near Eataly’s entrance; TPG brought in a lighting specialist to design specific fixtures in each section of the store to help bring out the unique colors of each product. (Photo: OHNY)

Revkin began by leading the group through the produce section at the front of the store. With fresh fruits and vegetables displayed in carts and baskets, this narrow entranceway acclimates customers to the feel of the Italian streetscape, which is replicated throughout Eataly. TPG worked within the footprint of the building’s historic cruciform floor plan to encourage visitors to slowly drift between the small shops and restaurants, taking a circuitous route to experience the variety of spaces rather than moving mechanically as one might in a modern grocery store. As a result, the energy of the space is heightened, especially when the store is crowded (which it often is), in a way with which many New Yorkers are very familiar.

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During the tour, Eataly staff enjoyed a Friday morning breakfast in La Piazza. (Photo: OHNY)

One of the best examples of Eataly’s vitality is La Piazza, which is located in the lobby space of the hotel that originally occupied the building when it opened in 1856. The team designed La Piazza as an ode to the central square of an Italian village. Revkin explained that TPG tried to preserve much of the original architecture, including the marble niches that frame La Piazza’s four corners, each of which was carved from a single massive piece of stone. The ceiling was dropped to cover a number of major pipes that ran above the space, but the combination of industrial elements and the hotel’s distinctive architecture is apparent throughout the interior.

After winding through the market, Revkin ended the tour by answering questions about some of the broader implications of hospitality design and Eataly’s presence within the fabric of the city. The food hall’s construction coincided with a “renaissance of retail spaces” in the area, to borrow Revkin’s turn of phrase. Following Eataly’s opening in 2010, retail rent around the Flatiron District has risen by nearly $200/sq ft.

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Caffe Vergnano is one of several shops located within the food hall. (Photo: OHNY)

Eataly houses a number of shops, including Caffe Lavazza, Caffe Vergnano, and the Nutella Bar. The collection of small vendors, food retail, and sit-down eateries is a model that many food halls have experimented with, in varying proportions, but at the time Eataly opened it was an exciting and surprising format for New Yorkers. Since then, it has developed into a premium tourist destination, a gourmet grocer, and an Italian food lover’s dream. Looking across the rest of the city, it is hard not to see Eataly’s opening and remarkable success as one of the sparks that ignited the current food hall boom.

Eataly has an extensive selection of fresh pasta. (Photo: OHNY)

Eataly has an extensive selection of fresh pasta. (Photo: OHNY)

As contemporary food halls continue to evolve, the design of this particular space has undoubtedly had an effect on what New Yorkers envision when they think of what a food hall is. Asked how her colleagues at TPG think and talk about food halls, Revkin confirmed that it is a frequent and robust topic of conversation. “But there are no definitive answers,” she observed. “There are a lot of great questions about what comes next.”

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This festive spring display of chocolate Easter rabbits was one of the most memorable on the day of the tour. (Photo: OHNY)