Inside Brooklyn’s Bustling Lab for Food StartupsAt Foodworks in Bed-Stuy, entrepreneurs are cooking up new ideas by the hundreds. And they don't have to do the dishes
A blast chiller, which cools food rapidly from high cooking temperatures to just above freezing, is not something you’d find in the average home. They can cost $10,000, after all. But for a budding food entrepreneur, a blast chiller is a coveted tool for getting perishable products to market quickly and safely. On a recent morning at Foodworks Brooklyn, Glenn Licht, the owner of Pescatore Seafood Co., was blast-chilling a heap of lobsters in preparation for taking them to his food stall at Grand Central Terminal.
Founded in 2016, Foodworks is a co-working space for food startups, a culinary incubator. For fees ranging from $300 to $2,000 a month, members can try out their ideas in a professional-grade kitchen, while benefiting from advice about how to build a business and get their products into the marketplace. The 120 members at the space, nearly its full capacity, are focused primarily on creating foods, condiments and drinks with a level of specificity that is rarely seen in major brands. Auria’s Malaysian Kitchen makes kaya, a creamy spread made of coconut milk, eggs, and cane sugar. Swig+Swallow, founded by mixologist April Wechtel, produces cocktail mixers conveniently packed in half-filled bottles so consumers can just add liquor. Tyme Fast Food is healthy fare in the express lane, offering vegan salads packed in plastic mason jars.
Of the 345 new products that have been launched at Foodworks, several have been celebrated success stories. One is Zesty Z, started by the mother-son duo Lorraine and Alexander Harik, who produce a brand of Mediterranean condiment za’atar now available in Whole Foods and other stores around the U.S. Pop Pasta created the spaghetti donut, based on the Neapolitan spaghetti pie, which caused a sensation at street fairs and was dubbed a “novelty food gone nuclear.” Malai Ice Cream, the creation of entrepreneur Pooja Bavishi, has landed its spiced flavors on “best ice cream” lists.
Yet not all the food emerging from Foodworks is for people. Smalls, founded by Matt Michaelson, makes bespoke, high-quality cat food. He and co-founder Calvin Bohn saw a market opportunity in the gap between foodie obsession and the laissez-faire attitude towards pet food, especially cat food. “There’s a laundry list of issues, but the biggest ones are diets that are high in grains and other carbohydrates, mystery meat derived from a process a human would never feel comfortable with, and preservatives and thickening agents that have known carcinogenic properties,” Michaelson told The Bridge. “All of our ingredients are human grade.”
How It Got Started
Foodworks, which was launched with a $1.3 million grant from the Brooklyn borough president’s office and coordinated by the city’s Economic Development Corp., is situated in a former Pfizer pharmaceutical plant at 630 Flushing Ave. in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. The location and the setup of the for-profit venture, which earmarks a portion of its budget to support low-income members, was designed to provide job opportunities. The building “could have been condos,” said City Council member Stephen Levin at the ribbon-cutting ceremony. “We’re going to support small business, small manufacturing. The city needs to be doing more of this.” Eighty-four percent of Foodworks startups are owned by women and minorities.
The current operators of Foodworks, engineer Michael Dee and designer Nick Devane, came to their roles in a roundabout way. The entrepreneurs wanted to help people sell home-made food, so they self-funded the launch of an app, Homemade. They managed to raise venture capital, but after a year in operation, they decided that they had the wrong approach. “We reached the conclusion that the food entrepreneurs that we were serving were not best served by an iPhone app,” Dee recalls. In fact, those people wanted to graduate out of cooking in their home, yearning for a professional space without breaking the bank in rentals. So, when Dinner Lab, the company originally responsible for the launch of Foodworks, ran into financial trouble, Dee and Devane took over the long-term lease. Devane is now CEO and Dee is CTO.
As anyone who watches TV cooking competitions would know, chefs need the right tools. Foodworks consists of 16 workstations, most of them equipped with two ovens, a grill and one piece of specialized equipment that is different in each station, like a fryer or a griddle. The test kitchen is a more finely decorated space, directly connected to a dining room and meeting space, which is rented to businesses putting on a show or a class. A vegan cooking school from Los Angeles based its classes at Foodworks for six weeks, for example, and a butcher taught weekly classes for a month, using a pig carcass as a prop (the fridges would not fit a side of beef).
The baking center is equipped with ovens specific to the task, while a temperature-controlled room accommodates two ice-cream machines. There’s a rotisserie pit too, mainly used by caterers. In the WeWork-style lobby, with couches and communal tables, the members type away at their laptops, taking care of the administrative part of their business. So what’s missing? “If we had a bottling line, it would be amazing,” Dee says, since the beverage-oriented businesses still have to bottle their products by hand.
The application is fairly long. Other than asking the standard business questions, the Foodworks partners try to get an in-depth knowledge of the applicant’s backstory. “This is a community space, we want people that are going to be positive members,” Dee said. “We try to weed out people who are not serious about having a food business, because even if they have the money, that’s not the vibe that we want.” There are certain certifications necessary as well: the Food Handlers License and Food Protection Certificate are requirements of the city Department of Health. FoodWorks operates under a shared-kitchen license, so each tenant is required to have the documentation up to date.
The interview process includes a tasting. Alex Harik of Zesty Z recalls a “shark-tank-style interview,” for which he and his mother brought their za’atar condiment alongside a baguette, a wheel of cheese, popcorn and fresh dough to make flatbread. The tasting, however, is just part of the process. “We are looking at the product, but we are more interested in the person. You can always do recipe development and make it better,” says Dee.
The Benefits of Membership
Among the many perks of being a Foodworks member, the most celebrated is the mentorship program. The Foodworks managers offer a variety of expertise. CEO Devane is good at fundraising and can help hone a pitch to potential investors, while Dee is more focused on web design. General manager Charlie Mirisola is more focused on the kitchen, teaching skills such as knife-handling, which have proved to be particularly useful to those who don’t come from a food background and who just learned how to wield knives “from their mom,” he said. Beyond the formal mentorship, “there is a lot of shared information,” says April Wachtel from Swig+Swallow, explaining that members learn a lot from one another. And yet what Dee touts as one of the best perks is the dish pit. “We do the dishes!” he said. “You are expected to get them somewhat clean but we take care of it.” (The provide linens and take out the trash as well.)
With membership running close to capacity, Foodworks gets crowded in the daytime, but thins out a bit at night, which is especially convenient for bakers. Of the original class who enrolled when Foodworks launched, 60% are still active members. The managing partners have plans to spread the concept to the city’s other four boroughs and outside the city as well. Already they’ve launched outposts in Newark, Providence and Portland, Maine.