Two months after swaggering into D.C. with a reputation for drawing huge crowds in other cities, the Smorgasburg outdoor food market in Navy Yard will temporarily shut down. Citing record heat and locals’ tendency to escape the city during the dregs of the summer, Smorgasburg told its group of 30 or so local vendors that it will cancel its weekly residence for the next four Saturdays. It plans to return September 7 and host markets until at least the end of October.
Multiple vendors tell Eater that they learned of the decision in a group email that D.C. general manager Sophia Florendo-Stevens sent July 24.
Smorgasburg’s popularity at its original market in Brooklyn, which opened in 2011, and a subsequent offshoot in L.A. generated major hype for vendors and customers in D.C. Smorgasburg claims its Brooklyn markets, which boast 100 vendors on Saturdays and Sundays in Williamsburg and Prospect Park, attract throngs of 20,000 to 30,000 people per weekend. By curating a mix of established chefs and up-and-comers in need of an incubator, Smorgasburg provides crowds with an exciting mix of cuisines — everything from fried chicken sandwiches, wood-fired pizza, and unorthodox flavors of ice cream to Japanese skewers and Filipino pork belly.
Vendors in D.C. pay a flat fee upwards of $200 for a place in the market and assume all operational costs themselves. So subtracting four market days leaves them on the hook for labor and equipment — including basics like tents and tables — that they may have already arranged. One vendor, who requested anonymity to speak freely, tells Eater they spent $5,000 before the first market to prepare for the season.
“We all budgeted for this to be there every Saturday,” they say. “It screwed over a lot of vendors.”
Because vendor fees stay the same no matter the level of traffic, Florendo-Stevens says Smorgasburg is looking out for vendors by canceling events when it would be difficult for them to cover overhead costs. She says the company is also protecting its customer from dangerous temperatures and looking to maintain an atmosphere of “bustle” and “buzzy-ness.”
“I want to make sure that when my vendors field their teams, they’ll have a successful market day,” Florendo-Stevens explains.
On June 15, Smorgasburg’s opening day in D.C., crowds flocked to the brick courtyard at Tingey Plaza. The Washington Post reported that several vendors had sold out by 2 p.m. that day, four hours before closing time.
Multiple vendors said attendance has dwindled since then. Andrew Dana, a co-owner of Petworth’s popular Timber Pizza, says the early response inflated expectations for vendors.
“People were like, ‘It’s going to be like this every weekend,’ and it just has never approached that again,” Dana says. “A lot of these businesses should have tempered their expectations after one week.”
Florendo-Stevens says that despite dips in attendance, crowds were in line with Smorgasburg’s projections.
“Opening day is always going to be more people than you would be able to plan for, and that’s a good thing, but that wasn’t our plan to have opening day numbers every day,” she says. “We’re trying to make something that’s a normal part of people’s entertainment in the city.”
A summer heat wave hasn’t helped. Smorgasburg decided to cancel a recent Saturday, July 20, when the heat index spiked to 110 degrees, and Washington was projected to feel the same as Death Valley, California.
Although Dana feels for smaller companies who will have trouble absorbing the financial hit, he says he agrees with the decision to cancel events during a dead month in D.C. when temperatures rise, college kids are gone, and Congress is out of session.
Rabia Kamara, who started Ruby Scoops ice cream four years ago, also thinks the decision to go on hiatus makes sense, but acknowledges that, “It kind of hurts a little.”
“The other markets that we participated in, we either pay a percentage of sales or we don’t pay at all,” Kamara says. “To have this flat fee can be a little troublesome week to week.”
Kamara also says that she’s seen Smorgasburg brimming with people in L.A., but knows her experience didn’t reflect a brand new event. She says that it might have helped if the company started its D.C. outpost in the spring, traditionally a busier season.
Every vendor that spoke to Eater says they plan to return to Smorgasburg in September, and Florendo-Stevens says none of the vendors have dropped out in response to the cancelations. She says developer JBG Smith, which she says licenses Tingey Plaza to Smorgasburg, is supportive of the market’s plans to return.
In the meantime, she is working on adding more splashy vendors and coming up with ideas to help draw attention to the market. When it returns in September and October, the weather will be cooler, and the city will be full of college kids and government employees again.
“Those times of year here are really beautiful, and we’re really optimistic,” she says.