A Spate of Startups Pursue Slow Food Over Fast Cash

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It’s the fantasy of nearly every foodie who has made a particularly delectable batch of bread, baklava or bourbon barbecue sauce: Swap the soulless desk job for a Slow Food–style startup and overall edible existence. But for a growing number of New Yorkers, the dream of going into the kimchee or caramel business has become a reality—now it’s just a matter of somehow paying the bills.

“Yeah, it’s a dream,” says Bret Birnbaum, smiling wryly. In 2002 he founded Wine Cellar Sorbet with his two best friends.  He had a white-collar career many would envy, but recalls, “I was happiest when I was actually doing stuff, not managing.” So he traded it in to traffic sorbet made from wine. “It was a brand new product; it had never been done before. And it was delicious,” says Birnbaum.

The debut was greeted enthusiastically: the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal raved about the icy cabernets and sauvignon blancs. Eight years later Wine Cellar Sorbets are available in cabernet sauvignon, Champagne, mimosa, pinot noir, riesling, rose, ruby port, sake and sangria flavors and can be found in 300 stores nationwide. And Birnbaum is broke. “Completely broke” he clarifies. And alone, too: “My partner left last summer when we went through the last of the money.” Birnbaum remains passionately optimistic and his products are popular. “But sometimes I’m not sure how long we are going to make it.”

Still, these are heady days for anyone looking to make a living hawking handmade hamantaschen or bacon marmalade, and it can feel like every hipster on the L train has his own salsa startup.  The fraudulent fumblings of big business over the past few years have inspired many to strike out on their own to become their own boss. Other forces, both practical and more primal, could also be at play, according to Robert LaValva, president of the New Amsterdam Market, a platform for many such startups. He thinks that part of the hunger for the homemade is a reaction to bad news, and a desire to build something better. With every outbreak of mad cow, avian flu, E. coli and illness-enduing eggs, more people lose their appetite for faceless corporate purveyors, instead seeking out small-batch food producers they can look in the eye.

He also thinks that the entrepreneurs making scones, sauerkraut or saucisson sec are fulfilling “a subconscious desire to make things with their own hands. “Previous generations created things on a daily basis,” he explains. “People have a need to create and in modern jobs we don’t do that. Cooking is one of the last crafts left where you can create something start to finish every day.” As he puts it, the current collision of “a craftless society and a jobless society has made it appealing to go into a business where you can experience deep creative satisfaction.”

Inspiring examples of perceived satisfied success abound: Bum Bars from Luminous Kitchens getting the nod from Cook’s Illustrated; salty-sweet Early Bird Granola called out on the Martha Stewart show; the icy artisanal treats of People’s Pops featured in mainstream mags like Bon Appétit; the tiny-batch confections of Liddabit Sweets getting multipage spreads in Oprah Magazine and the bean-to-bar chocolates of the bearded Mast Brothers used in the exalted kitchens of Blue Hill and the French Laundry. But such accolades don’t always translate into prompt profits.

“It starts out with all the euphoria of a new relationship,” says Birnbaum. “Everyone thinks you have the coolest job in the world. It’s a rock star fantasy.” He says the cachet of cool that goes along with being a food entrepreneur gets you lots of friends, makes you minorly famous and even gets you laid. But good luck paying your suppliers and distributors with indie cred. “At the end of the day it’s about dollars and cents,” he shrugs. And making the leap from spending your weekends selling chocolates under a tent to a full-time career is no game of Candyland.

“We’ve spent a lot of time in our van with melting popsicles,” says Nathalie Jordi, who founded People’s Pops with her high school prom date and his roommate. It happened in a heartbeat when Jordi was offered a booth at the first New Amsterdam Market. She was working at a cooking school in Ireland and swooped into town for three days enlisting two friends to help out. They made 290 fruit- and herb-flavored popsicles in flavors like watermelon-basil and blueberry-cardamom and “sold out immediately.” Three years later the business has grown, with regular appearances at New Amsterdam, a pop-up shop on the Highline and a seasonal spot in the brickand-mortar Chelsea Market. But a rainy day can devastate a week’s numbers and even sunny days can be treacherous for icy inventory: “New York can be a difficult place to do business, just in terms of having production space and transporting things.” Jordi and her partners have gotten used to spending their days from dawn to midnight spattered in raspberry juice and stamping pop sticks until all hours.

“Almost nothing turns out the way that you think it will,” laughs Tim McCollum of Madecasse Chocolates, a single origin bean-to-bar chocolate that works with cocoa and vanilla bean growers in Madagascar, where he served as a Peace Corps volunteer. The products are beloved from Balducci’s to Zabar’s, and the buck doesn’t stop here; because Madecasse makes the finished product in Madagascar—rather than just exporting raw ingredients—the business generates four times more income for the local community there than even fairtrade programs. But this model also poses unique challenges, including shipping highly meltable products from calescent climes. “So much of being a small business is about being flexible and being able to adapt on the fly. We bootstrapped this thing from our own pockets—which were already empty.”

But he and partner Brett Beach, who also served in the Peace Corps there, remain driven by passion. Indeed, passion is the main ingredient common to every last edible startup in town, a group that’s decidedly more DIY than MBA. Take Rick Field—before starting the now famous, Lower East Side–headquartered Rick’s Picks, he was an obsessed and prize-winning home pickler who spent his days doing documentary work for Bill Moyers. When he lost that job he found himself “at the proverbial crossroads and took the leap.” You know, the proverbial leap into pickledom.

Liz Gutman and Jen King of Liddabit Sweets took a similar leap, one that applied DIY gastrosensibility to the kinds of items more commonly found in vending machines. The pair met in the pastry program at the French Culinary Institute and decided “the world was severely lacking in artisanal candy bars,” says Gutman as she pours a molten mixture of hibiscus and agave into candy molds in the commercial kitchen space they share with passionate peers McClure pickles and the kitchen CSA Sweet Deliverance. “We thought it would be fun to sell some of our candy on the weekends.”

Things took off quickly with customers literally eating up Liddabits’ hyper-local artisanal caramels and addictive “Snacker” bars, and the business quickly became, well, a business. The almostinstant fame seems fabulous; less fab is the grueling sourcing, baking, packaging, labeling, delivering and marketing all on their own.  Or the entire month of December when the holiday rush meant the women literally slept in their (unheated) kitchen to keep up with demand. “We were up all night before the New Amsterdam Christmas market making chocolate bars,” says Gutman. “And then in the morning Jen dug out the car using a hotel pan as a snow shovel.”

Gutman and King say the little confection company is incredibly rewarding—but acknowledge the financial realities can be harsh. “It’s hard to get used to working this hard and still not having any money,” allows King. They still aren’t paying themselves regular salaries and spent the spring balancing small business classes with creating their culinary confections. “The business part is what keeps me awake at night,” says Gutman. And as it turns out, lying awake in a cozy bed thinking about cash flow and business budgets is even less fun than working all night over a hot vat of candy.

Indeed the intensity of a startup can be overwhelming. “It’s all Early Bird all the time,” laughs Nekisia Davis about the olive-oilcoated, oaty, nutty granola she bakes, packages and often delivers with her own two hands. “There’s almost no moment of the day where I’m not doing something for the business. And I smell like granola ALL the time.” When Davis started delegating some of her Manhattan deliveries, she found that she missed that interaction.  Handmade, heartfelt food is such an intimate, personal affair; handing off even the smallest details can be difficult.

“The most shocking part of it is how all-encompassing and personal it is,” agrees Betsy Devine of Salvatore Bklyn, who makes the crazily good, life-alteringly rich, milky, slightly citrusy ricotta with (business and life) partner Rachel Mark. Devine and Mark were inspired to start the business after an encounter with Italian ricotta maker Salvatore Farina while vacationing in Italy. When they returned home they missed the dense, creamy yet acidic curds and decided to recreate the cheese using New York State ingredients. “It’s fun and exciting but in the beginning it’s so close to your heart, so personal, so completely all-consuming.” Three years into the business “it’s now kind of like a beloved friend in the room, which is kind of a nice development because it gets exhausting otherwise. You need to be able to step away and let your product live in the world.” Which it does; the stuff has garnered a cult following at Murray’s Cheese and Saxelby Cheesemongers.

Rick’s Picks’ success is also an inspiration to many aspiring entrepreneurs, but he admits it ain’t always easy. “Running a small business requires a certain amount of comfort floating in a sense of unease,” he muses. “And it’s all about the middle. The beginning is easy, exciting and new. And the end, whether it’s failure or the big buyout, isn’t something that you should be focusing on because you lose track of the day-to-day building.”

The middle is often where small businesses falter, since scaling up is not always the path to solvency. Take Whole Foods: A spot on their shelves would seem to be the ideal launch pad for a natural food product. But “the margins in retail are super low,” says Ben Van Leeuwen, who drew on his past as a Good Humor truck driver when he started his artisanal ice cream company with his now trademark buttery yellow Van Leeuwen Artisanal Ice Cream trucks filled with flavors like Earl Grey, hazelnut and a subtle (and not green) mint chip, and says they still generate the bulk of the company’s profits, despite his coveted spot in the organic supermarket’s freezer cases in this area. “It would sure be glamorous and fun to be available nationwide” he says “but it’s just not a brilliant business model for us.”

“Everyone thinks that once you are in Whole Foods you have it made,” echoes Doug Cullen of Luminous Kitchens, whose Bum Bars, bejeweled with chocolate chips, dried fruits and nuts, are sold in the supermarket as well as yoga studios and health food stores nationwide. “But when it’s there, you are competing with all these other products. You have to do demos and support the product.”

Which is why Birnbaum spends his weekends shilling spoonfuls of sorbet: “It’s great to be in Whole Foods, but the product doesn’t sell itself.” With a freezer aisle filled with familiar brands and flavors, is a customer going to go with chocolate or take a chance on a pinot noir? But once people have a taste, they often buy; Birnbaum has found that personally getting potential customers to taste the product, one by one, is the one true way. That’s difficult when your stores are 3,000 miles away. “I’m thinking of scaling back and pulling out of the Rocky Mountains and Texas,” says Birnbaum. “Getting back to grassroots and doing things I can support.”

Field has found other issues with marketing to clientele beyond the boroughs. “One thing I would change if I was starting now,” he muses, “is that I would focus less on the hyperliterate names—like Phat Beets,” his tangy-sweet pickled beets which are kissed with rosemary, ginger and lemon. “That name works at the Greenmarket when I’m talking to you, but will Mabel from North Dakota get that reference when it’s on her local supermarket shelf?”

But none of these entrepreneurs is looking to be the next Mrs.  Fields or Ben and Jerry’s. Part of what sets this artisan boomlet apart from other startups is that the goal is to make a living—not a killing. “I really have no interest in selling popsicles in January,” says Jordi, who spends the off-season as a food and travel writer.

Cullen echoes the sentiment, saying he isn’t looking to make a million from his Bum Bars. “My goals are definitely not to become as big as possible,” says the sometime massage therapist and musician, who sees his food business as just part of what he does.  “Really it’s just a way for me to do what I want to do and enjoy my life while making some money.”

And even Birnbaum has few regrets. Sure, he has fond recollections of the six-figure salary and luxury Manhattan co-op of his pre-entrepreneurship life. “And this has been really humbling. If I didn’t have the family network and support that I have I would be seriously looking at homelessness, which isn’t where I thought that I’d be at this stage in my life. But as bad as things get, I still believe in the product. I’ll get a random e-mail from a total stranger saying ‘that’s the coolest thing I’ve ever tasted, thank you so much for making it.’ That’s the best feeling. That’s what you have to do it for.”

Photo credit: Michael Gross

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