Saturday, June 19, 2010

Young Food Entrepreneurs

(Post: English)
" This is my investment in the future right now," said Fabiana Lee, 26, an interior designer who lost her job in 2009. She has been selling at the Greenpoint Food Market, Brooklyn, since its inception in October. After experimenting with cookies (too much competition), she has pared her offerings down to two: gorgeously browned empanadas and irresistibly twee "cake pops", golf-ball-size rounds of cake perched on lollipop sticks. At the moment, they are her main source of income. "

Young, college-educated, Internet-savvy, unemployed and hoping to find a place in the food world outside the traditional route, she is typical of the city's dozens of new food entrepreneurs.

As the next generation of cooks comes of age, it seems that many might bypass restaurant kitchens altogether.

Instead, they see themselves driving trucks full of artisanal cheese around the country, founding organic breweries, bartering vegan pâtés for grass-fed local beef, or (most often) making it big in baking as the next Magnolia Bakery.

Joann Kim, 26, who organizes the market, cited the intersection of the economic downturn and the rise of the local artisanal food movement as reasons for the recent flowering of small culinary start-ups.

Aspiring cooks (and the adventurous eaters who love them) come face to face at markets like this one, which are opening and expanding at a brisk pace.

The Brooklyn Flea, the Hester Street Fair and the soon-to-reopen New Amsterdam Market have become tasting destinations, where handmade food is as much of a fetish as vintage Ray-Bans or bargello pillowcases.

The all-food Greenpoint market, which is open to home cooks of all stripes, is one-stop shopping: Mexican-Indian tacos, artisanal soda pop, roof-grown produce, exotic chili peppers, long-brined pickles, Taiwanese street food and retro-Southern snacks under one roof.

"I feel like I'm at a science fair and I get to eat all the experiments," said Erin Massey, a Chicago native who lives in Brooklyn. "It's like going to a music festival with all the different bands, only here it's different kinds of kombucha."

There were almost 50 vendors. Many had been up since dawn, rolling rice balls, filling containers with waffle batter, crimping pie crusts. In headscarves, retro-chic aprons and all manner of eyewear, they skidded around the crowded basement, jockeying for electrical outlets and space.

"We do whatever it takes," said Nicole Asselin, who brought tiny pies filled with organic rhubarb, chocolate chip cookies (to be warmed in the hot-pink oven) and logs of butter mashed with wild ramps that she had gathered in Vermont.

Each vendor had paid $25 to $50 for a table. The cash they earned was theirs to keep. At $4 an ice pop or $3 an empanada, the margins on many products seemed high, but some of the vendors who have been operating without official certification may soon see their profits shrink.

On May 28, the New York Department of Health confirmed that all food vendors in the city must have a food handling permit, and may use only approved commercial kitchens.

Renting space in a commercial kitchen costs about $200 for eight hours. For some vendors like Ms. Lee, who is in the process of getting her permit, that would mean the difference between making a small profit and just breaking even on a day at the market.

Some of the vendors were amateurs there on a lark, to earn brownie bragging rights and a little spending money.

But for many, the stakes were much higher. In these markets, cooks like Laena McCarthy of Anarchy in a Jar, who makes extraordinary preserves from local fruit, have a shot at developing a viable food business without working with a commercial processor, such as the large food companies that she deems "evil agribusiness warlords."

(Her company's motto is "The Revolution Starts in Your Mouth.") Ms. McCarthy's jams have recently been picked up for sale by a Whole Foods store in Manhattan; for her, and others, a national distribution deal is the dream.

But for now, most of the vendors have a "day job" of some kind. Ms. McCarthy works as a librarian and teaches library science. Ms. Asselin is a pastry chef at Marlow & Sons in Williamsburg. Jun Aizaki, who makes Japanese rice balls called onigiri, wrapped in and scented with banana leaves, has designed the interiors of New York restaurants such as Rayuela and Macondo.

Two eminent but unemployed pastry chefs - Fany Gerson and Hannah Goldberg - banded together to start La Newyorkina, making delicious Mexican-style paletas, or ice pops, in flavors like mango, guava and horchata (cinnamon-rice).

They have been selling outdoors at the new Hester Street Fair, and handed out mini-paletas to children to draw their parents in.

"If we first build a following at the markets and online," Ms. Goldberg said, "then we can get the money to open a storefront that much more easily."

Professionals like Ms. Goldberg say that a commitment to marketing, packaging and general hustling are as important - or more so - as kitchen skills. Twitter, Facebook, Etsy, Tumblr and Blogspot are important for spreading the word; so are the city's many new amateur cooking contests, like the Brooklyn Pie Bake-Off; so are food shops with a commitment to local artisans, like Blue Apron Foods in Park Slope and the Northern Spy Food Company in the East Village.

Ms. Lee is still deciding whether her business, La Tía Faby, will focus on empanadas or cake pops. Growing up in Buenos Aires, she said, she set her sights early on a life in New York City.

"I was used to being the only Asian girl at school," said Ms. Lee, whose parents were born in South Korea and now own a knitwear company in Argentina; she is fluent in English, Spanish and Korean.

"But I loved the mix of people and food in New York." Ms. Lee said that her mother, who served steak with kimchi on many nights, taught her the basics of cooking, both Argentine and Asian.

Ms. Lee's chorizo and kimchi empanadas with Korean glass noodles are pleated down the edge, like huge Chinese dumplings; the spinach and mushroom version is folded like a fortune cookie.

Ms. Lee moved to New York to study interior design at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn; when she graduated in 2006, she quickly found a job at a downtown firm. But in early 2009, she said, the effects of the stock market downturn began to hit.

"It was almost a relief when I got laid off like everyone else," she said. "Better than sitting at my desk waiting for it to happen." Then she spotted an online open call for vendors at the Greenpoint market.

Ms. Lee is still unemployed, but she has never worked harder, she said, trying to build a viable business one bite at a time.

The day before the Greenpoint market, in her sixth-floor walkup in Chelsea, Ms. Lee folded hundreds of empanadas and painstakingly decorated dozens of cake pops to look like pale yellow chicks, using sprinkles and edible inks she orders from online candy suppliers.

(Cake pops and cake balls, made by mixing fresh cake crumbs with frosting, then dipping balls of the mixture into "candy melt" for a smooth, Ring-Ding-like coating, are up-to-the-minute successors to the no longer trendy cupcake.)

"Transportation is by far the biggest stress," said Ms. Lee, who must travel by subway or taxi to Greenpoint; there are many casualties among the empanadas.

But her wares have always sold out, so far. All day at the market, women exclaimed over the cake pops and asked about custom orders for baby showers and birthday parties; only a few of these inquiries have ever panned out.

She took home about $500 in cash, having sold out by 3 p.m.

One of the charms of the food-market scene is an Old World sense of cozy community: everyone seems to know one another. But this also means a race to capture shoppers before somebody else does.

At Greenpoint, two vendors of kombucha were stationed right across from each other, and there was more than one seller of pickles, fizzy drinks and gluten-free muffins.

"I didn't know there would be another granola," said Alex Crosier of Granola Lab, eyeballing the competition for her ginger-molasses and cranberry-cashew mixtures.

At the end of the day, said Ms. Asselin, the vendors are very tired, very thirsty (much of the food is very sweet, very salty or both) and not much richer.

"It's hard work," said Hannah Goldberg, speaking about her time at the Hester Street Fair. "Our ancestors came through the Lower East Side to find a better life, and our parents think it's crazy that we're back here selling from a pushcart."

Soource: NY Times

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