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.
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.
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.)
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.