If the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce gets its way, pretty soon “Made in Brooklyn” on a food label will carry the same kind of cachet as “Made in France.”
That ambition marks a big change in the organization’s focus. For much of the chamber’s history — it was founded in 1918 — Brooklyn food production meant things like mass-produced cheesecake, pickles, knishes and a whole lot of Domino sugar.
But when Carlo Scissura came on board as president in in 2012, the chamber started changing fast. Scissura, who spent the previous four years as chief of staff to Marty Markowitz, is as big a Brooklyn booster as his former boss. He saw that food production in Brooklyn was taking off like a rocket, from granola to kombucha to chocolate-caramel-peanut “Compost Bars.”
“This is a major manufacturing explosion in the borough,” Scissura says. “The food makers are the ones creating the jobs.”
So the chamber has made the food business a high priority. Last June, it held Brooklyn’s first food trade show, BrooklynEats, to promote local food producers. It subsidized Brooklyn food makers’ appearances at last year’s Fancy Food Show at the Javits Center. It’s hiring a full-time industrial policy staffer to work with the food industry; one of the new hire’s first jobs will be to help Brooklyn food entrepreneurs share resources to create a distribution network. And at the 2014 Fancy Food Show, there’ll be a whole pavilion — sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce — to highlight 16 Brooklyn-based makers and their beef jerky, Korean barbecue sauce, beer-pretzel caramels and bourbon-bacon caramel corn.
The chamber is also offering practical help to food manufacturers who need to find space, or employees or new markets. In January it held a seminar on getting your business certified kosher, to help artisanal food makers thread their way through the complex and intimidating process of entering that very large market.
It also created a “Made in Brooklyn” award for food, tech and design companies. The first food companies to win the awards, given out in October, were a varied lot, reflecting the food scene’s shifting sands: Damascus Bread, the 80-year-old bakery that introduced Brooklyn to pita bread and now ships internationally; Rawpothecary, a new maker of cold-pressed juices that sell for $9 a bottle (in flavors like Heavenly Hemp, Sunflower Power and Sweet & Spicy Greens); and Spoonable, the artisan caramel-sauce line with flavors like chili, lavender and Brooklyn Butterscotch.
The chamber’s also thinking hard about an official “Made in Brooklyn” label. That’s a tricky job, says Gaia DiLoreto, who opened By Brooklyn, her Carroll Gardens store that sells only Brooklyn-made products. DiLoreto has drawn some careful distinctions in stocking her shelves, especially when it comes to food. It’s been decades since Brooklyn housed beef or dairy cattle; food animals here are now pretty much limited to chickens and honeybees. Nor can beer or whiskey makers count on finding Brooklyn-grown grains.
Her definition is that while the raw ingredients don’t have to come from Brooklyn, the “making” must happen here. “After all,” she says, “it’s not like local jewelers are mining the silver and gold to make their jewelry.”
The chamber may loosen that a little, but it’s planning to insist that most of the manufacturing and masterminding take place within the borough’s borders.
While food making is definitely big in the borough, these entrepreneurs face two big problems: cost and space. Brooklyn’s an expensive, crowded place. Sure, that means a lot of sophisticated buyers. But making food in Brooklyn isn’t cheap, so the makers have to charge premium prices to survive. Even so, when they’re ready to expand out of their kitchens, it can be really hard to find the space they need at a rent they can afford.
So one of the chamber’s primary goals is to find ways to keep businesses in Brooklyn as they expand. It doesn’t always work; Kings County Jerky, for instance, is no longer making its jerky in Kings County. One reason some producers move out, according to DiLoreto, is that the cost of complying with USDA regulations, heavy enough to begin with, is even heavier in Brooklyn, where facilities that can be fitted out to meet those regs are both hard to find and prohibitively expensive.
“That’s a really big problem for any product that involves meat or dairy.”
Though he acknowledges that Brooklyn won’t ever be able to compete “dollar for dollar” against other areas (for instance Pennsylvania, where Kings County Jerky is now produced), Scissura thinks his organization can do a lot to keep food producers in the borough — and that doing so will be a real boost to the Brooklyn economy.
“There’s lots of space in places like East New York and Brownsville,” he says, “and they can sure use those manufacturing jobs.” One big attraction for young food companies: 630 Flushing Avenue, a former Pfizer factory that the developer, Acumen Partners, has turned into a hub for entrepreneurs. As it formerly housed a drug maker, the building was already FDA approved, a big plus for food manufacturing; current tenants include People’s Pops, Kombucha Brooklyn and Mama O’s Kimchi. And Scissura argues that the size and sophistication of the New York food market, and the city’s creative vibe, are attractions few other locations can match.
That’s certainly been Rawpothecary’s experience. When the company, which started up in Queens two years ago, needed more space, the Pfizer building was perfect, says Madeleine Murphy, the company’s general manager. “It’s a great building to be part of,” she says. “There’s networking on a daily basis, and a lot of cool entrepreneurial energy.”
But Scissura’s ambitions go way beyond just keeping food manufacturers in Brooklyn — or even getting them to move here.
“I would love young people in communities where there’s high unemployment to be trained in food manufacturing jobs,” he says. “And I would love our products to be sold everywhere.” Yeah, he brags about all the Brooklyn products sold in New York City’s Whole Foods stores. “But I want them to be in Whole Foods in Boston. And California.”
All of them, of course, labeled Made in Brooklyn.
Clearly, Scissura can’t accomplish everything he’s aiming for without City Hall’s help, particularly in creating still more business incubators — especially in deprived neighborhoods — and providing more affordable office space. (He’d also like it to give small companies a break on fines for violating the city’s massive collection of regulations.)
Does the new administration see things the same way? “I’m not sure they do now,” he says. “But I’m going to talk to them so much that they will.”
Find out more: To learn about Rawpothecary juices, hailed by the Chamber of Commerce as the best beverages made in Brooklyn, click here.
Photo Credit: Clay Williams