Created in Brooklyn: Food and Drink Entrepreneurs Talk Shop
ANY BUDDING ARTISANS IN THE AUDIENCE at a recent Brooklyn Public Library panel, “Fantastic Food,” would come away both sobered and heartened. Three business owners—Shane Welch, founder of Sixpoint Brewery, Matthew Tilden, founder of SCRATCHbread and Charlie Sahadi, proprietor of Sahadi Importing Co.—all shared disaster stories and cautionary tales but there they were, smiling happily about the businesses they ran, unanimous that they’d go through it all again in an instant.
The June 19th event was the first in a series of conversations the library has organized around an exhibition of portraits by photographer Randy Duchaine called “Created in Brooklyn,” which will be on display until August 31.
Duchaine, who led the conversation, has evocatively captured dozens of Brooklyn makers and creators who “come here to live their dreams, express themselves, start a business and contribute to society through their talents,” as he puts it. “They represent…a sense of independence and the ability to stand on their own two feet and proudly say, ‘This is what it means to be an American in Brooklyn!’”
The lively interchange was followed—lucky us—by samples of the businesses’ artisanal breads, beers and Mediterranean appetizers. Here are some of the start-up war stories they shared:
Shane Welch, Sixpoint Brewery “It’s hard to secure a commercial lease with no assets, no credit, no money. So we had to hard-scrabble it.” In 2004, he and a partner found an 800-square-foot garage to rent in Red Hook, not exactly ideal for a brewery and full of old equipment. “It was a junkyard really.” They cleaned it out and bought a couple of used tanks for a few hundred dollars at auction—one had been a dairy tank and another was rusted out. That one came with its own craft brew karma. It turned out it had been used originally by the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. in California and had probably literally worked its way to the East coast, being handed from hopeful brewer to brewer. “I have a background in chemistry so we made a solution that no living organism could survive. We emptied them, scrubbed them out, sanitized them, bleached them.”
Bright Side: Sixpoint just closed on the purchase of property next door and is establishing power cred in the red hot world of craft beer. It is on the brink of a big expansion, planning to build a new brewing facility to suit this time.
Charlie Sahadi, Sahadi Importing “I was 23 when my father died suddenly. I’d been working in the business, but my father’s approach was, ‘Let me worry about the business, you take care of the customers.’ So when he died, I had no idea how to do certain things. ‘Where do we get the feta?’ I asked his partner. ‘I don’t know.’ ‘How about the olives?’ My father had been the dominant partner so all the details went with him.” Luckily, Sahadi was able to get in touch with a bookkeeper his father had used in the past, to come in and temp. She knew exactly where they bought the feta and a lot more besides, and her “temp” job has lasted 25 years.
Bright Side: Sahadi Importing has become an institution on Atlantic Avenue and is celebrating its 65th year in business. “You wake up and every day’s a challenge, but that’s what I love.” The store went through a recent renovation and expansion, overseen by his daughter Christine and son, Ron. Charlie Sahadi has justly earned the title of the Ambassador of Atlantic Avenue.
Matt Tilden, SCRATCHbread: “I was working as a chef 115 hours a week and wanted out. I kept thinking, I really don’t want to work somewhere where a pan gets thrown across the room because someone made a mistake. I answered an ad: ‘We have wood oven, you make bread’ and began moonlighting as a baker. I traded bread for rent; for a while I lived out of my car. Four years later, I wanted my own place. We raised a little money from selling at markets and Kickstarter. With no capital there are so many adjustments you have to make. You can’t always do things the way you would with proper funding. I got a friend to deposit money temporarily in my account so I could get approval for a lease. I staffed with interns, lots of interns.”
Bright Side: Everyone’s on payroll now. After doing a wholesale business with restaurateurs like the Union Square Hospitality Group of Danny Meyers, SCRATCHbread has refocused on its retail presence in Bed-Stuy. “We are all about being a conscious owner. Eating healthy is hard, I know that. When you put something in your body, it’s fuel. We like giving people good nourishment, caring for people. We play good music, focus on hospitality, something I’ve always admired about Danny Meyer.”
More, later, on some of the business tips they shared—and one thing they all agreed on. Plus a few of Randy Duchaine’s photographs.
Mark your calendar for the next conversations in Brooklyn Public Library’s “Created in Brooklyn” conversation series led by photographer Randy Duchaine. Held Wednesdays from 6:30 to 8 pm in June and July: Design Crafts, June 26, Urban Adventures, July 10 and Art & Music, July 17.
Photographs by Basia Hellwig
Correction: An earlier version gave an incorrect date for the Design Crafts “Created in Brooklyn” event. It takes place on June 26.