Luquana McGriff applied for membership at the Brooklyn FoodWorks before its doors had ever opened. The culinary incubator appealed to her: She wanted to continue to grow and develop her nascent small business, A Cake Baked in Brooklyn. Brooklyn FoodWorks was the only option in her borough. As a resident of the New York City Housing Authority, she could qualify for a scholarship.
A few months prior, McGriff had turned a talent and joy for baking into her own small business. “I wanted to work for myself,” said McGriff. “I wanted to provide almost like a legacy for my children to have, to look forward to. I wanted to leave something behind for them and grow it together.”
Brooklyn Foodworks, which opened in 2016, is rooted in rapidly changing Bedford-Stuyvesant, and it aims to help food-focused entrepreneurs—from within Bed-Stuy and otherwise—become viable businesses. Aida Eats, Keepers Coffee Soda, and Auria’s Malaysian Kitchen are some of the businesses that have sought out the incubator’s services.
eet—Brooklyn FoodWorks’ founders and several city officials, have positioned the kitchen incubator as both a boost to diverse local business owners and a source of jobs. Now, over a year later, it’s still unclear whether or not Brooklyn FoodWorks will function as cure-all for the neighborhood.
Boosting Small Food Manufacturing in New York
In March 2015, Drew Barrett and Brian Bordainick, co-founders of the Dinner Lab, Inc., a chef-centric pop-up dinner series, won a $1.3 million grant from the Brooklyn Borough president’s office, coordinated through the New York City Economic Development Corporation. A year before, the NYCEDC had issued a Request for Proposals, seeking to build a culinary incubator in a struggling part of the city; Barrett and Bordainick’s proposal won.
Around a year later, Brooklyn FoodWorks was born. The space has a large commercial kitchen with several stations. McGriff is one of about 100 small-business owners currently using the facility, which features specialized equipment for pastry and ice cream and an in-house dishwashing service. Members use a co-working space for meetings, administration, and collaboration. Mentors circle through and lead business-development workshops. Alongside the production kitchen, the facility also has a fully equipped test kitchen, which it rents out for occasional private events. But, “the bread and butter is the revenue from kitchen rentals,” said managing director Edie Feinstein.
The Brooklyn facility occupies a small corner of the former Pfizer chemical plant on Flushing Avenue in Bedford Stuyvesant. Of the many tenant companies at 630 Flushing Avenue today—the majority of which produce, distribute, or grow food—Brooklyn FoodWorks is the only culinary incubator.
“It could have been condos,” New York City councilmember Stephen Levin said of the site at the FoodWorks ribbon-cutting ceremony February 2016. “They made the policy decision for New York City that we’re going to support small business, small manufacturing. The City needs to be doing more of this. We need to have good jobs and support emerging industries,” added Levin.
And there is reason to feel hopeful. Food manufacturers have experienced substantial growth since the 2008 financial crisis—jobs in the sector increased by 13.6 percent between 2011 and 2014 alone. But the wages provide less reason for optimism. Food workers make less than workers in any other manufacturing industry, with an annual average salary of only $32,000 a year.
“The reality is there is a large gap in the food industry. Barriers to entry into these markets are high,” Dr. Beth Weitzman, a professor of Health and Public Policy at New York University, told Civil Eats by email. As food production has been consolidated, very few companies now produce the bulk of our calories—and it’s not easy for independent companies to break in, let alone compete once they have.
“Government can (as it has in this case) play a significant role in reducing such barriers,” wrote Weitzman.
The specialty food and beverage sector—which encompasses the kinds of products made at Brooklyn FoodWorks—is also less diverse than food and beverage manufacturing overall, according to a 2015 report from the Pratt Center for Community Development, suggesting that it’s mostly white male entrepreneurs who succeed at selling specialty foods.
Bridging the Gap?
Brooklyn FoodWorks is a for-profit venture and is currently close to capacity. The initial grant included a provision to facilitate access for entrepreneurs facing economic barriers: $100,000 of the startup money was earmarked for applicants who met a fixed low-income threshold. Of that, $20,000 was reserved for New York City Housing Authority residents and Section 8 voucher holders such as McGriff.
Before she got to Brooklyn FoodWorks, McGriff graduated from the Food Business Pathways program in 2015 along with 80 other NYC Housing Authority residents. Alongside a 10-week intensive course in entrepreneurship, the program covers the cost and procedures of licensing a new business—a complex, expensive process that can be a substantial barrier for many New Yorkers.
Combined, the two programs made it possible for McGriff to turn her idea into a reality. “Food Business Pathways set things in motion for me,” she said.
From baking to client meetings, McGriff now runs her whole business at the incubator. She now caters office parties and meetings for the likes of Goldman Sachs and the Housing Authority. Her favorite cake is the red velvet—it wins awards and is her number-one best seller.
“One year ago I did the program—already I’m licensed. I’m incorporated. I’m in a commercial kitchen. I have catering contacts,” she said.
But her business hasn’t seen the success that Alexander Harik’s has. Harik’s Mediterranean condiment Zesty Z got picked up by Whole Foods, and is Brooklyn FoodWorks’ biggest success so far. Far from the world of subsidized housing, he also maintained a full-time job in the financial sector while developing the product at Brooklyn FoodWorks. Now, he runs Zesty Z fulltime.
The demand for more affordable, accessible incubator space is high. Some funds remain for housing authority residents and Brooklyn FoodWorks is now looking into corporate sponsors to replenish its scholarship funds.
Looking to Grow and Expand
Brooklyn FoodWorks has undergone a change in leadership over the last year. Its original parent company—the Dinner Lab, Inc.—folded in April 2016, and Barrett and Bordainick split ways. In June, Nick Devane and Mike Dee (developers of the now defunct home-cooked meal delivery app Homemade) acquired Brooklyn FoodWorks, where Barrett remains the president.
“[The acquisition is] what’s spurring a lot of growth,” said Feinstein. Driven by a new leadership vision, the expansion will bring the Brooklyn model to FoodWorks facilities in cities across the country—a facility in Providence, Rhode Island is up and running now. “The idea is really to take what we’ve learned here and replicate it in some ways—still with the idea of helping small food businesses get off the ground.”
While the FoodWorks model could function as a sustainable solution for certain catering companies, Feinstein said, other business models tend to outgrow the space quickly.
“Everything is done very manually here, which is ultra unscalable,” Feinstein said. “This is the perfect place to come and prove your concept, create samples, get it into the hands of as many people as possible, and then once you have demand and need to be producing more, that’s when you start to look for the next step.”
For McGriff, Brooklyn FoodWorks is also a temporary solution. While A Cake Baked in Brooklyn has an enthusiastic following online, without a physical presence in the community, further developing her client base is a challenge. “I would like eventually to have a storefront,” she said.
Brooklyn FoodWorks has afforded otherwise once-unimaginable opportunities to McGriff, but her storefront bakery—which would employ a small staff of local residents—is still a long ways off. “Space is limited, and very expensive,” she said. “It’s not big enough. It can be costly if you need to get more space [and time].”
Feinstein said she is looking to bring more under-resourced participants into the program through the remaining scholarship money. “We’re looking to do info sessions—we have so many [housing projects] right here. We’d like to get into the community a bit more and suss those people out, but it’s definitely been challenging.”
Supporting a diverse group of entrepreneurs is a first step to creating a landscape for small food businesses within a city. But the kind of robust local manufacturing and job creation NYC councilmember Levin envisions will likely require much more than food incubators.
“I applaud these programs for trying to allow a more diverse pool of people to enter this particular small business arena,” said NYU’s Weitzman. “But, that said, I think it is unrealistic to imagine that such programs will make a meaningful dent in regard to creating opportunities for higher paid employment among those currently unemployed, underemployed, or employed in poorly paid jobs.”