Craft Goes Capitalist

A spate of startups pursue slow food over fast cash.

It’s the fantasy of nearly every foodie who has made a particularly delectable batch of bread, baklava or bourbon barbecue sauce: Swap out the soulless desk job for a Slow Food-inspired startup and overall edible existence. But for a growing number of Brooklynites, the dream of going into the kimchee or caramel business has become a reality—now it’s just a matter of somehow paying the bills.

“Yeah, it’s a dream,” says Bret Birnbaum, smiling wryly. In 2002 he founded Wine Cellar Sorbet with his two best friends. He had a white-collar career many would envy, but says he was happiest when “actually doing stuff, not managing.” So he traded it in to traffic sorbet made from wine. “It was a brand new product; it had never been done before. And it was delicious,” says Birnbaum.

The debut was greeted enthusiastically: The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal raved about the icy cabernets and sauvignon blancs. Eight years later Wine Cellar Sorbets are available in cabernet sauvignon, Champagne, mimosa, pinot noir, riesling, rosé, ruby port, sake and sangria flavors and can be found in 300 stores nationwide. And Birnbaum is broke. “Completely broke” he clarifies. And alone, too: “My partner left last summer when we went through the last of the money.” Birnbaum remains passionately optimistic and his products are popular. “But sometimes I’m not sure how long we are going to make it.”

Still, these are heady days for anyone looking to make a living hawking handmade hamantaschen or bacon marmalade, and it can feel like every hipster on the L train has his own salsa startup. The New York Times observed that Brooklyn “has become an incubator for a culinary-minded generation whose idea of fun is learning how to make something delicious and finding a way to sell it.”

The fraudulent fumblings of big business over the past few years have inspired many to strike out on their own. “I think food and economy collided head to head, creating a monster of a supermovement based on self-sufficiency and untainted modes of production and consumption” says Joann Kim of the Greenpoint Food Market, a scrappy, indie food hall which served up empanadas, artisanal soda pop, Indo-Mex mix tacos and that beauteous bacon marmalade. Kim saw the market as an incubator for freshman food artisans to test the waters. But after a Times article brought the market to the attention of city officials, who found food products not made in commercial kitchens, the market was killed. Kim hopes to revive the spirit by creating other systems. “More and more individuals are finding the support and encouragement to engage in entrepreneurial efforts because it is the perfect time to recirculate and redefine a working economy, finding new ways to exchange goods.”

Other forces both practical and primal could also be at play, according to Robert LaValva, executive director of the New Amsterdam Market, a platform for many such startups. Viewed from his Brooklyn office, he thinks part of the hunger for the homemade is a reaction to bad news, and a desire to build something better. With every outbreak of mad cow, avian flu, E. coli and illness-enduing eggs, more people lose their appetite for faceless corporate purveyors, instead seeking out small-batch food producers they can look in the eye.

He also thinks that the entrepreneurs making scones, sauerkraut or saucisson sec are fulfilling “a subconscious desire to make things with their own hands. “Previous generations worked with their created things on a daily basis,” he explains. “People have a need to create, and in modern jobs we don’t do that. Cooking is one of the last crafts left where you can create something start to finish every day.” As he puts it, the current collision of “a craftless society and a jobless society has made it appealing to go into a business where you can experience deep creative satisfaction.”

Inspiring examples of perceived satisfied success abound: Bum Bars from Luminous Kitchens getting the nod from Cook’s Illustrated; salty-sweet Early Bird Granola called out on the Martha Stewart show; the icy artisanal treats of People’s Pops featured in mainstream mags like Bon Appétit; the tiny-batch confections of Liddabit Sweets getting multipage spreads in O, the Oprah Magazine, and the bean-to-bar chocolates of the bearded Mast Brothers used in the exalted kitchens of Blue Hill and the French Laundry. But such accolades don’t always translate into prompt profits.

“It starts out with all the euphoria of a new relationship,” says Birnbaum. “Everyone thinks you have the coolest job in the world. it’s a rock star fantasy.” He says the cachet of cool that goes along with being a food entrepreneur gets you lots of friends, makes you minorly famous and even gets you laid. But good luck paying your suppliers and distributors with indie cred. “At the end of the day it’s about dollars and cents,” he shrugs. And making the leap from spending your weekends selling chocolates under a tent to a full-time career is no game of Candyland.

“We’ve spent a lot of time in our van with melting popsicles” says Nathalie Jordi, who founded People’s Pops with her high school prom date and his roommate. It happened in a heartbeat when Jordi was offered a booth at the first New Amsterdam Market. She was working at a cooking school in Ireland and swooped into town for three days, enlisting two friends to help out. They made 290 fruit- and herb-flavored popsicles in flavors like watermelon-basil and blueberry-cardamom and “sold out immediately.” Three years later the business has grown, with regular appearances at New Amsterdam, the Brooklyn Flea and a seasonal spot in the brick-and-mortar Chelsea Market. But a rainy day can devastate a week’s numbers and even sunny days can be treacherous for icy inventory: “New York can be a difficult place to do business, just in terms of having production space and transporting things.” Jordi and her partners have gotten used to spending their days in their Coney Island kitchen from dawn to midnight spattered in raspberry juice and stamping pop sticks until all hours.

“Almost nothing turns out the way that you think it will,” laughs Tim McCollum of Brooklyn-based Madecasse Chocolates, a single-origin bean-to-bar chocolate that works with cocoa and vanilla bean growers in Madasgascar, where he served as a Peace Corps volunteer. The products are beloved throughout the borough (at Foragers Market, Union Market and Brooklyn Larder, to name a few) and far beyond, and the buck doesn’t stop here; because Madeccase makes the finished product in Madagascar—rather than just exporting raw ingredients—the business generates four times more income for the local community than even fair-trade programs. But this model also poses unique challenges, including shipping highly meltable products from calescent climes.

“So much of being a small business is about being flexible and being able to adapt on the fly. We bootstrapped this thing from our own pockets—which were already empty.” But he and partner Brett Beach, who also served in the Peace Corps there, remain driven by passion.

Indeed passion is the main ingredient common to every last edible startup in town, a group that’s decidedly more DIY than MBA. Take Rick Field—before starting the now-famous Rick’s Picks, he was an obsessed and prize-winning home pickler who spent his days doing documentary work for Bill Moyers. When he lost that job he found himself “at the proverbial crossroads and took the leap.” You know, the proverbial leap into pickledom.

Liz Gutman and Jen King of Liddabit Sweets took a similar leap, one that applied DIY gastrosensibility to the kinds of items more commonly found in vending machines. The pair met in the pastry program at the French Culinary Institute and “decided the world was severely lacking in artisanal candy bars,” says Gutman as she pours a molten mixture of hibiscus and agave into candy molds in the commercial kitchen space they share with passionate peers McClure’s Pickles and the kitchen CSA Sweet Deliverance. “We thought it would be fun to sell some of our candy on the weekends.”

Things took off quickly, with customers literally eating up Liddabits’ hyperlocal, artisanal caramels and addictive “Snacker” bars, and the business quickly became, well, a business. The almost-instant fame seems fabulous; less fab is the grueling sourcing, baking, packaging, labeling, delivering and marketing all on their own. Or the entire month of December when the holiday rush meant the women literally slept in their (unheated) Bed-Stuy kitchen to keep up with demand. “We were up all night before the New Amsterdam Christmas market making chocolate bars,” says Gutman. “And then in the morning Jen dug out the car using a hotel pan as a snow shovel.”

Gutman and King say the little confection company is incredibly rewarding—but acknowledge the financial realities can be harsh. “It’s hard to get used to working this hard and still not having any money,” allows King. They still aren’t paying themselves regular salaries and “The business part is what keeps me awake at night,” says Gutman. As it turns out, lying awake in a cozy bed thinking about cash flow and business budgets is even less fun than working all night over a hot vat of candy.

Indeed the intensity of a startup can be overwhelming. “It would be nice to have a weekend off once,” muses Williamsburg’s Jay Sheldon, a sculptor turned pepper proselytizer. Sheldon comes home from his 9-to-5 job as an art handler each day, and spends his nights printing out labels on his HP printer, cutting them out by hand and placing them on his packages of dried and powdered peppers. Native to India, and measuring one million Scoville units, the Bhut Jolokia or ghost pepper is the hottest pepper in the world, requiring Sheldon to wear a respirator while working. Weekends are spent at markets like the Kings County General Store Market at Southpaw, peddling his products, which include his dare-ya sweet-and-spicy watermelon candies which are a little like Sour Patch Kids for grownups.

“It’s all Early Bird all the time,” laughs Nekisia Davis about the olive-oil-coated, oaty, nutty granola she bakes, packages and often delivers with her own two hands. “There’s almost no moment of the day where I’m not doing something for the business. And I smell like granola all the time.” As she was building the business, Davis continued working occasional shifts as manager at farm-to-table Franny’s to break up the solitude of granola making. When Davis started delegating some of her Manhattan deliveries, she found that she missed that interaction. Handmade, heartfelt food is such an intimate, personal affair; handing off even the smallest details can be difficult.

“The most shocking part of it is how all-encompassing and personal it is,” agrees Betsy Devine of Salvatore Bklyn, who makes the crazily good, life-alteringly rich, milky, slightly citrusy ricotta with (business and life) partner Rachel Marks. The women were inspired to start the business after an encounter with Italian ricotta maker Salvatore Farina while vacationing in Italy. When they returned home they missed the dense, creamy yet acidic curds and decided to recreate the cheese using New York State ingredients. “It’s fun and exciting but in the beginning it’s so close to your heart, so personal, so completely all-consuming.” Three years into the business “it’s now kind of like a beloved friend in the room, which is kind of a nice development because it gets exhausting otherwise. You need to be able to step away and let your product live in the world.”

It’s an important step in growing a business. “I once heard someone say that most people spend too much time IN their business instead of ON their business,” says Susan Povich, who cofounded the Red Hook Lobster Pound with her husband, Ralph Gorham. The couple began selling their lush lobster rolls at the Brooklyn Flea, then their own retail space and recently launched a food truck in Washington, DC. The difficulty of balancing businesses in separate cities was lessened when they placed Povich’s cousin in charge of DC operations, as a sort of an ad hoc artisanal franchise operation. “We provide the product, and the training and then you have to trust that things will run OK without you,” explains Povich.

The franchise approach is also working for Michael Orobona, an FCI graduate who worked at Jean-Georges, and spends weekends spring through fall running a series of lemonade stands, where he serves organic lemonade and cold-brewed coffee from handblown Italian glass urns, along with fresh baked cookies in Park Slope and places like the Brooklyn Indie Market and the Red Hook Mercado. “I train them, provide the product each day. They own their business,” he says.

The capitalists are surprisingly communal. Advice is freely given, kitchens and contacts are shared and emergency help is ready and willing. Brooklyn-based artist and part-time dog walker Hanna Mandlebaum teamed up with former dog-walking client Alison Weiner to create Evermore Pet Food, which makes locavore-inspired, sustainable pet food from human-grade ingredients like Maine blueberries, dandelion greens, organic herbs and local, grass-fed beef. it’s better for both dogs and the environment, but it’s also more perishable than the stuff in cans. When they needed a refrigerated truck to transport their flash-frozen food to retailers like Marlow & Sons, the Red Hook Lobster Pound loaned them their lobstermobile for the day. Before the dining area at the Lobster Pound was ready for service, nearby Rocky Sullivan’s Pub let the Lobster Pound set up shop in their courtyard and dining room to serve lobster dinners. Liddabit credits “every other vendor at the Brooklyn Flea” with giving them valuable advice. “Hopefully there is room for us all to be cousins in condiments,” laughs Rick Field.

Field’s success is an inspiration to many aspiring entrepreneurs. But even the pickle patriarch admits it ain’t always easy. “Running a small business requires a certain amount of comfort floating in a sense of unease. And it’s all about the middle. The beginning is easy, exciting and new. And the end, whether it’s failure or the big buyout, isn’t something that you should be focusing on because you lose track of the day-to-day building.”

The middle is often where small businesses falter, since scaling up is not always the path to solvency. Take Whole Foods: a spot on their shelves would seem to be the ideal launch pad for a natural food product. But “the margins in retail are super-low,” says Ben Van Leeuwen, who drew on his past as a Good Humor truck driver when he started his artisanal ice cream company with his now trademark buttery yellow Van Leeuwen Artisanal Ice Cream trucks filled with flavors like Earl Grey, hazelnut and a subtle (and un-green) mint chip, and says they still generate the bulk of the company’s profits, despite his coveted spot in the organic supermarket’s area freezer cases. “It would sure be glamorous and fun to be available nationwide,” he says, “but it’s just not a brilliant business model for us.” Van Leeuwen evens considers VLAIC’s brick-and-mortar shop in Greenpoint more of a place to hang their hat, rather than a major retail spot.

“Everyone thinks that once you are in Whole Foods you have it made,” echoes Doug Cullen of Luminous Kitchens who makes kombucha and Bum Bars, bejeweled with chocolate chips, dried fruits and nuts, in Crown Heights. The Bum Bars are sold in the supermarket as well as yoga studios and health food stores nationwide. “But when it’s there, you are competing with all these other products. You have to do demos and support the product.”

Which is why Birnbaum spends his weekends shilling spoonfuls of sorbet: “It’s great to be in Whole Foods, but the product doesn’t sell itself.” With a freezer aisle filled with familiar brands and flavors, is a customer going to go with chocolate or take a chance on a pinot noir? But once people have a taste, they often buy; Birnbaum has found that personally getting potential customers to taste the product, one by one, is the one true way. That’s difficult when your stores are 3,000 miles away. “I’m thinking of scaling back and pulling out of the Rocky Mountains and Texas,” says Birnbaum. “Getting back to grassroots and doing things I can support.”

Field has found other issues with marketing to clientele beyond the boroughs. “One thing I would change if I was starting now.” he muses, “is that I would focus less on the hyperliterate names—like Phat Beets,” his tangy-sweet pickled beets, which are kissed with rosemary, ginger and lemon. “That name works at the Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket when I’m talking to you, but will Mabel from North Dakota get that reference when it’s on her local supermarket shelf?”

But none of these entrepreneurs is looking to be the next Mrs. Field’s or Ben and Jerry’s. Part of what sets this artisan boomlet apart from other startups is that the goal is to make a living—not a killing. “I really have no interest in selling popsicles in January,” says Jordi, who spends the off-season as a food and travel writer.

Cullen echoes the sentiment, saying he isn’t looking to make a million from his Bum Bars. “My goals are definitely not to become as big as possible,” says the sometime massage therapist and musician who sees his food business as just part of what he does. “Really it’s just a way for me to do what I want to do and enjoy my life while making some money.”

And even Birnbaum has few regrets. Sure, he has fond recollections of the six-figure salary and luxury Manhattan co-op of his pre-entrepreneurship life. “And this has been really humbling. If I didn’t have the family network and support that I have I would be seriously looking at homelessness, which isn’t where I thought that I’d be at this stage in my life. But as bad as things get, I still believe in the product. I’ll get a random e-mail from a total stranger saying ‘that’s the coolest thing I’ve ever tasted, thank you so much for making it.’ That’s the best feeling. That’s what you have to do it for.”

Lisa McLaughlin is a food writer whose work appears in Edibles, Time and InStyle but is contemplating giving it all up for a career in jam.

Unpaid Overtime: Want to go pro? Get ready to work nonstop, like Liz Gutman and Jen King of Liddabit Sweets, Doug Cullen of Luminous Kitchens, and Early Bird Granola’s Nekisia Davis.

In It To Win It: Wine Cellar Sorbets is reaping raves nationwide, but Bret Birnbaum is nearly broke. Like prominent pickler Rick Fields, his business began as a low-paying locavore labor of love.

Editor’s note:  Wine Cellar Sorbet, New Amsterdam Market, Luminous Kitchens, Brooklyn Indie Market, Red Hook Mercado and Greenpoint Food Market have closed. 

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Lisa McLaughlin writes about food, drink and cultural trends for Time magazine when she isn't busy trying to figure out how to grow hops on her windowsill.