The Brooklyn food industry may be booming, but as anyone in the industry can tell you, starting a food business is no piece of cake. This past winter Brooklyn FoodWorks took up residence in the old Pfizer building in Williamsburg, with the goal of providing a kitchen and mentorship to new food entrepreneurs. Recently, Hungry sat down with Drew Barrett, President of Brooklyn FoodWorks, to discuss the challenges that food business owners must overcome and how an incubator can help them jump the hurdles.
HM: What is Brooklyn FoodWorks?
DB: Brooklyn FoodWorks is a platform for launching small and upcoming food businesses. We’re based out of Brooklyn and have over 10,000 square feet of commercial kitchen space, organized into rentable kitchen pods which bakers, caterers, and specialty food makers can use in a flexible, economically advantageous way. We offer back-of-the-house services, like dishwashing, as well as mentorship and education on the business end of things, all in order to promote the overall growth of business in as many ways as we possibly can.
HM: How did Brooklyn FoodWorks get started?
DB: Brooklyn FoodWorks is a project done in conjunction with the Brooklyn Borough President’s Office and the New York City Economic Development Corporation, which provided $1.3 million for the project. The city originally identified this as an opportunity for economic development, and we were formed in response to a request for proposals to build this incubator for the benefit of the city and its residents.
There was a huge need for specifically this kind of accessible, flexible kitchen asset. There’s a lot of individual curiosity and interest around the food business in the city and especially here in Brooklyn. The capital costs and education requirements, however, are prohibitive for a lot of people. We’re a valuable resource for the city and the community.
HM: Why Brooklyn?
DB: There’s a movement here to provide more local, handcrafted food. And where we are, in central Brooklyn, we can pull from different communities and bring a nice diversity of cuisine to the city’s food scene. It’s a real microcosm for the entire city.
HM: Quite a few new food incubators have popped up recently—is this the way of the future? Are you worried about over saturation?
DB: We’re definitely seeing a larger wave of shared kitchen models across the country. But, given the density of New York City, we’re still underserved. We have 60 members now, and we’re only 5 months old. We’re looking to add 40 more members over the next few months.
In a high cost, high rent city like New York, it really can be prohibitive to risk opening a small food business. We serve a huge need in the community, and allow people to follow their passion. They can take a hobby and make it into a full time business that is fulfilling and sustainable.
HM: What stage are your members at? What challenges are they facing?
DB: Often, when they’re looking at a facility like ours, their struggle is with initial capital. A long term lease or a big security deposit on rent for a commercial kitchen space could run tens of thousands of dollars.
We can help them scale up. Our membership is flexible—options start at 10 and go up to 200 hours a month. So we can help out whether you’re in the earlier or later stages of your business. We promote education as well. Our success stories are fledgling businesses, usually 12-24 months in, and we help them build their business until ultimately they can get a space on their own.
HM: Can anyone join? Do you vet your members?
DB: There is a selection process. Prospective members apply through our website, then there’s the informational phone call. We try to understand where they are in their business lifecycle. There’s a tasting, an interview with our team where we go over their business model, product, and strategy. They don’t have to be in the market necessarily, but if there are some sales that’s nice to see. If they’re brand new, that’s exciting as well. We look for drive and commitment that the member will really leverage the resources we have at Brooklyn FoodWorks.
HM: Can you talk more about the mentorship program?*
DB: It’s a fantastic resource for our members. We offer a diversity of mentorship resources from food photography to social media, legal advice and packaging. Mentors hold office hours and coaching sessions that members can sign up for to get key questions answered at a high level. We’re also starting larger format classes on different challenges, which will be open to members as well as the community at large.
HM: Are food incubators the only way to go then? Is it feasible to go on your own?
DB: It is feasible. The challenge becomes, though, the increase costs and longer time getting to market. Our program has a mentorship-heavy and education-heavy approach. Otherwise, you’re resorting to the internet and getting conflicting information. We are trying to pull the necessary resources to expedite and accelerate the process for someone who has an idea to get to market faster and cheaper. We foster the rapid prototyping of ideas, so you’re not stuck spinning your wheels for months at a time. You have the answers right at your fingertips.
HM: What’s your best piece of advice for someone starting a food business?
DB: Make sure you have a product that is fitting a market need. A passion for the product is a definite assumption but you need to ask, are you adding value and differentiating your product or service? And further, are you doing so in a thoughtful way? Keep this in mind when you’re developing a business model.
*Hungry Marketing serves as a marketing mentor at Brooklyn FoodWorks.