Can a new incubator democratize “Made in Brooklyn”?
The most eagerly awaited launch in food-obsessed Brooklyn this year wasn’t a new meal delivery app or farm-to-table restaurant. Instead it was an incubator—10,000 square feet of government-funded, privately owned space for cooking and co-working.
Built at a cost of well over a million dollars, by a partnership of several government bodies and a private sector collaborator, Brooklyn FoodWorks provides mentorship, community events, and programming for emerging food entrepreneurs. Most importantly, it offers low-cost commercial kitchen stations–enough space to provide up to 100 small businesses with 24/7 turnkey access. It’s a crucial new piece of infrastructure in a borough where both residential and commercial rents have shot to unprecedented highs in recent years.
FoodWorks is a for-profit endeavor, but it’s not entirely run like one. The city government has built a mission into its mandate: help democratize access to the borough’s thriving, lucrative food scene. That raises some important questions. Can a Brooklyn incubator level the playing field enough to allow underserved communities to empower themselves through food? Is that even a fair expectation? And how should we ultimately gauge the project’s success if, in the end, it disproportionately benefits people with means and other options?
We won’t know how this story ends for years to come. But here are the opening chapters.
Origin of an incubator
The project that became FoodWorks got its formal start in 2013, when the New York City Economic Development Corporation issued a request for proposals for a new culinary incubator, to be located in one of four neighborhoods: Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brownsville, Crown Heights, or East New York. Those choices are telling. They’re not the neighborhoods that foodie tourists flock to, though they are rapidly gentrifying. But they do face serious economic challenges. From 2008 to 2012, the census districts with the largest rise in unemployment—a rise of over 50 percent—were clustered in those four neighborhoods.
The RFP was a collaboration between EDC and the office of the Brooklyn Borough President, which would ultimately put up more than a million dollars to back the project. It asked applicants to demonstrate:
- Financial sustainability
- Ability to contribute to the development of new and existing businesses through programming, networking opportunities, and affordable rent
- Ability to engage both the target community and the broader public
- A plan to offer a range of tiered services and rents that serve the needs of low-income entrepreneurs
The winning proposal came from a group of employees from Dinner Lab, a New Orleans–based digital platform where diners buy tickets to pop-up dinners prepared by chefs in one-time-only locations. The company’s national reach and operating capital were part of the appeal, but by all accounts they also made a killer pitch. Drew Barrett, a co-founder who is now president of Brooklyn FoodWorks, says his team designed their program through a kind of reverse-engineering process: They decided what “success” would ultimately look like for small food businesses, then outlined what services and infrastructure would be required to get them there.
“One of the things that was astounding to me as I was looking at [similar] facilities across the country,” Barrett says, “is that very few of them did what I actually considered to be business incubation services. They were deeming themselves incubators, but they were really just kitchen spaces.”
FoodWorks decided the right approach was to load up on services. Some are educational; the facility has a network of 40 mentors, for example, who are available for one-on-one sessions, and offers classes on topics from food safety to label making. Others, Barrett says, are designed to “take off their shoulders anything that doesn’t add to their business.” For example, a full-time employee handles wash-down, including sanitizing equipment, stations, and linens. That means that members don’t have to spend any of their precious shifts doing grunt work—they can focus fully on the tasks that only they can do.
This perk serves a practical purpose for FoodWorks, too: It means the facilities and equipment are being cleaned by a professional, not an entrepreneur who is rushing through the final minutes of a long day. Ultimately, the FoodWorks team hopes to centralize even more of the nitty-gritty stuff— ordering, purchasing, logistics—helping its members take advantage of economies of scale in the process.
Dinner Lab pitched a smart location for the incubator: a former Pfizer plant at 630 Flushing Avenue, the boulevard that cuts east-west across central Brooklyn, forming the boundary between South Williamsburg and Bedford-Stuyvesant. The 575,000-square-foot space was the pharmaceutical giant’s original home, and it manufactured drugs there—including familiar products like Viagra and Lipitor—until 2008. (Along the way, the building worked its way into American literary consciousness through William Styron’s novel Sophie’s Choice, as the workplace of Sophie’s brilliant, brutal lover, Nathan Landau.) When Pfizer moved out, it was the end of an era, a goodbye to one of the last vestiges of industrial Brooklyn.
Or maybe it was hello to a different kind of industrial future. While manufacturing in many sectors has declined or flatlined for decades in New York City, food manufacturing jobs have grown steadily post-recession. The Pfizer Building’s current owner, Acumen Properties, has started filling the massive space with food companies like Brooklyn Sodaworks and Sfoglini Pasta—perhaps hoping that foodie energy will help revitalize a neighborhood of shuttered factories and auto repair shops. FoodWorks is the most recent tenant in what’s already an ad hoc incubator, and with its scale and resources, it has the potential to become the flagship.
The Brooklyn Borough President’s office provided FoodWorks with $1.3 million in startup capital, most of which was used to pay for an extensive and highly specialized build-out.
“There was nothing in that room except those [structural] columns before we came in here,” says FoodWorks community manager Edie Feinstein. “The biggest cost was building out the hood system and all the custom ventilation. It was a big feat of architectural and electrical engineering. And all the equipment, together, was a lot of money. Tens of stoves and ovens, and we bought everything new. It took about six months—we were paying rent all that time as well, and all of our contractors. The projected finish date was October. “Obviously, that was a gross miscalculation,” Feinstein says.
Today, the kitchen stations are lined with gleaming white tile; the appliances shine. The demonstration kitchen, available for events and demos, feels professional and pristine.
“The fact that everything is newer, not beat up, is important,” says Jimmy Warren, executive chef of Big Mozz, a food truck that sells fresh mozzarella. He says his old space at a commercial kitchen was rarely clean and didn’t have what he needed—like the proofing box he plans to use to make pizzas. “They didn’t have stoves,” he says.
“I could never have afforded to build out my own facility,” says Amy Nazer, founder of small-batch flavored extract company Woodward Extract Co. Her product needs lots of macerating time, and FoodWorks’ dry storage space was a big draw—as were some of the specialized equipment. She’d been used to making her small-batch extracts on primitive tools—prepping the vanilla beans for her vanilla bourbon extract with a coffee grinder, a NutraBullet, and a lot of spare time. FoodWorks’ Robot-Coupe changed everything.
“It broke down the vanilla in, like, a minute and a half,” she says, “and I almost cried tears of joy.”
A tale of two food cities
Facility rental is the most significant part of FoodWorks’ business plan. The company has 40 members already—35 are minority or female-owned businesses—and would like to hit the 100-member capacity by the end of the year. Barrett says that, for FoodWorks, a full kitchen means a profitable incubator.
“We feel we can become cash flow positive just through focusing in on filling up the space,” he says. The company’s other revenue streams—classes, mentorship, special events and services—will only help it reach self-sufficiency that much more quickly.
But what about the goal of bringing underserved populations into Brooklyn’s potentially lucrative food scene? Some programs are already in place. The city is making $100,000 in need-based scholarships available, with 20 percent of the money reserved for tenants of the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA). FoodWorks’ location means that many of those individuals will be residents of housing projects in Bed-Stuy, Brownsville, Crown Heights, and East New York—the same neighborhoods outlined in the RFP.
The city hopes to provide a pathway to places like Brooklyn FoodWorks, so that people can take advantage of mentorship, learn about available resources, and sustain a meaningful, profitable enterprise. According to NYCHA’s Jeanique Riche-Druses, food entrepreneurship is a natural fit for the population. “Food businesses are the number one business of choice among NYCHA residents,” she said, at this week’s Just Food conference. “About a quarter of the residents that we surveyed said that food is the business of their choice.”
And for those who fail? “Manufacturing is a source of quality jobs and well-paying jobs generally,” argues EDC spokesperson Ian Fried. “And food manufacturing really is a sector that can provide quality jobs to New Yorkers, and provide them with a pathway to the middle class.” We’re not talking auto manufacturing, mind you; according to a study by the food-oriented Brandworkers organization, average pay for the city’s frontline food manufacturing workers is $12.04 an hour—not terrible, but not a solid entrée to middle-class life. And the study also points out that female and minority workers tend to make significantly less—more than five dollars an hour less—than their white male counterparts.
Even for those who do succeed in running their own business, the challenges are stark. A 2013 study from the office of Councilman Stephen T. Levin said that 68 percent of Brooklyn food entrepreneurs felt that current manufacturing facilities put limits on their growth. Though most put a high premium on their locale—90 percent said having a Brooklyn-branded product was important—77 percent said they struggled to find an affordable space. Meanwhile, the average one-bedroom apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant is nearly $2,000 a month.
That’s the situation Brooklyn FoodWorks graduates will encounter when they finally do leave the nest: big opportunities. Even tougher challenges.
Of course, FoodWorks can do only so much to help graduates face life after the incubator. But how should we measure the success of the endeavor? Is it enough for FoodWorks to play a central role in developing Brooklyn’s culture of culinary innovation? Or have they failed if unless they’re helping to create food sector jobs for the people who most need them?
Barrett isn’t sure.
“We’re not here to promote one piece or the other, we’re just here to be a platform to let all pieces of it flourish,” Barrett says. “So if that means, for us, being a community access point that touches upon the publicly subsidized housing right in our area, I think that’s fantastic. If it’s the ability to keep Brooklyn and the Brooklyn brand on the bleeding edge of food, I think that’s fantastic, too. I don’t know that one or the other feels better. I think they’re both good and lofty goals. More than anything we just want to make sure that the energy that exists here has a place to go, has a place to live.”
The business, says Barrett, is to put himself out of business. “Success for us means getting entrepreneurs, stabilizing their business model, growing their sales to a point where they’re in the 80-hour, 100-hour, 150-hour user category for us, to where ultimately I sit down and have a meeting with them and say OK, I actually recommend for you and your business to go and take your own space. To me, that’s the measure of success—it’s how many conversations I get to have like that.”
Illustrations by Rawaan Alkhatib.