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Entrepreneurial Incubators

Brooklyn’s smartest start-ups cook cheek-by-jowl in unconventional kitchens.

David Carrell, one of the three cofounders of People’s Pops, is standing in his office talking a mile a minute about the four-year-old company’s many irons in the fire—a new Park Slope retail shop, the soon-to-be published cookbook and the brightly colored boxes mocked-up for the company’s upcoming wholesale line. But he’s most excited about the company’s new digs: a 1,700-square-foot space tricked out with a walk-in freezer as big as a food truck, a shiny new automated popsicle-wrapping machine and enough room to host the 25 employees he’s in the process of hiring—all backed by a sweeping view of north Brooklyn and the Manhattan skyline.

“This,” he says as he offers a strawberry-basil popsicle, “is Shangri-La.”

Actually, it’s an abandoned eight-story factory near the Marcy Houses project in South Williamsburg, where drug giant Pfizer opened for business more than a century and a half ago, stamping out Advil, Viagra, Lipitor and other pharmaceuticals before it closed the manufacturing plant in 2008. The building, an eight-acre gated compound that included a doctor’s office, a gym and a cafeteria, was bought for $26 million last year by Acumen Capital Partners. They’re currently transforming the motley collection of decommissioned blast rooms and pill labs into a manufacturing mecca for farm-stand-sourced popsicles, seasonal pickles, hand-crafted sodas and vegan food makers with the moxie to rework semi-raw spaces to fit their needs.

The building is just one—albeit the biggest and weirdest—of half a dozen commercial spaces where happy hipsters (and Bay Ridge moms) stir giant pots of goat’s milk into caramels, pit cherries, whip buttercream, simmer blackberries into jam and pile pallets of kombucha onto trucks bound for shelves across Brooklyn and beyond.

To sell food legally, you have to make it in a state-certified kitchen, like the space People’s Pops now runs in the old Pfizer plant. So all those perfect pints of peach preserves made on your apartment stove are technically contraband—which is why the Greenpoint Food Market, which sold boiled peanuts and mini gluten-free zucchini cakes from a church on Russell Street, got shut down back in 2010. These new incubators, communal kitchens and other commercial spaces don’t just reflect the explosive growth of Brooklyn’s famously fertile food scene, but signify a new stage in its evolution: From scrappy half-legal entrepreneurs cadging stovetops wherever they can find them to a more established industry—yes, it’s now an industry, one meriting its own snarky cover story in New York—accruing both the infrastructure and the city backing to support it.

“Right now it’s a lot of work-arounds,” says Eric Demby, cofounder of the Brooklyn Flea and Smorgasburg, which showcase 150 food vendors and have launched the careers of many of Brooklyn’s brightest food producers. “But the food system is catching up.”

And how. That “food system” includes not just centers like the Pfizer building but projects like the culinary incubator and event space being developed by 3rd Ward. In addition to creating up-to-code space for entrepreneurs, these spaces also breathe new life into unused buildings and languishing neighborhoods, one reason why Brooklyn Borough Chief Marty Markowitz kicked in $1.5 million for the project, which is slated to open somewhere in the lower-income Bed-Stuy/Crown Heights area next spring.

“This incubator will help provide the ‘tender loving care’ today that will grow into the Brooklyn businesses of tomorrow,” says Markowitz, a notorious food-lover who fills his quarterly newsletters with stories about everything from Bensonhurst bialys to Crown Heights cajeta. He says the new kitchen facilities popping up around the borough—including rentable space at Kingsborough Community College, a shared pastry kitchen in Sunset Park and a sprawling complex in the area’s historic waterfront Bush Terminal called Industry City, for starters—“take advantage of Brooklyn’s thriving food and culinary industry, help bring light manufacturing and production back to Brooklyn, and support growth of small businesses and entrepreneurs.”

3rd Ward executive director Jason Goodman agrees. “We’re really focused on building the infrastructure,” says Goodman, who six years ago helped create a collaborative workspace in Bushwick for woodworkers, artists and other craftspeople. Goodman hopes to secure a building with 50,000 square feet, where he would combine culinary and “maker” space, as he calls it. That way, he says, “you could make the food and the table to serve it on.” Just as with 3rd Ward’s original multipurpose outpost, its new incubator will create an entirely new genre in commercial kitchens, offering shared, fully equipped kitchens, classes, co-working space and a retail store—essentially a “launchpad for entrepreneurs,” as Goodman puts it.

Launching new businesses is also the idea behind the three-year-old kitchen incubator program offered by Kingsborough Community College in the far eastern neighborhood of Manhattan Beach. It focuses on nurturing nascent businesses that are often little more than a recipe. Students can use the rentable kitchen for free, and so can any entrepreneurs who enroll in KCC’s continuing education program: You just have to be a legit business entity with product liability insurance. Jonathan Deutsch, an associate professor at the college who runs its culinary program, says many entrepreneurs use the incubator to whip up batches of their product and shop it around to potential buyers, in the hopes of landing on retail shelves or restaurant menus.

Having the incubator at the college, he says, allows these would-be entrepreneurs to tap into faculty—chefs, food scientists, business people and of course low-cost student employees—to help develop their businesses, and many take classes such as food safety or urban farming while they are there. KCC also helps them obtain a 20-C License from the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, which is required to make food for retail sale. Many well-known Brooklyn brands, including People’s Pops, Brooklyn Fudge and Early Bird Granola, worked with the KCC incubator until they got big enough to move out. A current client is Royal Rose Syrups, an up-and-comer in the city’s locavore cocktail scene.

But even graduates of KCC’s incubator program are likely still not big enough to go solo. To rent a fully equipped kitchen of your own or build one out is a costly venture: Equipment for a very basic commercial kitchen can run $50,000 or more, explains Allison Robicelli of Robicelli’s Cupcakes, which creates signature cupcakes in a rotating kaleidoscope of flavors like Chocolate Caramel Pretzel and Chicken ’n’ Waffles. Add in plumbing, electrical, complex “fire suppression” systems, inspection and the permitting costs, and you’re talking at least a half a million dollars, says Robicelli, who used to bake and sell her sweets in a brick-and-mortar market she and her husband ran in Bay Ridge until it became too tough to pay the rent. For low-margin products, the economics of doing it all yourself just doesn’t work, says Robicelli: “It’s a significant cost, and you’re trying to make that back on a $2 cookie,” she says. A shared kitchen, Robicelli believes, “is the smartest way to launch a product.”

That’s why Robicelli and her co-chef and husband, Matt, both Brooklyn natives, now operate out of shared space in what used to be the Hana Pastries kitchens in Sunset Park on the sixth floor of a cavernous warehouse complex at the end of a cobblestone street between the Gowanus Bay and the BQE, just around the corner from Costco. A few years ago they streamlined their business to wholesale and outdoor markets; so now, instead of working a storefront, they sell to restaurants and grocers including the Brooklyn Standard and Blue Apron as well as at their own stall at the Dekalb Market, an outdoor collection of shops in brightly painted converted metal shipping containers at the corner of Dekalb and Flatbush Avenues, open daily to sell everything from raw kale salads with greens from community gardens to screen-printed hoodies. (Not surprisingly, the market is also planning to offer consulting services and possibly kitchen space for food entrepreneurs with help from a nonprofit called Market Share, which ran that now-defunct church market and hopes to soon secure about 10,000 square feet in Greenpoint for a shared space for food production, retail, events, education and even agriculture.)

The Hana facility is run by a former pastry chef who decided to rent out the space when his hotel confectionary business dried up. It includes three fully equipped kitchens, freezers and walk-in storage, as well as a common area with massive ovens. More than a dozen regular clients—a Who’s Who of Brooklyn food that includes Liddabit Sweets, the Good Batch and Macaroon Parlor, as well as Robicelli’s—book kitchen space for one of three shifts, their supplies and random chest freezers piled high on shelves that line the hallway. The space is open 24 hours, and also accommodates the odd one-time shift request for the day trader who wants to trial cantaloupe lollipops before booking backers and selling her stock options.

There are downsides, like showing up to find your pastured eggs missing from the communal fridge, or your cupcakes crushed, which Robicelli says can happen when the kitchen is used for single shifts rather than regulars. But mostly, she says, “it’s like summer camp.”

A big draw of the shared spaces is the opportunity to work alongside other artisan entrepreneurs: When you go to grab the pumpkin seeds, you can say hello to the ladies of Liddabit searching for labels, or give a hand to a fellow producer loading up for market days. “We help each other out,” says Robicelli, “It’s like a support system as much as it is a kitchen.”

But for Brooklyn’s most established entrepreneurs, the spacious Pfizer building where People’s Pops now lives—with its built-in loading docks, ample parking and industrial electrical wiring—may be the biggest game-changer. Before the popsicle company leased space in the former pill factory in early spring, for example, it had been operating out of cramped quarters in Hell’s Kitchen—“it was literally a kitchen of its word: hell,” jokes David Carrell. Some staffers had to cross the East River four times a day going to their Manhattan kitchen, then back to Brooklyn for markets like the Flea, then back to the kitchen to unload and back home again to Brooklyn.

“This is big,” says Carrell of their new home, which rents for about $15 per square foot for workspace. “This is all grown up.”

For its part, Acumen, which is also the company behind the Long Island City office building that Brooklyn Grange rooftop farm calls home, envisions a retail space on the street level and a vibrant mix of tenants filling the building when it reaches full capacity, including artists and other creative types, helping to restore at least some of the 600 jobs lost by Pfizer’s departure. One Lucky Duck, which makes vegan snacks, is the latest food producer to sign a lease.

The building was an immediate match for Caroline Mak and Antonio Ramos, the founders of the fast-growing Brooklyn Soda Works, and not just because of its convenience to the Brooklyn Flea and Smorgasburg. The Clinton Hill duo started out crafting their small-batch carbonated sodas—painstakingly made from fresh-pressed juice, not syrups, and sold in draft kegs at the outdoor markets and to restaurants—in the basement of Park Slope’s Palo Santo, where they know the chef-owner. Their next move was to 350-square-foot shared kitchen space in Bed-Stuy, but with their business booming, “it became clear we needed more space,” says Mak, an installation artist when she’s not making knotweed soda. She and Ramos had been looking for six months when they heard about the Pfizer building. A tour of the place—sprawling and spooky in its still mostly unoccupied state—was just what they’d been dreaming of.

They were especially thrilled with a waterproof “clean” room Pfizer had used to wash down equipment, which came with an inline water system and perfectly tilted epoxy-coated cement floors with drains built in. “Cleanup used to take forever,” says Mak. “Now we can just hose down the walls!”

Like other occupants of the building, Mak and her partner had to invest about $25,000 to build out their kitchens themselves, adding a refrigerated walk-in, electrical wiring for their space and additional plumbing. It’s a significant cost, but it’s still far less than what a business might pay for a stand-alone space. The value is what enabled Steve’s Ice Cream to move part of its production back to the city from Long Island, scoring a tax abatement from the city for the jobs that came back with them. The company had been looking for space closer to the city, but until they heard about the Pfizer building, says Forbes Fisher, the president of Steve’s, “we’d basically written Brooklyn off.”

Fisher’s own section of the Pfizer building—soon to be the home of both Steve’s and Chozen ice cream, which Steve’s will produce—is at the tail end of a ghostly hallway. And indeed, for now, the building is still more The Shining than Willy Wonka, with empty floors and discarded remnants of its pharma past scattered about like pieces of an old torture chamber. In the lobby Pfizer’s multicolored slogans are still plastered to the wall in the building’s lobby in happy script—“Teamwork, Community, Innovation”—artifacts of a bygone era of corporate motivation.

The building may be in flux, but early tenants are already reaping the benefits, sharing resources like the tenants of Hana Pastries over in Sunset Park do. Steve’s Ice Cream lets People’s Pops piggyback on its trucks when deliveries are headed to the same place; Fisher even hosted a hard-to-score visit from Whole Foods buyers, who ended up meeting everyone on the floor—plum opportunity for all. The tenants take inspiration from each other’s products (exhibit A: Steve’s Kombucha sorbet, or a test run of Bloody Mary ice cream with a mix from McClure’s Pickles, which has some office space down the hall), swap supplier tips and hope to combine orders for common ingredients, such as organic fair-trade sugar.

“It’s just a bunch of young people making food, shooting movies, drinking on the roof and skateboarding between offices,” says Carrell of People’s Pops. “There’s a real spirit of community.”

Maybe those old Pfizer slogans aren’t so shopworn after all.

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Amy Cortese

AMY CORTESE is an award-winning journalist who writes about topics spanning business, finance, food, wine and travel. Her work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, New York Magazine, Business Week, the New York Times, the Daily News, Portfolio, Mother Jones, Afar, The American, the Daily Beast, Talk, Business 2.0, and Wired, among other publications. Her recently published book, Locavesting: The Revolution in Local Investing and How to Profit From it (John Wiley & Sons, 2011), draws upon her experience covering these diverse realms to explore how a small shift in investment away from multinationals towards locally-owned enterprises can reap enormous economic and social benefits for individuals, their communities and the country.

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