About five years ago, when I would wonder what gifts to bring people from Brooklyn on holidays, my thoughts suddenly always went to food. McClure’s bloody mary mix for mom, NuNu Chocolates for grandma, a bottle of Kings County Distillery corn whiskey to encourage my sister to drink more. This seemed like an easy way to carve off a slice of Brooklyn and dole it out as a unique gift, a missive from the mini world within the world we call home. It was also a sign of the marketing success of the Brooklyn artisanal boom (for lack of a less gag-inducing phrase), when every month we were treated to new success stories of an entrepreneur who started out with just a mixing bowl and a tiny kitchen. It was a sign that the local economy, here in New York City, Real America, where we buy each other’s pickles and tickets to each other’s concerts, was doing just fine.
But the Brooklyn artisanal bubble might finally be popping in one big, locally sourced, non-GMO bubble. The narrative about the small businesses that attract celebs to far-flung neighborhoods or sprout from a small batch of offerings on a flea market table is evolving into a typical New York story: Real estate prices stand in the way of all our dreams.
The foodie bubble, for what it’s worth, is a palimpsest of how Brooklyn has changed over the years: starting a few years ago, the place once known for diner cheesecake and legendary pizza recipes was becoming known for having an artisanal mayonnaise store and roof-farmed honey. It became the new thing to mock Brooklyn over, replacing jabs about fedoras and fixie bikes. So for the sake of avoiding more hack jokes from Jimmy Kimmel and the like, maybe it’s a good thing the bubble burst. But it also did produce a lot of jobs for real people and foster the inspiration that one day, anyone with a Kickstarter page, a test kitchen and a pop-up shop could also see their product on the shelves at Whole Foods.
— Crain's New York (@CrainsNewYork) May 31, 2016
Those real people include the local businesses written about in the cover story in Crain’s, out this week (with our name on the cover too!), which talks about Brooklyn’s small food operators getting squeezed out by prices and regulations.
“It’s like operating in a business hospice,” Allison Robicelli, co-owner of an eight-year-old cupcake company, Robicelli’s, told the magazine of working in Brooklyn. “We’re all sitting here waiting for the end.”
When her shop first announced its closing in October, Robicelli told us in October that “the truth is, we can’t have a business here anymore. Profit margins are projected to continue to decrease for our industry, the young talent is starting to skip NYC entirely and heading to second-market cities where they can afford a living on a cook’s salary, taxes and utilities continue to rise.”
The Crain’s story cites other cases like this, from Liddabit Sweets (still operating) to SCRATCHbread (which closed in the fall, despite lines out the door). They combine to make the case that that NYC is a great test kitchen to try out your new product, with lots of food fairs, media coverage and food culture surrounding you at every turn to help grow an audience. But scaling up and adding mid-sized production can be near impossible in a city of huge rents, little unclaimed space and complicated shipping needs.
To handle those things you can always seek outside money, but that has its own perils. Roberta’s, once used as the media mascot for quirky new Brooklyn restaurant outposts, found this out last week when news broke on Eater it was accepting an investment from a member of the Tisch family, owners of both the multi-billion-dollar Loews hotel corporation and the New York Giants. The deal is likely worth millions of dollars, and already caused a rift among the staff: 20 or more employees have quit over the investment. It’s unclear exactly what the owners of the pizza shop will do with the money, but the employees who quit told Eater they didn’t like the move away from the creative, family-like work environment (and reputation for partying). In short, they’re accusing Roberta’s of selling out.
The Crain’s story and the Roberta’s news boil down to the same thing: growing up as a small business is hard, especially in New York City, where growing up for anyone is hard. I’m sure there’s some diehards who argued Roberta’s sold out long ago when it appeared on Girls, or when it sold its pizza in the frozen section of Whole Foods, but it was certainly nothing on this scale. Plenty of people will argue that the word “artisanal” has been baked in the oven so long it’s lost all flavor, taste and form, or that lots of people slapping the words “Brooklyn” on a label is just cashing in on the cachet of the borough without actually adding to it, and they’re probably right in some cases. But we’ll leave that argument for another post; for now let’s look at the very real economic foodie bubble that has expanded in recent years, and whether it’s doomed.
If you’re a small food maker in Brooklyn, whose very presence in Brooklyn is part of your appeal to locavores and FOMOvores (people who buy Brooklyn products elsewhere in the country), what’s your next step to grow? Like Robicelli’s, some businesses just got sick of it and are leaving town for cheaper pastures where the competition isn’t so intense outside the city.
But then, what of the Brooklyn “brand” we’ve heard so much about these past few years? The Crain’s story ends with this observation from Gaia DiLoreto, owner of By Brooklyn, a cute shop on Smith Street in Carroll Gardens that shut down last month, where I once might have gone to buy some of those aforementioned Brooklyn-made gifts. Part of the reason she closed is because of decreased foot traffic on Smith Street, which has seen a rash of closings in recent years, more small businesses made victims to real estate prices. But part of it was that “Brooklyn” products are now carried the world over.
“For a lot of people,” she told Crain’s, having “Brooklyn” on a package “captured an authenticity and a genuine goodness that people were missing.” But eventually, “people weren’t surprised anymore. We lost some of the shininess of Brooklyn.”