A Japanese tourist recently showed up at the Brooklyn Flea, an outdoor market where food businesses build followings for their concoctions, and found the booth of Morris Kitchen, a specialty syrup maker hatched in the borough four years ago. The tourist wasn’t there by happenstance: In her visitor’s guide was a photo of the syrup she wanted and instructions on where to get it.
The city’s food industry is teeming with energetic entrepreneurs searching for that combination of ingredients, technique and marketing that wins them shelf space at Whole Foods or Dean & DeLuca, and perhaps makes them the next Ben & Jerry’s or Brooklyn Brewery. New York is a fertile field for such pursuits, with its large and diverse supply of corporate customers as well as millions of residents and tourists eager to expand their palates and to buy local.
But succeeding in the food business here presents challenges not faced by, for example, technology startups, which can get going with little more than a laptop and a Starbucks. Food makers need space and equipment that meets the famously exacting standards of city and even state regulators. And they must negotiate leases in a market where residential prices are stratospheric, encouraging industrial landlords to hold out for a Williamsburg-style rezoning that would send their property values soaring. It frequently adds up to a need for significant capital, a major burden for the budding business.
The Bloomberg administration has sought to address these issues. It has created 16 industrial business zones, which are basically manufacturing areas that it has promised not to rezone for housing—a guarantee that the next mayor should certainly maintain. It also partnered with Goldman Sachs earlier this year to create a $10 million fund that will soon start issuing loans between $50,000 and $750,000 at interest rates not exceeding 8%, and generally lower, to food businesses as young as three years and with as few as three employees. Fund administrators will provide not just cash but also guidance, which is crucial for business owners still green behind the ears.
The food industry here is growing. A new, city-sponsored food manufacturers’ expo in 2012 drew about 100 companies. The second one, this year, drew twice as many. City and borough leaders have also backed two food incubators, in Harlem and Long Island City, Queens, with a third on the way, in Brooklyn.
Continued support for this fruitful industry—a rare bridge to the middle class for those without academic credentials—will serve New York well.