In the Artisanal Food Scene, Doing It Yourself is Harder Than It Looks
When Anna Wolf first started making mustard, she couldn’t have foreseen what would become of the hobby she loved so much. Not only was My Friend’s Mustard popular, but it also turned into a profitable business. Wolf even came close to inking a distribution deal with Whole Foods, but reason caught up with her just in time.
“We were victims of our own success,” she said. “It got to the point where it was, ‘Awesome, we’re popular.’ But I couldn’t say yes to the deal.”
Wolf couldn’t “say yes” to Whole Foods, which is to small food producers what Barneys is to up and coming fashion designers, because her small Brooklyn-based food production business couldn’t keep up with the production rate required for such a big deal. The cart had gotten ahead of the proverbial horse.
The story of My Friend’s Mustard illuminates what is often forgotten by those outside the small-scale, independent, artisan, locavore, foodie universe: founding and running a successful artisan niche-business is not as easy as just “pickling that.”
In this “Portlandia” sketch, the stars of the IFC show Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen mock artisan foodies as Bryce Shivers and Lisa Eversman, two pickle aficionados who make the art of pickling look easy. (You can even pickle a website.) YouTube/TheBennyBlues
The business model, which favors specialization and creativity, is led by entrepreneurs whom The New York Times recently referred to as “model 21st Century capitalists.”
“Craft manufacturing,” Adam Davidson argues in the Times, bodes well for the future of production in the United States, so don’t roll your eyes at the hipsters “pickling everything in sight,” he cautions.
And indeed, Brooklyn is filled with so-called niche food producers who are making everything from beef jerky to kimchi to yes, pickles. But the obstacles are many.
Opening any small business is costly, but in New York City, the cost of living is very high, and then there is also the issue that haunts us all: rent. For Wolf, the cost of working and producing in Brooklyn was so great she decided to close up shop for a few months and move to Philadelphia.
“It got to the point where I wondered whether it was killing the company to stay in Brooklyn, it’s so expensive,” she said, after searching for the right commercial kitchen and never finding it. And so, in late 2011, Wolf moved herself, and her company, to the city of brotherly love, where she pays a quarter of the rent that she paid in Brooklyn.
Having money up-front is another hurdle that many food producers have to face. Kelly Geary, who founded and runs the jam, chutney and syrup company Sweet Deliverance, said finding a space and realizing you had to “plunk down money” early was a hardship. She created her kitchen slowly, collecting sheet trays and stock pots “one bite at a time.”
“[It's really hard] unless you have an investor or someone in your family who can lend you money,” she said.
Geary, Wolf and Sam Kim of Skimkim, which makes kimchi butter, bloody mary mix and other marinades in Brooklyn, say the amount of “red tape” involved with starting a food production business is a real drain on motivation.
“Making recipes was the easy part!” joked Wolf. “It was navigating the city and state agencies that was difficult.”
According to Kim, starting up was “frustrating” for just that reason.
“All the licenses and fees are so confusing and insurmountable,” said Kim. “I found that no one at any of the government agencies had a clue what I needed to be a legal food manufacturer.”
What you need is a food handler’s permit and a food producer’s license, which costs $400 and has to be renewed every two years. Each commercial kitchen must be inspected and certified and your company needs liability insurance.
“If you’re selling food and Johnny chokes on your muffin then [you're in trouble],” Geary joked.
According to Kim, keeping permits up to date is a “full-time job.”
“If you’re at markets, you have to go get things renewed every week. If you change kitchens, you have to renew licenses. If you add a new product or even tweak an already developed recipe, there are still hoops you have to jump through,” she said. “It’s a lot of work.”
Both Geary and Kim say there needs to be more agency interaction between the state Department of Agriculture and Markets and the Department of Health, which are both involved in the lives of food producers.
Finding suitable space for your business is also an obstacle. A commercial kitchen is necessary for producing a high volume of your product, but can be very hard to find. While Geary had no problems finding suitable space, both Kim and Wolf have gone through many different spaces.
Wolf said the fact that so many spaces were unsuitable for her was part of the reason why she moved her business to Philadelphia.
PRODUCT DEVELOPMENT AND MARKETING
Creating the right product is difficult. As Kim says, “Just because your friends tell you your potato salad is amazing and that you can sell it, doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.”
Coming up with good ideas, and then adapting to the changing tastes of your customer base is something that artisan food companies think about often. Your product has to be distinct, and not easily made at home, says Kim.
“The pickling craze should chill out,” she added.
“That’s the key in NYC,” she said. “Different sets you apart.”
But beyond the actual recipes, self-promotion and in part, collaboration, is key to building a fan base, and thus a profitable product. Geary says marketing Sweet Deliverance and investigating the competition was actually the most difficult aspect of starting her business.
You have to build relationships, participate in events, give your time and provide free samples, she said, in order to get yourself out there.
THE PICKLED FUTURE
Seeing the potential opportunities and profits to be made in the artisanal food movement, politicians and developers are supporting the movement and working to address the obstacles that face the producers.
In early February, Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz announced a $1.5 million grant, with support from the city Economic Development Corporation, to build a “culinary incubator” at the Williamsburg art collective 3rd Ward. The former Pfizer plant, also in Williamsburg, will soon be host to many a burgeoning Brooklyn food business. And the Greenpoint-based urban farm network Brooklyn Grange will soon build a rooftop farm on top of Building No. 3 at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, partially funded through a green infrastructure grant awarded by the NYC Department of Environmental Protection.
In November, before the exodus to Philly, Wolf and several other artisan food companies, including the Brooklyn Salsa Company and McClure’s Pickles, met with Councilmember Steve Levin, D-Brooklyn, and representatives from City Council Speaker Christine Quinn’s office, to discuss what the scene needs.
But while the city is working hard to promote the foodie scene, some say what they are doing is not enough. Producers that have already developed their ideas need support, too.
“We need more than incubator kitchens,” she said.