If you’re someone who enjoys trying new, adventurous foods, we’ve got three words for you: cotton candy burrito. Curious? You should be, at least according to Stuart Hudson, co-owner of The Emporiyum.
“Two shocking things about a cotton candy burrito: One, you can eat it in your hands and it doesn’t get messy. And two, it’s not overwhelmingly sweet,” Hudson says. “There’s something about the juxtaposition between the cotton candy and the ice cream. I’m not sure how that happens, but there’s science behind there somewhere.”
The surprising special is one of many highlights at the annual food-focused pop-up event, which takes place this weekend in Union Market’s Dock5 space. And for Hudson, who runs Emporiyum alongside his wife, Hannah, the cotton candy burrito is also an example of the kind of culinary collaboration they’ve helped foster through The Emporiyum.
“The base of it is ice cream [and] there’s a host of different toppings that can be included,” Hudson explains, “all wrapped within what would otherwise be a tortilla, [but] is a cotton candy shell.”
The sugary, creamy treat comes from two distinct companies. Fluffness, “a great local cotton candy maker,” creates the shell, while South Mountain Creamery produces the ice cream filling. “Making that connection was one piece we’re really happy about,” Hudson says.
While the sweet burrito will certainly be a buzzworthy attraction at the sixth annual event, Fluffness and Smooth Mountain Creamery are but two of the 90 vendors selling their treats, wares, and fares in a covered tent that effectively expands Union Market by 20,000 square feet.
The Emporiyum serves to enhance the strong lineup of merchants already based inside Union Market year-round, but the type and variety of products on display further distinguishes it from vendors in the market next door — or any other for that matter.
Case in point: RifRaf, touted as “the first single-serve snackable ricotta cup,” and a product, according to co-founder William Hickox, that is ready “to shake up the dominance Greek yogurt has had on the yogurt case for the last 15 years.” Rifraf’s distributor recommended Hickox participate in this year’s Emporiyum, describing it as “a pop-up tasting event filled with a curated selection of innovative, emerging food brands like ours.”
“We’re ultra-intentional about how many new vendors we have every year,” Hudson says. “There are an overwhelming number of food options in D.C. We feel that we need to keep up and provide a fresh roster every year — as much as we can to be reasonable — and so about half of the vendors are new. Only a handful have been at the event for three years or more…and then we’ve got another handful that have been there for two years.”
One member of the Emporiyum’s select repeat vendor club is The Dough Jar. “We participated last year and received such a positive response from cookie dough lovers that we had to make sure we came back,” says the D.C. company’s owner Lindsay Goldin, adding that the event is a perfect venue to show off the company’s line of edible cookie dough, made with pasteurized flour and no eggs, so it “won’t make your tummy hurt.”
Another returning vendor is Sweet Crimes Bakery. “Hannah and Stuart reeled me back in after I took a break from it for a couple of years,” says the gluten-free bakery’s Keri Lijinsky, who appreciated another chance to “get the word out about our brand. Unbelievably, there are still a lot of gluten-free people in D.C. who don’t know we exist.”
This will also be the Hudsons’ second year in charge of the Emporiyum, which they bought from the event’s founders last summer after enjoying it as visitors for years. The move allowed Stuart to give up his career practicing law to run the Emporiyum full-time, with assist from Hannah whenever she’s not tied up with her own event photography business. Asked if they consider themselves foodies, Hudson says, “By definition, yes. It’s not the first descriptor that would come to mind, but oftentimes when there’s a new restaurant that pops up, or someone who’s doing something interesting in the D.C. area, we often find ourselves there.”
One of the few noticeable changes the Hudsons have made since taking over the Emporiyum — aside from putting the annual Baltimore edition on hiatus — is to enlist a nonprofit partner and beneficiary, the Capital Area Food Bank. The hope is that “all of us who are lucky enough [to participate] have the opportunity to learn about how we can help the larger community, and especially those who are living through food insecurity.”
While much of the focus and attention is on the Emporiyum’s efforts to promote local businesses and community, it’s far from an all-local affair, with a dozen states and two countries other than the U.S. represented in this year’s lineup, which is split between local vendors and those from further afield. “About 50 percent are from this wider net that we cast intentionally,” Hudson says. “So not only do the attendees have something interesting every year to come back to, but the vendors have an opportunity to meet vendors that are in other spaces of the country who might have leads, might have opportunities for connections they wouldn’t otherwise.”
The focus is also not solely on D.C.’s rich restaurant and dining scene. In fact, only one in four vendors come from the “savory” category, including those who make food to consume on-site. “Some of those are traditional restaurants, some are pop-ups, some are folks who are more in the catering realm that are just getting started,” Hudson says. The three other types of participating vendors are sweet-makers, or confectioneries, drink purveyors, of both alcoholic and non-alcoholic varieties, and producers of assorted goods: “pantry items or shelf-stable goods that folks can purchase as either ingredients for food they’re making at home, or gifts for friends and family.”
Perhaps this year’s most novel entry in the assorted category: P&C’s Pawtisserie. “We thought our products would fit in perfectly,” says Whitney Shafer of the handmade dog treat bakery. “Why should the humans get all the fun food?”
P&C’s Pawtisserie is just one of a significant number of products and goods available at the Emporiyum that are pretty much as niche — and as local — as possible, made by “small groups of people, sometimes just a single person, creating something so specialized and so specific, that’s what breeds the interest in it,” Hudson says.
“For the longest time, especially in the latter half of the 20th century, the big brands were the ones that reigned supreme across the food industry,” he says. “Now we have folks, especially millennials and Generation Z, who are more interested in products that stand apart because of either the quality of the taste, or the visual aspect. The Emporiyum, in a lot of ways, reflects that. Unless you’re a hot sauce enthusiast, it’s less interesting to come to the Emporiyum if a tenth of its vendors are hot sauce vendors. Most of our attendees want to see a wide range of food options, and it also helps appeal to different groups as well, so we’re not focused exclusively on one category or another, or one type of food or another.”
In terms of hot sauce, though, one featured brand is Fly by Jing, made from all-natural, non-MSG ingredients sourced from China. The sauces will be available to purchase by the jar, and, in another example of the connections Emporiyum empowers, will also be used to spice up the dumplings available from another vendor, the Northern Virginia restaurant Sunday in Saigon, as an Emporiyum exclusive special offer.
“Our focus for the Emporiyum is on the connections — between consumers and vendors, between vendors, and within the community,” Hudson says. “A large part of how we think about and how we select vendors, how we select partners, is dedicated to building community effectively through creative foodies, folks who are creating the foods and drinks that people are enjoying. And so, it’s that creation of community that drives us, and in some ways I think that sets us apart from some of the more industry-styled or industry-focused events that would otherwise attract a lot of the same type of vendors.”
The Emporiyum offers more opportunities to interact and engage with potential customers than a typical food show, according to Tory Pratt, whose Pratt Standard Cocktail Company is a four-time vendor. “What we love most about participating at Emporiyum is their attention to creative food and beverage, and interactivity,” he says. “We like to teach cocktail skills along with sampling our syrups, but most trade shows aren’t designed for that — they are quick taste-and-go events.” At this year’s event, Pratt will have a garnishing station where guests can “learn briefly how to garnish their cocktails like a pro.”
“The Emporiyum helps showcase amazing food as well as the people and stories that give it character,” says Rahul Vinod of RASA, the fast-casual Indian restaurant based in the Navy Yard. “As a vendor, this is special because we get to connect with our customers in a way we don’t always have a chance to otherwise.”
The Emporiyum can also give vendors useful, immediate feedback about their products, even allowing them to experiment or try something new. The direct feedback loop is why Ice Cream Jubilee is returning as a vendor, says Jenna Hahn, the D.C. company’s vice president of operations. “The attendees care about trying the newest, coolest thing, and it’s great to see what they think of our ice cream and incorporate their feedback into our products,” she says.
Hudson says Emporiyum is “an outlet for creative people who want to test things out,” something it’s particularly well-suited to due to the “high volume of people coming through” and the relatively minimal amount of energy vendors have to expend to make it happen.
He offers up Daniel Petitta as an example. A chef at Pineapple and Pearls and at Seylou bakery, Petitta will pursue a new, unaffiliated endeavor at this year’s Emporiyum: serving up, under the name Sfogliatella, Italian pastries that purportedly “have never been made out of whole wheat grain before.” Making them for Emporiyum guests allows Petitta a chance to “try something new [and] watch in real time how the public reacts to it.”
Since its inception in 2014, the Emporiyum has given many upstart food businesses early exposure and a helpful boost. Its growing list of notable vendor alumni include Gordy’s Pickle Jar, the acclaimed Laotian restaurant Thip Khao, Sir Kensington condiments, Teapigs, and the many culinary adventures of Erik Bruner-Yang, from Maketto to Paper Horse — and the celebrity chef returns this year via his restaurant Spoken English.
Among those seeking an early boost this time out is MarshmallowMBA. “The Emporiyum is our first opportunity to put our gourmet marshmallows in the hands of D.C. food influencers and tastemakers,” says co-founder Amy Hughes, who adds that she’s eager “to engage with potential customers and strategic partners [and help them] forget everything you think you know about marshmallows.”
The Hudsons are eager to continue the traditions of the Emporiyum as well as its enduring popularity, while also working to make it grow and improve — by expanding to other markets, sure, but also by expanding its reach in D.C. beyond “certain pockets [and] certain socioeconomic classes,” to help Emporiyum tap into “a full cross-section of the District and the DMV area.”
“I think the future of the Emporiyum is directly tied to the future of the DMV and the creative folks that operate here,” Hudson says. “From the attendees to the vendors, to the partners that we engage in, we are intrinsically connected to every part of the food industry and the broader community, [and] making sure that we are good partners in that way and making sure that we support the people that we’re working with. That’s our goal: To make the connections between folks and lift people up where they might not have as large an audience as the Emporiyum can muster.”
The Emporiyum launches with a Preview Party and Cocktail Battle among D.C. bartenders on Friday, Nov. 8, from 6 to 8 p.m., and continues Saturday, Nov. 9, and Sunday, Nov. 10, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., at Dock5 at Union Market, 1309 5th St. NE. General admission is $15 to $25, while VIP is $40 offering early access plus special bites and sips, plus a gift bag; the Friday Preview Party is $50 plus fees, or $80 with an All Access Weekend Pass. Visit www.theemporiyum.com.