Color Me Brooklyn

Walk into any NYC food establishment and it's clear that New Yorkers truly care about what we consume. The locavore, slow, raw, and artisanal food movements run in parallel, intersect and zigzag through our universe. Magazines like Edible and shows like The Chew celebrate what we eat. Food is in the air. Literally. Roof gardens like the greenhouse on the roof of the new Whole Foods in Gowanus are the craze. The Canarasie Native Americans and Colonial Dutch farmers would be stunned.

Prospective buyers of condos in luxury high rises in, say, Williamsburg are drawn to aesthetics like counter tops, cabinet work, floors and, of course, the views. While attention may be paid to the color of the walls, buyers aren't concerned about paint quality and certainly not where it's produced. The roof garden may be a selling point, but not the paint.

Most locavores consume food grown or produced within a 100 mile radius and tout the benefits of their shrinking carbon footprint and keeping small local farms in business. Developers, contractors and building owners benefit similarly with green, energy efficient buildings. The nationally recognized Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system defines regional building materials as those manufactured within 500 miles. There's no requirement or reward for construction of properties with materials manufactured right in New York City. Ultimately, the driving force is cost - of building and maintaining. The story's the same for renters and buyers in Brooklyn. 

Color Me Brooklyn

But I produce Made in Brooklyn Tours and after I moved back to Bensonhurst, I decided to color my new home with paint Made in Brooklyn. Color me Brooklyn.

Freddy Tichner
So, I made my way out to Flatlands to meet Freddy at Mercury Paint. Freddy was an executive in the garment district before marrying into Mercury - a family business now in its third generation. Over the course of nearly thirty years he's been instrumental in exponentially increasing sales. Today, Mercury remains competitive by focusing on producing high quality specialty paints for private label brands and, recently, by partnering with PPG (Pittsburgh Paint), a company that dwarfs other well known paint manufacturers.

Freddy gave me a fascinating tour of the factory bustling with activity despite the winter weather. High-lows buzzed about stacks of cans while paint in a variety of colors swirled in several five hundred and thousand gallon vats. When Mercury Paint started in 1947 there were about thirty other manufacturers of paint in New York City alone. Today the industry as a whole is dominated by five enormous players each with revenues well over $1B. In New York City, Mercury acquired the Amsterdam and Sapolin brands and is the last one standing.

At the start of the tour, I was introduced to the equivalent of a wine taster in the paint industry. A "shader" precisely mixes and matches colors. Freddy assured me that computers and other special instruments are no match for their human eyes. Next I met a chemist responsible for R&D and the formulation of entirely new paints for specific projects and private labels. Paint is tested for thickness, dry time and weight/gallon. I felt a little like James Bond visiting Q's lab when the chemist demonstrated a new fire retardant paint he's developing by taking a blowtorch to a piece of cardboard covered with it. Many Mercury employees came in through the Doe Fund - a nonprofit providing career assistance for those with histories of homelessness, incarceration, and substance abuse. Manufacturers tend to have less turnover and this seemed to be true at Mercury Paint. Everyone I met was local and employed there for several years.

Mercury Paint made a significant investment in making their facility EPA compliant, actively recycling and producing no waste. Mercury offers low and zero VOC (Volatile Organic Compound) paints and excels at producing high quality commercial paint rather than several lines of lesser quality like those offered by the much larger players. In fact, Feddy claims that Mercury has been producing high quality paint and primer in one (one coat coverage) well before it came into vogue. While water-based paint is exclusively embraced by larger manufacturers, Mercury is nimble enough to continue to produce oil paints too. 

Mercury does much of its business with municipalities, paint contractors and property managers mandated to use paint that meets higher standards for quality and other specifications. There's more value - meaning less labor - in a can of high quality paint. If the general public were made more aware of our local building materials manufacturers we may be willing to play a more active role in the institution of incentive programs that reward contractors that build with them. Terms like "farm-to-table" for food are part of our lexicon because we're concerned about employment, the environment and what we consume. We needn't be colorblind when it comes to the buildings where we actually live.

More Than Water

Scot and Ross with Happy Guests
Scot and I discussed growing up in Brooklyn during the 1970s and '80s downstairs in his lab at The Bagel Store over containers of bagel-hol. The truth is that it was a depressing, desolate time. Future-less. Visibly frustrated, Scot described going outside as a kid in Gravesend and finding absolutely nothing to inspire. It's difficult for him to articulate the experience of hopelessness in this period of his life. Yet, within his imagination was boundless and his heart beat passionately to create.

Scot Rossillo is the self proclaimed "World's Premier Bagel Artist." Like all other artists, he is compelled to share what he creates. The confines of Gravesend, during a time when New York City teetered on the edge of bankruptcy, were not strong enough to imprison his spirit. The evidence is hard to miss. Witness the variety and abundance of bagels, cream cheeses and spreads in eye-popping colors and mind-boggling flavors at either of his stores in Williamsburg on any given day.

A Eureka Moment
Buttery Salted Pretzel Bagel

When he's not at the store, his spirit pervades. Customers on line aren't waiting for breakfast or lunch, but are on their way to "Bagel Paradise." The fellas behind the counter, infused with a sense of familiarity and purpose, work together like a well practiced Olympic team to deliver excellent customer service. Scot's sister Michelle and Ross, his friend of forty-odd years, carry the message: These are not ordinary bagels. They want patrons to appreciate that the Bacon, Egg and Cheddar, Buttery Salted Pretzel, Pumpkin Pie and the myriad other designs are works of art in literally every sense of the word.

Another Collaboration

The Bagel Store's walls are festooned with colorful images of unique bagels with one incongruous photo of Scot himself: a big bald guy with tattoos, arms folded across his chest. He seems intimidating. It's an illusion. Scot is the embodiment of Kid in a Candy Store and Mad Scientist combined. With every visit to his thoroughly clean lab, he's excited to show me his latest bagel innovation, creative collaboration or experiment in process. New Yorkers say that our bagels are so good because of the water. I used to say that too. Then I met Scot.

Old School. New School. We Are Brooklyn.

Broadly speaking, makers fall into two camps: Old School and New School. In the Old School are family businesses characterized by organic growth that invigorate New York City's swirling whirlpool of diversity with Old World tastes and traditions. Today's Maker Movement, in the context of the Digital Age with its free flow of information, is populated by New School do-it-yourselfers while the Industrial Revolution, an age of expansion dominated by inventors and improvisers, informs the Old School. Gomberg Seltzer Works and Brooklyn Seltzer Boys blend the two.

 Alex with Pop Kenny & Uncle Irving 

Innovations of the Industrial Revolution like the carbonator, the glass blowing machine, the siphon bottle, and the internal combustion engine give rise to the popularity of seltzer in New York City by the 1920s. When Gomberg Seltzer Works began in the 1950s, the seltzer man reigned supreme. I remember how the seltzer truck with its crates of blue and green bottles trundled down my grandparents' street in Borough Park in the 1970s just as the commercialization of seltzer water in plastic bottles sold at supermarkets literally watered down the industry.
Kenny Gomberg at Gomberg Seltzer Works together with his son Alex at Brooklyn Seltzer Boys are bridging the gap between Old School and New. Rather than stagnate in the preserve of nostalgia, seltzer water delivery in glass siphon bottles is carving a niche in today's Maker Movement here in Brooklyn.

Gomberg Seltzer Works is an authentic Old School family business established in 1953 that satisfies locavores craving carbonated New York City tap water served in a unique and memorable way. Brooklyn Seltzer Boys is a Brooklyn-based start-up (rock on Canarsie!) delivering to environmentally conscious restaurants and drinking establishments serving seltzer from re-usable bottles. The story of Gomberg Seltzer Works and Brooklyn Seltzer Boys isn't a sad story reminiscent of a bygone era. It's not even a story of hope. As Kenny stoically declared reflecting on the present moment, "We are Brooklyn."

Bee Well

About a decade ago, Yeshwant Chitalkar lived by a community garden in Hell's Kitchen with a beehive of honey bees. It's challenging for me not to think of honey as a commodity and product to be labeled and shelved, but Yeshwant didn't see employees at a factory that produces sweeteners - even one free of belching smokestacks and toxic waste.  

Today, Yeshwant lives in Red Hook by a mixed neighborhood of Italian and Carniolan bees on his roof. He made this arrangement because, despite living in a large urban city, the bees teach by example how to live harmoniously with nature. Living in the obscurity of urban dwellings are plants and trees; the nectar and pollen of goldenrod, dandelions and linden trees are foraged by the bees and stored away as food in the form of honey. In fact, there's more biodiversity in a big city like Brooklyn than in many rural areas due to the preponderance of monocultures on industrial farms. 

Yeshwant yearns for the tangible; for something tactile to do with his hands. Although he doesn't consume the honey belonging to his upstairs neighbors, he does extract it - this year about two hundred pounds in three large containers. It's a practice in mindfulness. One can meditate simply by watching the bees fly into and out of their hives. 

The hive is not a single organism, but a composition of individual creatures. Commercial beekeepers drive semitrailers of hives around the country to pollinate crops. This exposes the bees to harmful pesticides and diseases. Yeshwant's neighbors wander around Red Hook and, I suppose, other parts of Brooklyn of their own free will and are healthier for it. 


Try to view bees like tiny people rather than bugs. Disturb their home and they'll nudge you away with head butts. Bees have the capacity to learn and can be taught where to go for water. By extracting honey one is actually stealing their food. Honey tastes differently from year to year depending on what nectar and pollen is available and I can imagine marketing it like wine. Yeshwant brought me back to reality as I left with a jar of honey. Wagging his finger, he sternly reminded me that, after all, I was robbing the bees. I was stealing sunlight in a jar. 

They Said "Homemade"

One day I was riding my bike in Gravesend when a handwritten sign on the door of a storefront caught my eye. It said that they still made mozzarella. This I had to see. I entered and asked for the owner. Carmela Casamento took over Eagle Cheese (est. 1942), when she arrived from Palermo in her early twenties. She's over 70 now and Eagle Cheese will soon transform into a pasticerria.

I was too late to appreciate what the place looked like when the shelves were stocked with Italian specialties and imported provolone hung from the ceiling. There used to be lines out the door during the holidays to order baskets of cheese. Carmela took orders - sometimes for hundreds of dollars - like a cheese florist and her beaming customers left looking like they just won first prize in a lottery.

Eagle Cheese makes what we would certainly call today artisanal cheese; varieties of fresh and smoked mozzarella and ricotta. Carmela sold her mozzarella wholesale to pizzerias throughout New York City and delivered personally. I can't imagine how competitive the pizza business is and here's this sweet lady who uses adjectives like "beautiful" to describe her cheese delivering to pizzerias in the Brooklyn of the '60s, '70s - up until today?! That's got to be a tough racket - but she is Sicilian after all. 

Brooklyn has a robust manufacturing heritage born of the Industrial Age and small family run businesses coexisted with large manufacturers to serve the ethnic communities forming here. While manufacturers introduced innovations in packaging and distribution, mom-and-pops cross-pollinated to produce Brooklyn's own creations and style distinct from what may be found back in China, Mexico, Italy, Russia, etc. Today's artisanal food movement takes as inspiration businesses that came before like Eagle Cheese. 

We say "artisanal." They said "homemade."

I am grateful that Carmela specially arranged a private demonstration of the art of making mozzarella. Alfonso (an employee for over 35 years) and Javier (and employee for over 10 years) gracefully molded the curd into balls of mozzarella like balloon twisters. To me it was a miraculous, though labor intensive process.

They made me feel right at home.




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.

Sense of Style

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.

Running 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.