Brooklyn Startup Kitchen Gets a Pre-Holiday Rescue

Pilotworks, which closed suddenly in October, will reopen under new management, a food-and-beverage incubator called Nursery

Adam Melonas, the innovative Boston-area chef whose firm Nursery plans to re-open the food-startup incubator (Photo courtesy of Nursery)

On Oct. 13, when the abrupt shutdown of the Brooklyn community kitchen on Flushing Avenue called Pilotworks occurred, the survival of nearly 200 small businesses was suddenly put in peril. Without warning, the Pilotworks management sent a mass email to its members about the closure, and ordered anyone on the premises to cease cooking and leave the building. The announcement came just as the all-important fourth quarter, which includes the holiday season, had begun.

In the aftermath, the Pilotworks castoffs banded together, assisting each other in finding any cooking space they could to keep their businesses afloat. Other community kitchens throughout the area offered help as well.

But this past weekend, just as out-of-the-blue as the shutdown itself, former members began receiving emails welcoming them back to the Pilotworks space in an old Pfizer pharmaceutical factory. The messages were from Nursery, a food-and-beverage incubator founded by Adam Melonas and his team at Chew, a food innovation lab in Cambridge, Mass.

“Ahead of the busy holiday season, Nursery has prioritized the immediate restoration of kitchen operations as quickly as possible,” said a statement from the company, released yesterday. Though details about the community kitchen’s rates were not disclosed, “Nursery plans to reopen kitchens later this week, pending final permit approval,” according to the statement.

Former Pilotworks member Anjali Bhargava, the founder of Bija Bhar, which produces a turmeric-based elixr, told The Bridge in an email that she is meeting with Nursery on Thursday to enroll. “I look forward to seeing folks back in the kitchen and hope this will help many businesses recover and get things going while we’re still in the 4th quarter,” she wrote. She also said the news came as “a huge relief” to her because the space housed “an essential piece of equipment” she’d grown reliant upon.

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Back in October, the startup kitchen was abruptly closed, with resident companies getting only a few days to clear out (Photo by Michael Stahl)

Chef Rootsie, another displaced Pilotworks member who runs Veggie Grub, a vegan catering service, said in a text message to The Bridge last night: “Yes I’m going back, and extremely excited!”

“We feel so honored to open our doors to this wonderful and inspiring community of makers who are not only disrupting the food and beverage industry, but also helping to create the future of how and what we consume,” Melonas said in the statement. “We understand the abrupt closing of the facility by the previous owners has caused real hardship and pain for many, and we have been inspired by the community’s support of those impacted, as well as the resilience of everyone affected.”

While no one from Nursery was available for comment yesterday, a lengthy Boston Globe Magazine profile of Melonas in June described him as operating out of a “secretive Fenway lab,” adding, “the man who views himself as a modern-day Willy Wonka is reimagining food for the future.” The profile describes how the Australian native criss-crossed the globe from London to Beijing learning from master chefs, including a stint in the kitchen of El Bulli, the now-closed Catalonian restaurant of the legendary Ferran Adria, before launching into the creation of innovative foods for major corporations.

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Melonas’s LinkedIn profile says he founded Nursery over a year ago, with a business address listed in Cambridge. Nursery’s terse website simply describes the company as “A CPG (consumer packaged goods) playground where we turn crazy ideas into companies.” The former Pilotworks kitchen appears to be the company’s first brick-and-mortar startup incubator.

The statement announcing the occupation of the Pilotworks space concluded with an outline of Chew’s credentials, saying it boasts “an innovation team of world-class chefs and scientists on a mission to democratize good food & beverage,” and that the company’s “client list is made up of the world’s largest and most influential food and beverage companies and progressive startups.”

 

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A member of the facility at one of its 16 workstations, back when it was still called Foodworks

“Through these partnerships, Chew has created more than 1,400 products,” the statement also said.

While former Pilotworks members expressed enthusiasm about the facility’s reopening, they have reason to be wary as well. In the months leading up to the facility’s sudden closure, there were signs of poor management, including potential unwise use of funds and other indiscretions, as The Bridge reported in October.

Melonas said in the Nursery statement that his company wishes to build trust with its tenants, especially the Pilotworks members, and be more than a “de-facto landlord.”

“We are here to add exponential value to this community and ensure we are working with wildly passionate entrepreneurs, and turning them into viable and impactful companies,” Melonas said.

Some former Pilotworks members have already moved operations elsewhere, however. April Wacthel, founder of Swig + Swallow, which produces bottled cocktail mixers, said in a Facebook message that she has been working out of “her own space, but I wish them the very best.” Andy Barbera, founder of Keto-Snaps, a low-sugar cookie, told The Bridge last night that he’s been working out of the Hana Kitchens location in Sunset Park’s Industry City, which had reached out to Pilotworks members after the shutdown.

Though Barbera said he received no invitation from Nursery to return to the Pfizer building, he called the new incubator’s opening “great news.”

“I’ll bet there are a lot of people that will jump on that” opportunity, he added.

Anke Albert, who owns Anke’s Fit Bakery, told The Bridge this morning that she, for one, will return to the Pilotworks space, though perhaps with a tinge of reservation. In October she told The Bridge, “People had a feeling something was off with Pilotworks,” but in a text this morning wrote of Nursery: “They seem to be a very organized group of professionals. The whole catastrophe might have been for the better. We’ll see.”

Michael Stahl is a freelance writer and editor. A former high school English teacher, he has written for Rolling Stone, Vice, the Village Voice, Narratively, Splitsider, Outside Magazine and other publications.