Recently I sat with Cyrilla Suwarsa in her store at The Shops in DUMBO. Her company, Nuts+Nuts, produces a line of distinctly packaged flavored cashews from Indonesia. Indigenous to Brazil, the nuts were introduced to Indonesia by the Portuguese in the 1500s. Cashews are the seeds of kidney-shaped fruits that protrude from the bottom of "cashew apples" (they look more like bell peppers) that grow on trees. Cashews are to Indonesians what almonds are to Americans. They're commonly sold raw and are vulnerable to going rancid in a short time. Little thought goes into their packaging.
Nuts+Nuts began after Cyrilla was diagnosed with the debilitating disease, Lupus. Weak with the illness, Cyrilla returned to the care of her family in Indonesia. Her friend, Nuning, who works for a company that makes moisturizer from cashew apples, persuaded Cyrrilla's family to buy a couple of sacks of cashews that would have otherwise gone to waste. Having more than enough cashews for themselves, Cyrrilla's sister Cecielia and mother Trees experimented by mixing them with cut chili, lime leaves, garlic, coriander, coconut oil, salt and sugar while Cyrilla herself designed their packaging.
If you stay at a Four Seasons in far flung destinations throughout Southeast Asia, your minibar will be stocked with Nuts+Nuts. In the United States, the products were a hit at the Fancy Food Show and at markets throughout New York City. Recently, the original Sweet & Salty and Lightly Salted product line has expanded to include Honey Sesame and Spicy varieties. And Cyrilla's packaging has gotten more advanced, increasing the nuts' shelf life to as long as ten months. Soon they'll be distributed in Japan.
Nuts+Nuts is expanding too. Recently, Cyrilla's brother-in-law Hanoto engineered a new oven so she doesn't have to use mom's kitchen anymore. To eventually vertically integrate with their own farm, the company bought a barren plot of land. Rather than disturbing the local ecosystem of cashew farmers by buying a pre-existing farm, Nuts+Nuts will plant new trees that take five years to mature.
Cyrilla has since returned to the States and is responsible for sales, marketing, customer service, purchasing, shipping, packaging and website design. She's considering producing a line of cashew butters and even bars here in Brooklyn. While there's no cure for Lupus, Cyrilla is certainly busier than she's ever been.
The environs of the Morgan Avenue station in Bushwick are fast becoming the newly formed community of Morgantown. The streets here are lined with anonymous factories and warehouses once bustling with thousands only decades ago. While Brooklyn's Industrial Revolution is over, these bastions of manufacturing serve as creative centers for the phenomena of today's maker movement. Recently, Fine & Raw, one of Brooklyn's avant garde bean-to-bar chocolate producers, moved here.
On paper, Daniel Sklaar's experience prior to starting Fine & Raw five years ago has little to do with chocolate. Still, it's his sense of style - of what is and will be hip - that matters. To Daniel chocolate is ephemeral as fashion. I was sipping hot chocolate at his spacious location on Seigel Street when he came down to see me. Interestingly, he didn't ask me what I thought about the chocolate (which was sensational). Instead, he asked for my opinion on the design of the heart on the cup I was sipping from. Still, he's firm and succinct about his product: "Food should be classic. Simple." His chocolate is deliberately roasted at low temperature; his truffles are flavored with authentic olive oil.
Fine & Raw is no frivolous undertaking - though he and his staff seem to have a lot of fun. During the summer, one may spot Daniel bicycling with a delivery of 50 lbs of chocolate kept cool with another 20 lbs of ice on his back. And there are concerns - chiefly about letting go of creative control - and other difficulties. Daniel makes larger deliveries with a nifty white three-wheeler that's broken down more than once en route. The time it happened on the Williamsburg Bridge is branded into his memory.
Daniel is surely not a classic Brooklyn industrialist, but an "eco-chic and forward" designer and innovator. On a private tour of his operation, he pointed out equipment he personally improvised for efficiently winnowing (separating the husk from the cacao) and conching (the last step in the flavoring and refining process). Toward the end of the tour, he alluded to a space reserved for cacao trees. Chocolate producers get their cacao from the tropics naturally, but Daniel may eventually produce an exclusive "jungle-to-bar" chocolate right here in Brooklyn. Honestly, I didn't get Daniel. But I really dug his imagination and style.
One hot summer day I arrived at Gillies Coffee in Sunset Park. I've been drinking espresso since I was five. My first bank was a Medaglia d'Oro coffee can. I really had to know if Gillies was the oldest coffee roaster in Brooklyn. The garage door was open. So, I walked inside and asked someone. He escorted me to an office trailer and a few minutes later - to my surprise - the owner himself came out to greet me. While I would have been grateful for a glimpse and a whiff, Donald Schoenholt gave me - a perfect stranger - a private tour of the entire roasting operation.
You see, Donald is a mensch. To roughly translate, he's a stand-up guy who would do you a good turn and not ask anything back if you needed a hand.
Donald, with his distinctive New York accent, is a natural storyteller. He relishes talk about innovators in the coffee business like the Arbuckle brothers who pioneered methods of distributing roasted coffee and bygone brands like Osborn's Celebrated Prepared Java Coffee, the first to be individually packaged. His vision is global. After all, the beans come from everywhere - from Brazil to Tanzania. Ask, and he'll tell you that Gillies is the oldest continuously operating roaster in the Western Hemisphere.
Experienced as he may be, Donald continues to rely on advice handed down to him by his grandparents. About quality, Donald praises his grandmother who taught him about "garbage in, garbage out" long before computer scientists popularized the phrase. In explaining how long roasted coffee needs to sit before packaging, he recounts his other grandmother's advice about how good things come to those who wait.
I happened to bike by after Hurricane Sandy on my way to Red Hook. There was a gas shortage and they needed enough to make a delivery to a hospital. A local brewer reached out to Donald because his supplier was out of commission. He had heard that Donald was a stand-up guy. He and his employees stood around debating options like a family pulling together, one even suggesting to siphon gas out of his own car's tank. I suppose if you work for a mensch like Donald, one may be inclined to make such an offer.
Back in the 1990s I remember seeing a story on the evening news about a new bicycle recycling program for kids based in Manhattan. They were taught how to take apart bikes that were abandoned and to build new ones from the salvaged parts. I was too old to enter the program, but I thought it was a wonderful thing and am delighted that it's not only here today but has expanded to DUMBO, Brooklyn. In fact, today they even have a program for adults!
Recycle-A-Bicycle doesn't cater to cyclists training for the Tour-de-France or those anxious for a velodrome on the Columbia Street Waterfront. If you talk to Susan, the soft spoken shop manager there, she's more concerned about cultivating mutual respect between drivers and riders than pimping your ride with color-matched tires and frames. For Susan bicycling is liberating. She recommends ditching your car or not owning one in the first place and hopes that one day, we may consider bike paths in the same way we do sidewalks rather than as exclusive amenities.
|Miguel "Crazy Legs", Head Mechanic|
|Susan, "Ace", Shop Manager|
Ask Michael Rogak about the meaning of the word artisanal and he’ll give it to you straight. It’s about making small batches with skilled manual labor. Is that all? Isn’t there a lot more to it than that? After all, there’s a certain aura around the word that makes it seem hip and trendy. Perhaps it’s the whole artisanal way of life? Or maybe marketers have overused the word and made it altogether meaningless. To Mr. Rogak artisanal is simply not enough to breathe life into a business and to keep it going.
Michael Rogak should know. He comes from a family of artisanal candy makers. His grandfather immigrated from Russia to make candy here in Brooklyn back in the 1920s. Later his father got into the business. And when it was Michael’s turn his father made it clear that while he may never become wealthy he’ll always be able to take care of his family. So, back when JoMart Chocolates started in 1946 it wasn’t a money thing. It was a family thing. In fact, Marissa, his daughter, works alongside Michael today and, though he may be enjoying the taste of candy more than anything else right now, it’s likely that little Jake will get into the act one day too.
When I’m in a conversation with Lori, I get the feeling that her mind is on a high speed chase with a gazillion other things. Lori is a serial entrepreneur with a degree from the Philadelphia College of Textiles & Science. Her first company was Promgirl. Later she started an organic cleaning products company and a wholesale pet products business. Now she owns Neighborhoodies. While Neighborhoodies isn’t her baby, it’s become her shoes. “Taking over someone’s business is like walking in someone else’s shoes. Eventually, they become your own shoes,” says Lori.
When she took over Neighborhoodies, the place was a mess. Literally. She emptied it of three dumpsters of trash, replaced the single phone line with a complete system and revamped the website. When customers drop in off the street, instead of stopping everything there’s a streamlined process to handle requests. Start-ups operate very differently from established businesses. Still, Neighborhoodies is a dynamic company and with Lori at the helm I can’t imagine it getting stale.
Lori’s challenge is to transform her brick and mortar business into an e-commerce enterprise while remaining true to its roots. Neighborhoodies offers a highly specialized service; customizing apparel with appliqué, embroidery and printing. The hoodies themselves are made of organic, recycled material and the inks are non-toxic. Customers include Rachael Ray, Questlove, and Eli Manning as well as the BBC, MTV and Yelp!.
In addition to the DUMBO storefront, now you can design your own hoodie on the Neighborhoodies website with the new Hoodie-O-Matic application. While widening service offerings with options like custom monograms, Lori is progressing on her mission to e-commercialize her business by offering live chat for custom collaborations online. Today Neighborhoodies is Lori’s own pair of highly customized shoes and she wears them well.
reInspire Brooklyn is part of the reTreat empire that includes reBar, reRun and reBoy. Cam’s line of apparel, jewelry and paintings awaken the heart through creations infused with his passion. The designs themselves are inspired by the stained glass found in churches like Antioch Baptist Church in Bed-Stuy and the work of collectives of graffiti artists like TATS Cru. Cam made his bones on the streets of Alphabet City. His first live paintings were done outside of Tomkins Square Park. A beauty salon in SOHO commissioned his first mural and today his public works are essential to the fabric of DUMBO. As acting art director for reBar and reRun, Cam himself plays an influential role in DUMBO’s vibrant art scene.
Evoked by this soft spoken man’s heart is Ganesh, Lord of Success and Remover of Obstacles. A central figuring throughout many of Cam’s creations, Ganesh symbolizes our wish to overcome. “We all want to be successful,” says Cam. It’s true. We all want to make it. Still, it’s Cam’s view that success needn’t come at the expense of others. “Life is so much easier when you love. It’s too much work to hate.” And this attitude explains how reInspire Brooklyn is the Switzerland of The Shops.