SO SAYS INFORMATIONWEEK. In the 2015 InformationWeek “Elite 100” listings of top business-technology innovators, the Brooklyn Public Library not only makes the list – the only library to do so – but it’s no. 25, rubbing shoulders in the top quarter with UPS and FedEx, NASA, Boeing, Biogen, PayPal, TIAA-CREF and Merck. Why? “As a result of our partnership with Tableau,” says the library’s President and CEO Linda Johnson, “BPL’s 60 branches are more responsive than ever to the needs of the communities they serve.” The library’s eResources – meaning eBooks and eVideos, catalog info, even homework help – serve Brooklyn’s 2.5 million residents 24/7 at www.bklynlibrary.org. See ya’ at the libe — online.
MY 1979 KZ 750 WASN’T MUCH TO LOOK AT BUT it was clean with no major dents or scratches and nice chrome fenders and a seat in fine shape. Some days I’d ridden longer than 12 hours at a stretch. The bike always made it better than me. Besides burning oil it was mechanically sound. Except the irreplaceable mechanical ignition points—which lasted a decade. The bike’s book value was $70. One final time I file the points and barely made it to the nearest shop that would deign to take it.
That was 13 years ago. I still have the manual.
Now Chris Rinken tells me $30 would put it back on the highway.
“[Expletive deleted],” I say.
“I’m sorry,” he replies.
Rinken, owner of Wrench N’ Ride Motorcycle Repair, a small garage beside his home on the corner of Seigel and Bogart streets, works exclusively on pre-electronic, vintage motorcycles—anything ’81 and older. He tells stories that start out like mine.
“One guy kinda had no idea what to do to get his ‘72 CV 350 running. It was in storage for six years and he paid $600 for it and owned it for two years but it never ran. He was pushing it around from apartment to apartment, and—a total fluke—luckily for him there happened to be motorcycle shop,” Rinken says. “He was super pumped about it.”
Rinken didn’t replace a part, he just cleaned the carb. “The bike just needed some care,” he shrugs. And that’s all he does. Rinken stays away from body work or welding, but he can recommend someone.
“If it runs I completely leave it at that,” he says. Rinken first started riding at 11 and learned to work on bikes from his dad. Basic, simple stuff. “Nobody knew how to do vintage maintenance,” he says. “They weren’t raised with a dad who knew all that stuff.”
After graduating from law school in ’12, into the worst economy this side of the Depression, he opened Wrench ‘N Ride. Today he has eight vintage bikes in the garage. One ‘64 Honda 90 cc that he laid hands on is worth $2,500 dollars now.
A shop like Wrench N’ Ride is rare, unique even, considering the sheer number of motorcycles in Brooklyn. To help people buying vintage bikes make sure they weren’t being scammed, Rinken offered a second set of eyes. “A couple of customers wanted to learn basic maintenance, basic inspection stuff,” he says, “just as a way to make sure to get it on the road and avoid really expensive bills from the repair shop.” He’s starting classes now. “We have motorcycles in the shop, and we have extra tools. We get people here who want to learn about bikes, who maybe want to get into it, try it to see if they like doing it. It’s all about getting people into the community.
“I’d rather have a bike that’s worthy,” he says. “The last bike the shop sold was an old Honda 360 that had flames on it. It does a hundred miles an hour if it needs to.”
Wrench N’ Ride Motorcycle Repair
315 Seigel Street
Bushwick, Brooklyn NY 11206
Phil Scott is an executive editor of Brooklyn Artisan, a former managing editor of Omni magazine, and the author of seven books, mostly about the history of aviation. He lives in Rockaway.
YESTERDAY WAS PUBLICATION DAY for the new Ample Hills Creamery cookbook, and copies were stacked up on the counter at the popular premium ice cream store on the corner of Vanderbilt Avenue and Bergen Street, in Prospect Heights.
Proprietor Brian Smith, right, was on hand in a front booth to inscribe copies. He confirmed to Brooklyn Artisan that the company’s new location in Gowanus is scheduled to open by late June. Ice cream will be made right on site as at the Prospect Heights location.
“Our business is more than an ice cream store, really,” Smith said. “It’s a neighborhood hangout.” The Prospect Heights store has a toddler play area, just visible over Smith’s shoulder.
The familiar Ample Hills ice cream carts will be back out in their locations near playgounds and parks this summer also. Smith co-founded the business with his wife and cookbook co-author, Jackie Cuscuna.
INSPIRED BY Bruce Campbell’s report, yesterday another Brooklyn Artisan team visited the design show at The Factory Floor (Industry City, 241 37th Street in Sunset Park, just across from Costco), and there encountered Alexandra Ferguson, about whom we’d written earlier. Hers would easily win a “Cheeriest Booth” award, with its colorful pillows enticingly arranged. You could almost hear the mental clicks of recognition as visitors to the show read them, nudged their companions, pointing out favorites to each other.
As Alexandra has recounted in her blog, she started her business in 2009 just about on a whim and a dime, posting on etsy.com a few pillows she’d made and expected to give friends as surprises. Business plan? Nada. Capitalization? Ditto. “Done is Better Than Perfect” was her slogan.
Sales were great, so she added more designs—sticking to environmentally friendly materials, of course—and her business grew and grew until it became her full-time livelihood. She moved it out of her apartment and into Mom’s garage in Westchester.
Alexandra Ferguson: The Business has taken another great leap upward, Alexandra (the person) says. Last summer she had four people working for her, but now to keep up with fall and holiday demand, she has added nine more employees. Her office and production space? Right here in Industry City. She moved it back to Brooklyn in July of this year. There are new product ideas, too. A makeup case, for instance.
Brooklyn Artisan had to ask: Where did she get her mantra? From Sheryl Sandberg, the author of Lean In, Alexandra said. And yes, we couldn’t resist; we told the story of originating the “Done is better than perfect” saying at Redbook magazine in 1979. You can read that backstory here.
Until we were starting Brooklyn Artisan, we had no idea the quote had gone viral. Cool.
Anne Mollegen Smith is editor and publisher of brookyn-artisan.net, and is a former editor-in-chief of Redbook, Working Woman, McCall’s, and the Art of Simple Living.
“Ready, Aim, Fire” or “Done is Better Than Perfect”?
WHY DONE IS BETTER THAN PERFECT, says the Etsy Blog title for the June 20, 2013 entry by Alexandra Ferguson. And then the art shows a cute cushion with the message, Ready, Fire, Aim. As the originator of “‘Done’ is better than ‘perfect'” (explained in an addendum to an earlier post to this blog), I like to think that in today’s conditions these mottos make more sense than they did in Bill Jones’s day.
Ms. Ferguson observes that many businesses get stuck in “paralysis by analysis” rather than going forward. Her own story is a case example that encourages leaping from the daydream stage into production and selling – in her case, selling her handmade cushions on etsy.com. Her first offering of message pillows she’d already made cost $1.60 in listing fees, a very low capital requirement to enter a business! No lease. No significant inventory. No staff. No equipment beyond what she’d needed for gift-cushion making as a hobby. Her launch served as a market test — and a commitment test. Was this really a business she could stay in? DUMBO-based etsy.com made it not only cheap and easy to get her product to market, but the market itself is global.
Smorgasburg and the Brooklyn Flea help other artisan-entrepreneurs test themselves in the food business by providing venues and some basic disciplines. The Brooklyn Botanic’s celebration of hot chiles is another. Ample Hills Creamery founder Brian Smith took his unusual ice cream flavors to market via ice cream trucks and kiosks before committing to that first lease in Prospect Heights. Brooklyn’s growing network of co-working spaces and commercial kitchens keep equipment and production space costs thinkably low. Share-and-learn facilities like 3rd Ward in Williamsburg can graduate their biggest successes to Industry City in Sunset Park.
Brooklyn Artisan Executive Editor Basia Hellwig reports in “Start Ups Aren’t for Sissies” on some entrepreneurial thrills and chills. Her stories provide mental preparation. BA Executive Editor Joy Makon’s look inside Alchemy Creamery gives another window into what’s involved. BA Executive Editor Phil Scott and Contributor Bruce A. Campbell have reported on Brooklyn’s Makerbot, pioneer of 3D printers. There’s venture capital out there to back some winners.
Tomorrow, Brooklyn’s first food and drink trade show, Brooklyn Eats, presents a new opportunity. It is sponsored by the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce and a host of corporations like commercial Citibank, Fairway, Whole Foods, National Grid, Verizon, and Acumen Capital Partners LLC and Jamestown Properties, as well as the Daily News and Edible Brooklyn as media partners.
The bright line between artisan and entrepreneur shines when the Alexandra Fergusons and the Brian Smiths of the world realize they’re not just creating cute cushions or unique premium ice cream flavors, they’re creating businesses. Should they move beyond bootstrapping? How much bigger can small-batch get before small-batch loses its edge? Sounds like it’s time for a serious, stage-two business plan. That’s when a trade show like Brooklyn Eats or a presentation to a venture capital fund really starts to make sense. It’s only been a very few years since Makerbot stepped up, after all, and it’s now valued at $403 million. Who’s next?
Brooklyn Artisan Editor & Publisher Anne Mollegen Smith was editor-in-chief of Working Woman magazine when its circulation grew to 950,000.
BUSINESS OWNERS SHANE WELCH, FOUNDER OF SIXPOINT BREWERY in Red Hook, Matthew Tilden, founder of SCRATCHbread in Bed-Stuy and Charlie Sahadi, proprietor of Sahadi Importing Co. in Brooklyn Heights, showed their business scars and shared some hard-earned wisdom at a recent Brooklyn Public Library conversation, “Fantastic Food,” led by photographer Randy Duchaine, whose “Created in Brooklyn” exhibition of portraits inspired the series:
If the adjoining property comes up for sale, buy it.—Charlie Sahadi
Sahadi remembered this advice from his father when two buildings on Atlantic Avenue came up for sale in 1977 for what seemed, at the time, an impossibly astronomical price. “Owning your property is a very big plus. Landlords want to become your partner without doing the work. We scrimped and bought the buildings. Now when I look back at the price, of course, I feel as if we stole the property.”
When a cohort of producers grows up in a neighborhood, that’s good. —Shane Welch
“We all root for each other. If there’s only one place in a neighborhood, it might be hard to get people to come to you. But now in Red Hook you have roving bands of food tourists who make a day of it and stop at three or four places.” (Similarly, Sahadi talked about Trader Joe’s opening up near his store, which far from being a competitive threat, is introducing a whole new set of customers to Sahadi’s, he says, and helping make “downtown Brooklyn a foodie paradise.”)
Don’t take yourself too seriously, but do serious work.—Matt Tilden
“Be humble. Work hard, focus on community betterment and sharing knowledge. A brand is a living breathing thing; for us, it’s a statement about food.”
Make the transition from hustler to operator—a perspective Tilden remembers Welch sharing with him over dinner one night.
Welch explains: “Everyone starts out hard-scrabble, hustling. But as you and the business grow and mature, you legitimize. Operators figure out how to get things done the right way. It can be poisonous if you remain a hustler. Say you do building without permits and then someone gets hurt. That could be the end of your business.”
Give people a good product, at a fair price, with good customer service.—Charlie Sahadi
When Sahadi says, “Our customers become our friends,” you believe him if you’ve ever stepped inside his store. “Shopping with us has to be a pleasurable experience. We’re part of our customers’ lives. Otherwise, we’d just be another store on Atlantic Avenue.”
Can’t the City Make It Easier?
This is one they all could agree on. Regulations are one of the biggest threats to New York City small businesses, they said. You have to be on top of them, and there are hundreds of them—city, state, federal—and they seem to change almost hourly. Dept. of Agriculture, NYC Dept. of Health, Landmarks Preservation, Dept. of Buildings, the list goes on.
Yes, of course these owners value their customers’ safety and health. But can’t it be easier? A 2008 update to the NYC building code complicated everyone’s lives enormously, they report. Sahadi’s first planned a store renovation in 1999; they got all the approvals, but then decided to postpone construction when they bought a big warehouse in Sunset Park. By the time they were ready to build, the 2008 revision was in effect. “It drove us a little crazy to get all the right permitting,” says Sahadi, “especially since our buildings also come under the Landmark Preservation Commission.” He credits his son, Ron, and his daughter Christine with managing the project and getting it done.
A sole proprietor can find it overwhelming to manage the contracting, building and running back and forth to city offices for permitting while keeping the business going—not to mention staying on top of the regulatory changes. Shane Welch finds himself dealing with the Dept. of Homeland Security now, since the Tax and Trade Bureau, which governs the excise tax on beer, was swallowed up in it. Day-to-day, it’s a little like being nibbled to death by ducks. For instance, SCRATCHbread got a ticket recently because its benches were three feet further out than they were supposed to be—one of hundreds of details a business must keep track of. “Now don’t you think the inspector could simply have pointed it out?” Matt Tilden wondered. “I’d have been happy to move them.”
The “Created in Brooklyn” exhibit is on display at Brooklyn Public Library until August 31. The conversations continue in June and July, on Wednesdays from 6:30 to 8 pm: June 26, Design Crafts; July 10, Urban Adventures; July 17, Art & Music.
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.