Spoon contributor Sarah Bjerklie talks with Sue-Jean Kang, the founder of The Emporiyum, a carefully curated two-day food marketplace that pops up in Baltimore and DC. The event is coming to Union Market this weekend and we couldn’t be more excited. Read on for more on Kang’s sources of inspiration, advice, opinions on food, and rave reviews on her favorite chef and a restaurant she can’t live without.
Spoon Contributor, Sarah Bjerklie: How did you come up with the idea of Emporiyum?
Emporiyum Founder, Sue-Jean Kang: My business partner, Mindy Schapiro, and I both live in Baltimore but are from the NYC area, and we’re huge foodies—of course. When Mindy and I were in NYC, we attended many great food events and had incredible food experiences, but we wondered why there were not a lot of these events in Baltimore and DC.
We also were definitely influenced by some of the big food emporiums in NYC: Eataly, Le District, Smorgasburg, and Hudson Eats. Those were truly some of the folks who really inspired us to do the Emporiyum, and they’re all incredible. There’s no reason why there can’t be more fun food experiences like these in DC and Baltimore. Awesome NYC vendors like Momofuku Milkbar have already been coming to DC, which is a pretty big deal and is further adding to the city’s growing food scene. Hopefully we have the chance and opportunity to keep doing the Emporiyum and maybe inspire other food events in DC, which is all really exciting.
SB: What was your biggest challenge getting started?
SJK: Our biggest challenge was finding a space that was big enough to accommodate everyone that wanted to come to our event. Our feel is very industrial—we’re constantly looking for really awesome warehouses, or large spaces that can house both our vendors and our attendees. But also creating the vendor roster itself is pretty tough.
Year after year our challenge is bringing a fresh number of vendors together. For example, we didn’t want to replicate our vendor list from our Emporiyum event last November. Every one of our events involves kind of starting fresh—figuring out who we can bring together and ultimately how we can bring a lot of diversity to our roster.
SB: What advice would you give to young people getting started in the food world?
SJK: Well, coming from a marketing and PR background, I think it’s great to kind of get in at any entry-level point that you can. With restaurant groups and food product companies, for example, there are so many different opportunities that I think open themselves up to young people. You just have to look for them and be willing to work as hard as possible. And those who work the hardest get rewarded certainly in most industries, but this definitely holds true in the food industry.
In terms of the events standpoint, for food events, there are a lot of food events in the area and nationally, and they’re very hard to put together so those are also great opportunities for someone who’s looking to get in at an entry-level. There’s always something to do so, whether it’s an internship, or even an entry-level paid position. I think experience is key to that, and the more events that you work, the more experience that you can gain. And then from there, the sky’s the limit, really.
SB: How do you choose your vendors?
SJK: We choose our vendors very selectively—we’ve either known them or have tried their products out on the road when we’re in New York, San Francisco, or in DC. Or sometimes people even proactively ask us about becoming vendors, in which case we vet them quite carefully. We ask them to submit products to us so that we can try them out.
We also love when tried and true vendors that we’ve worked with before recommend some of their colleagues in the industry—like Bittermilk from Charleston, a hand-crafted cocktail mixer company recommending someone like Bulls Bay Saltworks, which is a salt company based out of South Carolina. Our vendors hold their colleagues up to high standards, so it’s great when they make recommendations as well.
SB: What does food mean to you?
SJK: Food to me is joy. I love everything about food and I think it brings joy to so many people, including myself. So whether it’s something you cook, something you produce, even just something that you’re eating that someone else has made for you, it really brings a lot of joy.
SB: How are you different from Taste of DC?
SJK: Taste of DC is just such a different event—they mainly feature restaurants. We are very much focused on bringing together restaurants in addition to chefs, artisans, and producers. So for us, we think of ourselves as a curated artisanal marketplace.
You’re coming to meet incredible vendors and sample their foods, and you’re also coming to shop and buy their products. So the interesting part is when we call ourselves a marketplace, it really means you’re coming to have kind of a curated shopping experience.
SB: Who is your favorite chef?
SJK: My favorite chef would be Eric Bruner-Yang, of Toki Underground, on H Street, and the brand new Maketto, also on H. Eric is fantastic—he’s young and he’s creating such exciting food. Toki Underground is just bonkers—it is out of this world.
I think DC is extremely lucky to have a guy like him and for us, at the Emporiyum, we’re super lucky that he has continued to participate with us and bring awesome food to our event. Last year, he brought ramen to Emporiyum and people lined up like crazy and it is the best thing ever. We’re so excited to have him again at this year’s event.
SB: What do you think is going to be the biggest food trend next year?
SJK: That is a really tough one! I mean, there are so many food trends right now, but I think the most notable in particular is going to be about collaboration. I constantly see really amazing people working together where you wouldn’t think they would—for instance, a wine company working with a candy company, or a coffee company working with a distillery that makes whiskey.
That is what it’s all about and I think it should be because so many people are such great talents and they should be putting their stuff together to make even better products.
A good example of that is the ongoing collaboration between local DC folks, the Vigilante Coffee Company and One Eight Distilling. One Eight Distilling does local whiskey and vodka and will give used aged whiskey barrels to Vigilante Coffee and they’ll age their cold brew coffee in the same barrels.
Vigilante Coffee will give those barrels back and One Eight ends up using them again and then their whiskey ends up picking up those coffee notes. I think that is such a great example of people working together and both bringing something fresh, maybe even to the Emporiyum, so for me it’s always just exciting to see what they’re going to come up with next.
SB: If you could only eat at one restaurant before you die, what would it be?
SJK: I would choose Bar Tartine in San Francisco. It continues to be one of the best meals every single year. And it is not overly done food—it is super simple, fresh, great food that never disappoints me. And of course their bread is incredible which is just an added plus to the meal every single time.
SB: Lastly, how do you feel about the age of Yelp when virtually everyone can be a food critic?
SJK: It is a doubled edged sword. I mean, we have a Yelp page and people love to express their opinions on that. But what I say is, don’t just look to Yelp. Yelp is an incredible resource and it’s definitely one that I use too when I’m either looking at restaurants or traveling.
But more than anything, because just about everyone has a voice, I seek out the voices that mean the most to me. So for me, whenever I’m traveling to a city I always seek out friends and friends of influencers who just know the places to go. They make things super easy for me so that I’m not scouring through hundreds of reviews, and lists and features, and that kind of thing.
For us at the Emporiyum, we also love Instagram and other mediums of social media. People are also able to voice their opinions but not such a pronounced level, so for me it doesn’t feel as biased. I love seeking out people’s Instagram pages, and any place that we’re going to go just to see what people are tagging.
You can see specific popular dishes because there will be posts of the same donut, for example, that people keep getting over and over again because it’s that incredible. So for us it’s just an easier way to kind of take in information and get what we need to get if we’re about to go to a new place and check it out.
The EmporiYUM DC will be at Dock 5 @ Union Market, November 14-15, 2015.
Reserve your tickets and check out the full list of vendors here.