Hungry hipsters at the Smorgasburg food market in Brooklyn, N.Y., this weekend will be lining up to get their french fry fix before the venue closes for the winter on Sunday. But the three masterminds of the phenomenally successful venture plan to take a break and go home for Thanksgiving. And all three will travel to State College, trading Home Frite for the home fires of central Pennsylvania.
Last month on a visit to Brooklyn, I had the lucky chance to be in the Williamsburg section on a Saturday afternoon. The day was chilly and drizzly, but my daughter, Rose, suggested we go to Smorgasburg, a pop-up food court at East River State Park with a stunning view of the Manhattan skyline in the background. She said she knew friends from State College who had a french fry stand where we could grab some lunch.
With about 100 vendors, the choices at Smorgasburg were dizzying, and we tried as many items as we could as we wandered the perimeter, looking for the fry stand. Passing noodle bars, pupusa stands, all sorts of barbecue options, cupcakes, macarons and popsicles, we sampled Bon Chovie’s fried anchovies that won on an episode of “Shark Tank,” some real New York smoked brisket and Gooey Cake — a St. Louis-style butter cake as rich as its name implies. But the fry stand eluded us. It was hard to find due to the crush of people around it, so deep that an employee in a “Security” T-shirt had to corral the queue into two parts to allow pedestrians to pass into the food court. Home Frite was killing it. The stand’s closest neighbor, Ramen Burger, also had a line, not nearly as deep.
We walked to the back of the stand to ask if Crystal Lingle, Rose’s friend and a former student of mine, was there. Sorry, said Max Hawk, she was working another Home Frite stand at a music festival that day. But he expected her to be working Smorgasburg the next day. He slipped us a cone of fries, while people in the line glared with righteous indignation.
Once I tasted the crisp golden fries, tossed with truffle oil and coarse salt and served with a lemon aioli, I couldn’t blame them. Of the many items we sampled that day, those fries were the tastiest. Rose and I tracked Home Frite at the Smorgasburg near the Brooklyn Bridge the next day, but once again missed Lingle. Hawk was on site again, with a big grin when we complimented him on the quality of his product, and he slipped us a baby dish of regular fries to sample with the bright green and delicious herb-ocado sauce.
The music was blasting from the back of the stand and the workers were dancing and high-fiving as they moved from fryer to front counter happily handing over cone after cone of Home Frite. The lines were even longer because it was a beautiful day, and metal stanchions kept the patient crowd in order. No one seemed annoyed at having to wait 45 minutes, and none of the workers seemed frazzled by the people in line. A dozen cases of Idaho russet potatoes were stacked out in the rear, with half a dozen 35-pound cubes of canola oil. The Home Frite cooks’ day was just beginning and they were going to move those $7 and $8 cones of fries.
Who, what, where, when and why?
Ian Vernon, a graduate of State College Area High School in 2000, had a dream. It dawned on him on a cold February day in 2012, when he was home sick from his office job as a construction project manager and code consultant. His dream involved a french fry, but it wasn’t specific; was it waffle-cut, shoestring or curly? A couple of months later, he overheard a conversation on the street referring to Pomme Frites, a shop in the East Village, and he took it as a sign to get his idea in motion. He brainstormed with family and friends about just what the perfect french fry would be — “skin on, with a crisp exterior and a flavorful interior that tastes light and fresh.”
“I wanted to appeal to people with refined palates and foodies but not exclude the fast-food customer who normally eats boring, salty, low-quality fries.,” Vernon said. “After all, our country loves fries. In fact, every culture loves the fried potato. I wanted to cross the American home fries with the European pomme frites and carry that core vision into the future, molded by the hands and minds of all three of the partners.”
Vernon realized that he needed help manifesting his vision. He called on friends he knew growing up in State College and soon Lingle (State High, 2003) and Hawk (State High, 2000) stepped up to the plate. Lingle, a State College native and Penn State hotel, restaurant and institutional management graduate who had traveled abroad with the Global Hospitality Management Program and sampled Belgian frites in the Netherlands, sat in on the initial taste tests in Vernon’s Brooklyn apartment. Vernon’s brother worked on branding in simple black and white, with craft paper and potato stamps, and a designer created the logo. A business profile, retail strategy and Web page with sample menu followed. A year after Vernon conceived the idea, the dream was poised to become a reality. He established the business on Feb. 28, 2013, at the courthouse in Brooklyn and got the licensing permits and health department approval. That day, he submitted his portfolio of information to the co-founders of Smorgasburg for a vendor spot.
A month later, he received notification that he would have a tasting audition for the Smorgasburg market. Vernon recruited another State College friend and chef, Trevor Swope, to do the cooking while he did the talking. Lingle prepared a goat cheese and chive dip as well as five other sauces to accompany the fries.
Applications to Smorgasburg range from 350 to 400 per year and 30 to 40 are accepted. Home Frite was one of those accepted for the 2013 season and it opened on July 6, thanks to Lingle’s drive and food service know-how. Hawk came on board shortly thereafter; Vernon gives him, with his business acumen and powerful work ethic, the credit for lighting the fire that is burning full force today. They finished the 2013 market season as champions and built the business even more in 2014, when they all quit their “day” jobs to devote full attention to their endeavor.
Smorgasburg kept them all busy this year, and Vernon revealed the scale of the operation.
“Since inception, we have increased from 130 a day in location to upwards of 750 a day in two simultaneous locations,” he said. “We ran three locations at once on few occasions. At the peak of production during this summer, were buying 2.25 tons of russet potatoes each week. We now know we are a good team and nothing will stop us.”
Future plans are to be decided. There are two competing indoor markets in Brooklyn, and the Home Frite owners will choose one to do on a weekly basis. For the past two years, they have shared commercial kitchen incubator space. This winter, they will work on creating their own production kitchen so they can bottle their line of sauces. They also are looking into getting a mobile food vending permit to take Home Frite to the streets.
If you happen to be in Brooklyn this weekend, you still have a chance to catch the 2014 fry-nomenon at the final weekend of Smorgasburg. The trio will come home this week for a well-deserved Thanksgiving break with family and friends. They have a lot to be thankful for this year.