in late March, we hosted an intimate pop-up dinner for some of our New York friends at Brooklyn FoodWorks—a career creation platform which exists to help educate + empower culinary start-ups by providing access to high-end kitchen space, mentors + other utilities. Without their aid, launching a new business in the bustling New York market seems to be a daunting task. We were interested in learning more about Brooklyn FoodWorks, as well as their space + mission, so we met with Managing Director, Edie Feinstein, to take a deeper dive into the inner workings of a Brooklyn-based food incubator.
hg: when + how did Brooklyn FoodWorks come to be? What role in the food industry did you feel needed to be addressed with an operation such as Brooklyn FoodWorks?
edie: we started Brooklyn FoodWorks because we saw a gap in the market with the lack of tools + resources available to food entrepreneurs. We originally opened in February 2016 after receiving a grant from the city to build out our space in the historic Pfizer building. The New York City Economic Development Corporation (EDC) in conjunction with the Brooklyn Borough President’s Office put out an RFP (Request For Proposal) for a shared commercial kitchen in Brooklyn. We submitted and won the bid, and received a 1.3M grant to build out our space. Brooklyn FoodWorks recently celebrated its 1st birthday (yay!) and we hope to continue to operate as the premier kitchen incubator locally in NYC + virtually for entrepreneurs everywhere.
hg: what services do you offer to small, start-up food businesses to help propel them into such a competitive marketplace?
edie: we first walk entrepreneurs through the process of getting all of their paperwork together so that they are able to produce in our kitchen. We also have a robust mentorship program, which includes about 40 industry professionals who volunteer their time to meet with our members. These mentors are experts in a variety of fields such as finance, law, packaging, branding, marketing + social media. We are in the early days of building out a distribution system, and thinking about solutions for warehousing finished product.
"Starting a business is hard, but we try to simplify it as much as possible."
hg: your kitchens are top of the line—what are some of the tools + equipment you offer to your members that perhaps they couldn’t easily access or afford elsewhere?
edie: a huge benefit to joining a space like ours is access to commercial grade, industrial equipment. This includes large mixers (6-60 qt) and food processors (47 qt), a rotating rack Baxter oven, 30 gallon tilt skillets + a blast freezer. Beyond that, people join for the community of like minded entrepreneurs and a support network that’s hard to come by if not in a shared space like this.
hg: apart from kitchens, you also house a co-working space which allows these business owners to tackle the non-food side of business operations. Explain a bit about why this is important, especially to those just starting out in the food industry.
edie: starting a food business takes a lot of time inside + outside of the kitchen! You have to keep up production while also creating a business plan, developing relationships, ordering ingredients + packaging and pursuing sales. While you could work from home, it’s great to have a non-isolating space to take care of administrative tasks. Another big benefit of the co-working space is working alongside like-minded business owners and having the support of others while facing the challenges of starting a business. The frequent samples + snacks don’t hurt either.
hg: tell us a bit about your mentorship program + what insights it provides to your members. Who are some mentors + partners that lend their knowledge in aiding these start-ups alongside Brooklyn FoodWorks?
edie: we have an awesome mentorship program, including about 40 mentors who are experts in a range of fields like PR, marketing/branding, law, or packaging. They commit an hour per month to meet with our members in one on one sessions, which is a big help for many new businesses. Some of our mentors include Sarah Crowder for food photography, Rob Leichman for brand management and business development + Katie Klencheski for branding.
hg: with Brooklyn FoodWorks being a collaborative environment, do you notice that businesses feed off one another + help each other grow/expand into the marketplace?
edie: definitely—this is one of the biggest draws of the shared environment. We have an online forum where members can post questions + answers on any topic, which is used frequently. We host monthly member happy hours so everyone can get to know one another (although this happens organically anyway), and benefit from each others experiences. If one business is having a problem this week, there’s a good chance someone else experienced it + fixed it last month.
"We are also seeing many member businesses collaborate with one another, which is awesome."
hg: who are some “success stories” that have emerged from Brooklyn FoodWorks?
edie: we’ve been able to watch lots of businesses grow into successful companies + brands, which is really exciting. Some great ones include Zesty Z, who just started with a national distributor and Jalapa Jar, who we’ve watched open one brick + mortar kiosk and scout a second.
hg: we’re quite familiar with the Philadelphia food scene, but Brooklyn (+ New York as a whole) is at a much larger scale. What are some key factors that play into the success (or failure) of a food business in Brooklyn?
edie: the concept of a “Brooklyn made” brand is becoming popular, not just locally, but also worldwide. In turn, there are tons of cool food businesses being born here + a huge demand to match. The New York consumer market is curious and willing to spend money on local + high quality products. On the flip side, everything in New York is more expensive. Having to pay more on things like rent, storage + gas can make business margins lower and thus more risky than in other cities.
hg: what “edge” do you feel businesses linked to Brooklyn FoodWorks gain over the competition?
edie: the ability to bounce questions off of mentors and other members means that these businesses can iterate and grow at a faster clip. They have such an amazing support network, and all of us are here to cheer them on—giving them opportunities to succeed. Not many new businesses have that at the onset.
hg: are there any particulars to the area of Brooklyn where you’re based that help make this location unique?
edie: honestly, the location is quite remote, and there’s not tons in the direct area. However, that’s what allows us to have such a great space. In the greater Brooklyn area, most of our businesses are involved in the local community through things like markets + demos. There are tons of specialty food stores in Brooklyn that place an emphasis on buying locally made, small batch products, which is a great initial retail market for our CPG companies.
While the location is isolated, the building itself has become a hub for food startups in the area. We’re in the old Pfizer pharmaceutical factory, so the open floor plan is ideal for production. Lots of our businesses collaborate with other food brands in the building, and there’s a cool little community that has formed.
hg: you hosted our private pop-up dinner in your space prior to our Brooklyn opening. What other types of events do you offer? Do you offer any “workshop” type seminars?
edie: we plan frequent workshop/lecture style events for our members + the community, and also open the space up for anyone to rent to host their own events (events calendar here). Some examples of recent lectures we’ve hosted include crowdfunding + food photography, and then other events like a Malaysian pop-up dinner. Outside of our programming, anyone can rent out our private kitchen space for things like cooking classes, dinners or photoshoots. Just email firstname.lastname@example.org if you’re interested in learning more!
hg: is there any advice you’d like to pass along to those looking to start their very own Brooklyn food business?
"It isn’t easy."
With a great product idea anyone can be successful, but it’s going to take hustle + lots of hard work!