A second job is the norm—DiLoreto, the By Brooklyn owner, estimates that only a quarter of her vendors are full-time artisans—but waiting tables to pay the rent is almost an anachronism. The old waiter-actor has been eclipsed by the actor-artisan. Now the risky dream job is starting your own pickle company, and the art hustle is your fallback. Bob McClure, whose McClure’s Pickles brought in over a million dollars last year, had a role in a Visa commercial as recently as this past December.
And every remotely ambitious artisan sooner or later finds himself making trade-offs of one sort or another. Early on, Jones had to accept that as a New York pickle-maker he would need to compromise his locavore mission when he discovered that in this region cucumbers grow only three months of the year. “Friends said, ‘Dude, you make pickles. You can’t not produce for three-quarters of the year.’ It was a hard thing to wrestle with in my mind.”
Rob Behnke and Matt Burns have never been hung up on purist definitions of Brooklynness. Burns grew up in South Dakota and got a job when he was 14 at a taquería in Sioux Falls. There, he made the fried chips and fresh salsa and fell in love with the condiment. Behnke, who has an M.B.A., grew up in New Jersey. In 2007, through Craigslist, they became loft mates in Bushwick, where they were both part of the Todd P underground-music scene. One night in April 2008, Burns made some salsa for a show Behnke had booked in the Opera House basement, and the feedback was good. The next morning Behnke said, “Hey, we could start the cool salsa company.”
Right out of the gate, the Brooklyn Salsa Company had five flavors, one for each borough. Their packaging used bold colors and sleek typography; their only preservative was lime juice. Within three months of their 2010 launch, they were in Fairway and fifteen Whole Foods supermarkets in the region. A month after that, they were picked up by Fresh Direct. By December 2011, they had 500 accounts, and they expect to have over 1,000 by the end of this year. Co-packers upstate and in Kentucky make their salsa, and they’re selling 10,000 to 15,000 jars every month. They are moving away from identifying their flavors with New York City—keeping Brooklyn, but switching the other four flavors to San Francisco, Mumbai, Havana, and Mexico City. They want to be “a national brand by year two,” Behnke says, “and the first international salsa company.”
That kind of good old-fashioned entrepreneurship can cost you friends in the east–of–the–East River artisan scene. The Brooklyn Kitchen, one of Brooklyn Salsa’s first retail accounts, stopped carrying the product. “I liked it better when it was a fresh product, not jarred,” co-owner Harry Rosenblum says. “They expanded. I saw it in a lot of places. It was a less special thing to offer.” DiLoreto, the By Brooklyn owner, refuses to sell Brooklyn Salsa and has also nixed McClure’s Pickles (run out of Bed-Stuy but made in Michigan) and Kombucha Brooklyn, which boasts on its label “Born in Bkln” but is made upstate.
Sitting in his work space in the Pfizer Building, surrounded by live experimental cultures for new flavors and a prototype for a home kombucha kit he’s making for Williams-Sonoma, company founder Eric Childs, 26, takes issue with people he calls “localists. That’s an extremist mentality I don’t agree with,” he says. Bedford Cheese Shop’s Charlotte Kamin agrees. “I’m curious how sustainable it all is. Brooklyn has thought of itself as unique for a long time. I’ve never been focused on local. It’s what the tourists ask for. I’m seeing a lot of producers stop. The reality is you don’t make money or you overextend yourself.” Childs’s take-it-out-of-the-city story is a case in point. “I wouldn’t have been able to grow,” he says. “The rent here is four times what it is upstate. Utility and labor costs are different. But my family’s in Brooklyn. All the money comes back here. I used the name Brooklyn not just because of the appeal but because I love Brooklyn.”
Steven Eisenstadt loves Brooklyn, too. Cumberland Packing, the company his great-grandfather founded, has made the iconic pink Sweet’N Low saccharine packets since 1957 and is still going strong over by the Navy Yard.
Walking through an invisible haze of particulate, an FDA-compliant hair cap in place, you can literally taste the company’s history. Sweet’N Low is just one of the products that Cumberland packs, and the flavor in your mouth keeps changing as you pass from room to room: Sugar in the Raw, Stevia in the Raw, Agave in the Raw, Nu Salt (sodium free), Butter Buds (natural butter flavor), NatraTaste Blue (aspartame), NatraTaste Gold (sucralose). The Brooklyn factory produces around 55 million packets a day. Last year, revenues approached $200 million, up from $150 million in 2005. This is what a small Brooklyn startup looks like after 65 years of growth. By all business logic, the company shouldn’t be here.