On steamy summer weekends, thousands of shoppers flock to the Brooklyn Flea, an outdoor market across the East River from midtown Manhattan. They browse through stalls selling art, furniture, jewelry, locally prepared food, vinyl records, and even Star Wars figurines. Jonathan Butler ’92 is likely to be there — gauging the foot traffic, chatting with a vendor, or buying a cold drink. After all, Butler founded and runs — with business partner Eric Demby — the five-year old Flea, a visible symbol of Brooklyn’s newfound hipness.
Since its opening in 2008, the Brooklyn Flea has expanded to a second weekend location, and Butler added the Smorgasburg food market at two Brooklyn sites. A SmorgasBar — with food and beverage vendors — opened Memorial Day weekend at South Street Seaport. The Brooklyn Flea brand expanded to Philadelphia in June and Washington, D.C., in September, primarily with local vendors.
Butler came to flea-marketeering via a rambling career path. An MBA from New York University and a stint at Merrill Lynch gave him a knack for business analysis. Finance, however, didn’t scratch his creative itch, so over the years he studied furniture design, wrote for a wealth-management magazine, invested in real estate, and, in 2004, started the Brownstoner blog to document his restoration of a brownstone in Brooklyn. Butler left Merrill in February 2007, vowing to “either make the blog a business or move to a farm in Vermont.” The blog succeeded: Brownstoner has grown to cover real estate and renovations and discussions of race, class, and gentrification. It served as the launching pad for what became the Brooklyn Flea empire.
Intrigued by flea markets, Butler decided to organize one around the concept of salvaged architectural materials. He pitched the idea of “Salvage Fest” on Brownstoner and found vendors. By the spring of 2008, Butler had expanded to a more general flea market in a Brooklyn schoolyard. Vendors pay a flat fee to participate.
With food vendors driving expansion, in 2011 Butler opened Smorgasburg in the trendy Williamsburg neighborhood. Smorgasburg, with 75 to 100 vendors, is now “more buzzy and popular than the flea market in terms of tweets and Facebook photos,” he says. One vendor, Mighty Quinn’s, often has a line of 100 customers for its barbecue on a Sunday.
Butler is opening a beer hall in a former service station in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, with a food court for four popular Smorgasburg vendors. The building also will have a separate section, developed by another company, with kitchens, classrooms, and offices that budding food entrepreneurs can use. “I’m trying to create a small-business platform,” Butler says of his ventures. “Somebody with an interest in starting a food business can try their concept at the Flea and Smorgasburg, instead of investing $500,000 in a small restaurant.” And it’s working: last year Mighty Quinn’s opened a restaurant in Manhattan’s East Village.