When the Hester Street Fair launched in June 2010, Christina Ha and Simon Tung were, as Ha put it, "just barely" in a relationship. She wanted to leave her desk job, he was unemployed, and both wanted to try something new.
When they saw that the fair needed vendors, they took the leap and applied, snagging the last booth. They used it to sell homemade macarons, brightly colored sandwich cookies first popularized in France.
A little more than two years later, the couple is about to open up the first brick and mortar location of their business, Macaron Parlour, on St. Mark's Place. And that's not all.
"We ended up married, basically because of the business," Ha said. "I'm not sure it would have happened if we didn't start Macaron Parlour together. And without the Hester Street Fair, there would be no Macaron Parlour."
In a difficult economy for emerging businesses, budding entrepreneurs are finding new ways to pursue their passions and make it big. Many are turning to street fairs and flea markets, small-business incubators that help fledgling companies become established. Since the Hester Street Fair began, at least nine companies have used their booths as launching pads to expansion. Several have gone on to open up storefronts on the Lower East Side.
The fair takes place every Saturday in a lot on Hester and Essex streets. It features 60 to 65 vendors each week, one third of which sell food, said general manager Jane Hong.
Vendors can rent a 6 foot by 6 foot booth for as little as $65 a day, Hong said, with the price for a hot food booth climbing to $175.
"These types of markets allow people to experiment," said SuChin Pak, the longtime MTV News correspondent who co-founded the fair. "You may have a great idea, but sinking thousands of dollars into a brick and mortar retail space may not be the best first move for a small business. At the fair, you can work out the kinks, find customers, refine your product and really get it out there."
Pak said the fair's successful business owners all have two traits in common: a good grasp of social media and a passion for their product.
"We get a lot of hobbyists who are hoping for a lucky break," she said. "But you have to live, breathe and eat whatever you're selling. You have to believe in it and love it so much that you go to bed with it on your mind and wake up with it."
That was the case with Julian Plyter, who launched Melt Bakery at the Hester Street Fair's inaugural weekend. He enjoyed a wave of positive press, and soon expanded to the High Line and several restaurants. In June, Plyter opened his first brick and mortar store on Orchard Street.
"They had a pretty clear mission at Hester," Plyter said. "Their idea is to promote small businesses and help them grow, and that definitely attracted me to them."
At Melt, Plyter sells ice cream sandwiches in a rotating list of flavors. Combinations include peach ice cream with brown butter bourbon shortbread cookies, cream cheese ice cream with red velvet cookies and cinnamon ice cream with Snickerdoodles. Plyter makes all of the cookies and ice cream himself in the customized test kitchen he had built in the store.
"It really enables us to respond quickly and easily to consumer demand and feedback, so if somebody says, 'this has too much mint in it,' or, 'this isn't spicy enough,' we can easily evaluate it and adjust as needed," Plyter said. "That's brilliant, to be able to do that."
Plyter said he chose to open Melt on the Lower East Side because his product resonates with the neighborhood. But it's a prime spot for emerging businesses like his for several reasons.
"Pound for pound, this area is still at a steep discount on a price-per-square-foot basis," said Michael Forrest, a Lower East Side-based real estate broker and owner who is CEO of Forrest Partners LLC.
Forrest said that rents for most retail spaces on the Lower East Side range from $75 to $150 per square foot, while in Soho, for example, spaces range from $200 to $700 per square foot.
What's more, most available storefronts are only 25 feet wide, due to the many narrow tenement buildings built in the neighborhood at the turn of last century.
"When you couple a small space with a rent that is at a significant discount, it lends itself to startup companies where presumably cost is a big motivating factor," Forrest said.
Bob Zuckerman is executive director of the Lower East Side Business Improvement District, which provides support for both emerging and established businesses in the neighborhood. It helps promote them through marketing campaigns and neighborhood events and offers storefront, website and security camera grants.
Zuckerman said the Hester Street Fair opens doors for the small businesses his organization serves, and he's more than happy to see them set up shop nearby.
"The Lower East Side has obviously become a go-to neighborhood for a lot of very creative people, be they designers or people in the food industry," Zuckerman said. "The Hester Street Fair and organizations like it are really helpful in bringing out new entrepreneurs who have a new product to sell but are not ready to go into the whole brick and mortar space yet because they're still testing it."
Jesse Kramer and Erica Molina came up with the idea for their business, Brooklyn Taco, in July 2010. They launched it at Artists & Fleas in Williamsburg, before moving on to the Hester Street Fair in summer 2011.
"When we got there, it was the first time we saw people lined up for our food," said Kramer. "At that point we realized it was worth our time, our money and all our sweat equity to really make this thing happen."
Brooklyn Taco has since gone on to open a permanent space in the Essex Street Market, itself a small business incubator. Kramer said he and Molina are currently planning their next move, with hopes of expanding to other locations in the city and beyond -- none of which would have been possible without the boost they got from the Hester Street Fair.
"These markets are essential for giving you a wide audience to try your food," he said. "If your food sucks, you're not going to make it. Foodies go there, and they write about you, talk about you, and travel all the way from the Upper East Side to see you. So you will either blow up or you will die down very quickly."
Plyter said one of the things he appreciates most about the fair is the way it creates a sense of community among vendors.
"There's this whole network of weekend warriors and artisan food producers that's really, really cool to be a part of," he said.
"You know, I didn't know what to expect. There was another ice cream person there, a popsicle person there, and I sort of just expected it to be competitive," he said. "But they have all been really supportive of us, and we in turn have been supportive of them."