Get anywhere near the old Pfizer building these days and you’ll be overwhelmed not with the smell of medicinal byproducts, but with the delicious aroma of cookies, coffee, and freshly baked bread. Pfizer left the massive industrial plant empty in 2008 and it was bought up by a real estate investment firm a few years later. Today, it finally saw the opening of Brooklyn FoodWorks, an educational institute, incubator, and communal kitchen that will offer low-cost co-working space for small food startups.
City and local leaders gathered this morning to grip the requisite giant pair of scissors and smile for the cameras, while Bed-Stuy’s City Council rep, Robert Cornegy, described the private-public partnership’s realest benefit to the community: “Because leases are prohibitive, creativity is being stifled.”
The Pfizer building is located just inside Bed-Stuy across the Williamsburg border, and at 660,000 square feet, it’s massive and bustling. It’s home to countless small business operations, from ethical clothing makers to food-delivery commissaries. As a perfectly clean drug manufacturing site, the space was food grade ready from the get-go– hence all those insane smells.
Strangely enough, people seem to actually like their jobs here. Maybe that has something to do with the fact that 630 Flushing Avenue is situated in a notably idyllic corner of Brooklyn– a Citibike corral sits across the street from the east-side entrance and a sleepy G-train stop lies on the north side, NYCHA residents at the Sumner Houses live within a strolls’ distance of the Hasidic community, and DIY venues and hipster bars are just blocks west in Bushwick. It’s like you can hear birds tweeting here or something.
This area could have easily seen a whole different kind of reality, however, as Stephen Levin pointed out to press and other visitors at the FoodWorks grand opening today. “When Pfizer left this building, the City could have taken one of two paths– they could have made this [into] condos,” Levin explained, as a few audience members loudly booed. “But we made a decision, as a policy for New York City, to support small business, to support small manufacturing […] it’s not enough to have just condos for the very, very rich, the top one percent, we need to have good jobs.”
Those jobs will come courtesy of startups like the one founded by Niani Taylor, who up until recently was running her brunch catering business, Munch Hours, out of her NYCHA apartment. “I found out about this through research and then I applied,” Taylor explained. “Now I won’t get in trouble for doing this out of my kitchen.” As a member of the educational incubator project, Taylor will receive all kinds of support and training over the next five months, as well as 24/7 access to a sleek, industrial kitchen. After that, she’ll be eligible to continue her membership access to the kitchen at a discounted rate. (Normally, kitchen and co-working space starts at $195 a month, while a package with mentorship, cooking classes, and business workshops costs as little as $300 a month.)
While many of the startups specialize in Smorgasburg-like specialities (though less gimmicky and more honest) such as meringues, German sauerkraut pies, and cold brew coffee, others are a bit more innovative. Natalie Neumann, one of the two Master’s graduates from Parson’s who co-founded Metabrew, used plenty of familiar buzzwords to describe her coffee-like energy drink made with cacao– “raw” and “organic,” containing “healthy oils.” She even promised that her little black cooler containing a five pack of the milk-chocolate-hewed liquid held the “energy drink of the future.”
Brooklyn FoodWorks is expected to accommodate some 100 businesses. At the moment, 88 percent of them are owned by women or minorities. The entrepreneurs come from all over– I met at least three Germans amongst the dozen or so FoodWorks members I spoke with but also locals like Denise Burke, the owner of The Root of Pie. Burke was born and raised in Bed-Stuy, where she still resides, and is now running an eye-popping little savory pie operation. She explained that she only began baking two years ago. “I started out at the Bed-Stuy farmer’s market, and I’m planning to expand to local cafes and restaurants,” she explained. Burke said she uses local ingredients whenever possible, with an emphasis on non-GMO produce, to make her butternut squash and bean pies.
The Office of the Brooklyn Borough President has made a sizable investment in Brooklyn FoodWorks, contributing $1.3 million from its capital budget for its buildout and programs.
As Council Member Cornegy told the ribbon-cutting audience, “This is the wave of the future.”