Smorgasburg Los Angeles, which launched in June 2016, attracts thousands of guests every Sunday at the Row DTLA development, and is the largest outdoor food market in L.A. It’s also the city’s most vital incubator of independent restaurants.
In September, the New York Times put out its list of the 25 best restaurants in Los Angeles, which included Smorgasburg vendor Macheen and Smorgasburg alums Moo’s Craft Barbecue, Poncho’s Tlayudas and Holy Basil. In May, the high-profile Topanga Social food hall opened at the Westfield Topanga mall with an assortment of former and current Smorgasburg standouts including Wanderlust Creamery, I Love Micheladas, Shrimp Daddy, Katsu Sando and ManEatingPlant.
What’s about to happen next is even more astounding. Holy Basil is working on multiple new restaurants that will showcase its uncompromising Thai food, along with beverages from its sister Smorgasburg vendor, The Base. This is part of an impressive list of forthcoming venues from Smorgasburg-incubated businesses. The roll call of Smorgasburg spots who are in the process of opening their first brick-and-mortar locations includes Lei’d Cookies, B’ivrit, Bridgetown Roti, Mid East Tacos, Little Fish, Kinrose Creamery and 626 Hospitality Group.
On Saturday October 7, Lei’d Cookies co-owners Leilani Terris and James Lewis will debut their first brick-and-mortar standalone shop in Culver City (the same neighborhood where Los Angeles pie queen and Smorgasburg alum Nicole Rucker is working to open her second Fat + Flour bakery). In mid-October, Smorgasburg standouts Saucy Chick Rotisserie and the Goat Mafia will solidify their alliance by opening a restaurant together: Saucy Chick/Goat Mafia (which already received a rave Los Angeles Times review for a temporary Beverly Grove location it recently vacated) will exuberantly merge Indian and Mexican flavors in Pasadena. And because Smorgasburg is a collection of like-minded creators who support one another, Saucy Chick/Goat Mafia will get dough from Lei’d and bake cookies on site.
“This is a community that convenes every single Sunday, rain or shine,” Rhea Patel Michel, who launched Saucy Chick with her husband, Marcel, during the Covid-19 pandemic, told Observer. “An entrepreneur’s journey can be lonely. And the restaurant world is very specific. The margins are slim. It’s high labor. And I think there are a lot of things to connect on, commiserate through, celebrate through. That battle kind of comes to life every Sunday.”
Vendors at Smorgasburg help one another with, among other things, sourcing ingredients and finding staff. They assist one another during catering gigs and festivals. They take turns being mentors and students. And perhaps most important, they understand and respect the hustle they see around them every Sunday.
Saucy Chick/Goat Mafia is about celebrating your roots while finding a new path forward. So, there’s both Indian and Mexican rotisserie chicken, which guests can get inside tacos, burritos and rice bowls or alongside excellent Indian and Mexican sides. There’s a century-plus-old Goat Mafia birria recipe from Jalisco, and the slow-cooked meat from chefs Juan Garcia and Ivan Flores is perfect in a crispy mulita.
Marcel Michel, who also has family from Jalisco, says this is a business that grew out of friendship.
“Being a part of this Smorgasburg family, everyone’s super nice and just very collaborative and supportive,” he told Observer. “You can always lean on someone for help. But something really clicked with Juan and Ivan, and we felt the vibe. We had a couple events that we needed support with, and they were more than willing to help.”
Smorgasburg has led to many meaningful collaborations. Lei’d Cookies was also born during the pandemic, with Terris selling hundreds of cookies to members at the fitness studio where she coached. At first, the goal for Terris and Lewis was simply to create the best chocolate chip cookie imaginable. Pandemic hoarding made buying flour and sugar at grocery stores difficult, so they went to local suppliers and found California-milled flour and farmers market butter. Then they browned the butter as part of an elaborate, difference-making process that also involves bean-to-bar ChocoVivo chocolate.
“It’s always been a multi-day process of letting the dough marinate because we’ve found that it really brings out the flavors and changes the texture of the cookie,” Terris told Observer.
At first, Terris and Lewis made many home deliveries. Then, after cold-calling restaurants and visiting chefs, they expanded their repertoire with inventive flavors like mango sticky rice, cannoli, guava goat cheese and halo halo.
“We developed a matcha with mochi recipe because we originally made that cookie for a sushi restaurant,” Lewis told Observer. “When we made the cannoli cookie, it was initially for an Italian restaurant.”
Saucy Chick/Goat Mafia will offer Lei’d Mayan chocolate chip cookies along with the original Lei’d L.A. Local chocolate chip cookies. And as a nod to Patel Michel’s Gujarati heritage, Lei’d created the Guju Girl cookie with cardamom, pistachio and nutmeg.
“It really makes a difference to grow with the community and be a part of something bigger,” Lewis said. “We don’t need to do everything ourselves. I want to do cookies and coffee, but we don’t need to create our own coffee recipes and source coffee beans.”
So at its new shop, Lei’d Cookies is serving coffee from Be Bright, another vendor Terris and Lewis met at Smorgasburg.
The vibe at Smorgasburg hasn’t happened by accident—Smorgasburg general manager Zach Brooks carefully curates the lineup. He meets with vendors, tries their food, gets to know them and asks them about their goals during the application process. The result is a lineup of diverse food created by compatible operators.
“There are a lot of reasons to be at Smorgasburg,” Brooks told Observer. “But the one thing that’s common for every vendor is how meaningful it is to meet other vendors and foster that community. Some people make a lot of money. Some people don’t. Some people succeed. Some people fail. Some people learn all these lessons. But they all benefit from knowing each other. They meet their neighbors and find kindred spirits, people who have the same goals, people who care about their food in the same ways and have incredible stories that need to be told.”
And while some operators depart Smorgasburg for good when they open restaurants, Lei’d, Saucy Chick and Goat Mafia have no plans to leave in the foreseeable future.
“Staffing is ultimately what makes a lot of businesses leave Smorgasburg,” Brooks said. “Staffing is so hard right now. So I think the vendors who have lasted the longest, the ones who are still there, are the people who just ultimately love this lifestyle. We’re all carnies. They love being there every Sunday.”
Smorgasburg Los Angeles, is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Row DTLA, 777 Alameda St., every Sunday.