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Hester Street Fair Hatchlings Fly

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In the current issue of our print magazine, we talked with Hester Street Fair food vendors who have gone on to success with permanent brick-and-mortar stores and restaurants. This summer, the weekly showcase of artisan food and crafts is set to launch even more new entrepreneurs, including chefs and bakers from an incubator kitchen in the Bronx who will be making their debuts at a special event during the July 20 fair. Click through to read the story.

Simon Tung and Christina Ha, co-founders of Macaron Parlour, now on St. Marks Place. Photo by Alex M. Smith
Simon Tung and Christina Ha, co-founders of Macaron Parlour, now on St. Marks Place. Photo by Alex M. Smith

When the Hester Street Fair launched its fourth season this spring, a new crop of freshly minted entrepreneurs debuted a variety of interesting artisan foodstuffs. Among them were friends Kerry Sims and Christen Sturkie, who offered up handmade chocolate toffee candy, gingersnap cookies and granola. Under the name Baking Soda Shop, the two had crafted their offerings late at night after finishing work at their day jobs and bartering even more labor in exchange for the use of the commercial kitchen. At another new booth, Khao Man Gai NY, husband and wife team Eric and Emorn Henshaw waited anxiously for patrons’ reactions to their namesake dish of chicken and rice, a recipe they developed and decided to try to market after scouring the city unsuccessfully for a version of the beloved street food of Emorn’s native Thailand.

By the time they come face to face with their first customers, Hester Street’s freshman food vendors have already run countless taste tests past friends and relations, agonized over ingredients, expenses, logo designs. Before the first package of sweets or plate of food ever changes hands in exchange for cash, would-be restaurateurs have poured many hours, dollars and brain cells into creating fledgling food businesses that may or may not ever fly.

But if the Hester Street Fair’s alumni are any indication, the winds are looking pretty favorable these days: over four summers, the weekly festival has hatched a growing list of new companies that have made the leap from booth to brick-and-mortar shops, many of them within a few blocks of where they started. They also are winning awards, delivering  mail-order across the country, hiring more staff, catering high-profile events and plotting their arrival in grocery stores.

“That’s one of the things we’re most proud of: being an incubator for these small businesses,” says fair co-founder Suhyun Pak. “We’re thrilled and very proud that our vendors have been able to do that.”

Macaron Parlour, a French pastry shop, Melt Bakery, an ice cream sandwich store, and Brooklyn Taco Company have all found success at permanent locations since Hester Street Fair’s inaugural season in 2010.

“Hester Street was a starting point for a lot of other events for us,” says Simon Tung, who co-founded Macaron Parlour with Christina Ha. “From there, it kind of snowballed.”

The pair had just started dating when they decided to try a booth at Hester Street. Three years and many 100-hour work weeks later, they have since married. Six months ago, they opened their store in the East Village.

“Customers were always asking where we’d be after the market, where they could buy our stuff,” says Ha.

Tung and Ha’s macarons eventually began appearing at other food fairs and festivals, of which, of course, there is no shortage in New York City, particularly in the summer months. The fair circuit and its customer feedback eventually pushed the couple to commit to a permanent home base.

“The conversations always turned into ‘Where’s your store? Where’s your store?’” says Tung. Now, the couple’s brightly colored cookie-and-cream confections beckon both regular devotees and first-time tasters from their case in a storefront at 111 St. Mark’s Place. The company has grown to five employees, and future plans include offering baking classes at their space.

While the practice of using street festivals to test the market for new food businesses isn’t unique to Hester Street, the Lower East Side’s homegrown, small-scale market offers a combination of low risk, high audience appreciation and great press exposure that some of its alumni say is hard to find at similar events. The booth rentals start at only $65, the crowd is supportive and the organizers have aggressively marketed the event and its individual vendors from day one.

“Hester Street draws a lot more locals than other markets, and we got very good exposure to the neighborhood through that,” says Melt Bakery founder and pastry chef Julian Plyter, who last month celebrated the one-year anniversary of his shop at 132 Orchard St.

Kareem Hamady and Julian Plyter started their ice cream sandwich business with a few hundred dollars and a booth at the Hester Street Fair.
Kareem Hamady and Julian Plyter started their ice cream sandwich business with a few hundred dollars and a booth at the Hester Street Fair.

Plyter and his partner Kareem Hamady started the business with a few hundred dollars cash to buy ingredients, and a freezer bought on a credit card. After initial success at Hester Street, they grew the business to other outdoor venues such as a cart at the High Line, and developed a large base of wholesale clients. That revenue kept the business going while they spent more than a year building their full-time kitchen and retail space, Plyter said.

When it came time to choose a location for the store, they didn’t look too hard for another neighborhood.

“We’ve always resonated with the Lower East Side,” he says. “There’s an adventurous spirit here – people are intrepid, willing to try new things.”

Brooklyn Taco Company followed a similar trajectory, finding success early on at Hester Street and eventually settling into a permanent stall at the popular Essex Street Market just three blocks up the street from its original booth.

“We were much more successful at Hester than we initially expected,” says co-founder and executive chef Jesse Kramer. “We saw our potential for growth and the neighborhood loved our brand and food.”

Since landing a permanent retail spot at Essex Market in September 2011, Kramer and co-founder Erica Molina have expanded the catering side of their business. This summer, they are finalizing plans to collaborate with the owners of Bar Donna in Williamsburg for a full-time restaurant there, which they are calling Brooklyn Taco Outpost.

The leap from weekly pop-up to permanent outpost doesn’t happen overnight, those who have traveled that path caution the newbies.

“’Taking the leap’ is definitely the right way to put it – it’s a very large leap of faith, and a pretty terrifying one,” says Plyter. “The only way to do this is to be in it for the long haul. You’ve got to eat, sleep and breathe what you’re doing and you’ve got to be willing to work harder than you ever believed possible in your life.”

Having a passion for the food they’re selling and a willingness to incorporate feedback to continually improve their products are two keys to success, the vendors say. That, and “don’t eat too much cookie dough,” Plyter adds.

“Also, be nice to your customers,” says Ha, “They’re the ones telling their friends to go to the Hester Street Fair and try your food.”

The fair runs every Saturday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. through October. In addition to new vendors like Baking Soda Shop and Khao Man Gai, Hester Street will also feature an explosion of fresh faces and food ideas at a one-time event July 20, when a commercial kitchen that rents space to start-ups in the Bronx showcases the wares of its tenants.

“We are always championing new entrepreneurs,” says Pak, the fair’s co-founder. “And we are always looking for the next big thing.”

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