If you’ve spent any time in New York City in recent years, you should know that the five-year-old Brooklyn Flea is one of the coolest places you can possibly find yourself on a Saturday. Everyone from Martha Stewart and Neil Patrick Harris to Usher and Anne Hathaway have shopped at “The Flea,” deemed “one of the great urban experiences in New York” by the New York Times, and its food vendors have become so in demand that they’ve spawned a separate food market, the wildly popular Smorgasburg. Mario Batali is a huge fan.
Philadelphia may not have any A-List celebrities, but we will soon have our own edition of The Flea. On Sunday, June 2nd, the weekly Brooklyn Flea Philly will debut at the Piazza in Northern Liberties. I reached out to Brooklyn Flea co-founder Jonathan Butler to find out what he and business partner Eric Demby have in store for Philadelphia.
How long has the Brooklyn Flea Philly been in the works?
Only a few months, actually. We only went down and looked at the site in March, and we’ve been talking about it since the beginning of the year. The general idea of doing a flea in Philadelphia has been around for quite some time though.
Did someone come to you with the Piazza location?
Yes. Jared Kushner [husband of Ivanka Trump and owner of the New York Observer newspaper] bought the Piazza, and he has a lot of exciting ideas. All the great stuff that Bart [Blatstein] has already done, he’s going to run the ball even further than Bart has. Jared sees the Piazza as a center of cultural energy. It’s the perfect place for us to try our first geographic expansion.
Do you have any previous experience with Philadelphia?
I have a blog called Brownstoner, and I expanded that to Philly in 2010 for about eight months. In the back of my mind, the idea was to get Brownstoner up and then do a flea in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to make the blog work financially. I just couldn’t find advertisers in Philadelphia. But I fell in love with the city.
Will Brooklyn Flea Philly essentially be the same as the original in New York?
Some of the basic approach that has made it such a special place in Brooklyn will apply down there. We put a big focus on curation. This is not some first-come-first-serve thing. You’ve got to try to have a balance of categories. You don’t want to have too much of one thing. Antiques, vintage clothing, jewelry, handmade goods. You’ll see a very high level and a broad representation in all of those categories. We’re going to bring that approach but make it local and discover the many great vendors in the Philly area and pull them into that model.
Any major changes?
The market will figure out what it wants to be. Opening day will look like one thing, and then it will look different over time. We’ve built a really special community in Brooklyn. I wouldn’t be surprised if 20 percent of the vendors in Philly are from Brooklyn. What’s been really great about the flea, other than the customer experience, is that it’s been quite a huge platform for small business growth. Hundreds of businesses rely on it. Some start their businesses here and then go on to do brick and mortar stores or open restaurants. It’s pretty exciting to watch this take place.
What’s the cost to the vendor at Brooklyn Flea Philly?
$100 for a booth. A little cheaper than Brooklyn, where it’s anywhere from $120 to $220. The important thing, though, is building the highest-quality experience. Not squeezing every last dollar out of it.
You know Philly is a huge food town. What can you tell me about that end of the flea?
We just started reaching out to people at the end of last week, so there’s no one we can mention in Philly yet. The food category is the highest growth category for us. That’s why we started Smorgasburg. We couldn’t take more food vendors without skewing the mix of the market too much. As for Brooklyn vendors that have committed to coming down, I can tell you a couple. There’s Red Hook Lobster Pound, which got really hit in Sandy. Red Hook was really crushed, and they’ve been rebuilding. So it’s a nice opportunity for them to expand. And Grady’s Cold Brew, an iced coffee concentrate that they make here.
Do you expect any negative reaction from proud Philadelphians who don’t take kindly to using the name “Brooklyn” down here?
We’ve thought about that. When I opened Brownstoner down there, I had people telling me, “You can’t call it Brownstoner! You have to call it Rowhouser.” I understand local pride. But the whole reason we’re going down, we think it’s a great town. We need to stick with our brand. And brands transcend literalism at some point. Ultimately, a few people might grumble about it, but the proof will be in the pudding. If we didn’t think Philly was a great place, we wouldn’t be trying to expand down there.