Article and photos by Phoebe Taylor-Vuolo
On the sixth floor of a gray building in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, people in hairnets and kitchen whites scramble from one piece of equipment to another. Their carts of ingredients slide around on the oily, pockmarked floor as they travel from room to room, surrounded by the smells of a kitchen.
Butter, if the cake lady is present; onions, if the catering people are around. Freshly baked cookies, chicken Parmesan, steamed vegetables. Bits of an Elton John song drift from one roomand bachata from another, above the constant hissing and rumbling of machines.
This is Hana, a “shared kitchen” where small-scale food producers rent space to create their products. In Industry City, a former manufacturing complex on Brooklyn’s waterfront, Hana is part of a wave of “culinary incubators” renting to owners of food startups who avoid equipment costs while they work to gain their footing in the industry.
“For somebody to start, right off the bat, it’s cost-prohibitive,” said Pedro Arvizu, who has worked at Hana Kitchens for three years and has a line of Mexican-inspired pastries, which he creates at the kitchen with his brother Gabriel. “So this is where we come in, we want to make sure, whoever comes, the only thing they have to worry about is doing the actual production.”
The 12,000-square-foot space has 11 kitchens rented in three shifts: the “AM,” 8 a.m to 4 p.m., costs $180 a session; the “PM,” 4 p.m. to midnight $150, and the “Midnight,” midnight to 8 a.m. $120. The list of equipment available to renters is long — shrink-wrap machines, bread and meat slicers, massive mixers and the crown jewel, the Revent industrial oven.
Hana has doubled in size since Michael Hu, a pastry chef of 35 years, left the hotel world in Hawaii to open his own kitchen in New York. When the economy tanked, he thought to share the space, which he expanded in 2013.
Arvizu said he wanted to give businesses the chance to “slow down,” which isn’t something you would expect a food company in New York City to appreciate. But tenants at Hana see it as an opportunity to establish their businesses.
“There’s no way I would be doing what I’m doing” without Hana, said Susan Weseen, a Brooklyn teacher who sells her Dragonfly Granola to shops and at markets across the city. “It gives me the luxury of growing at a pace that makes sense and is sustainable.”
Although Hana already advises its clients when it comes to applying for food licenses, Hu and his associates want to make Hana into what he calls a “true incubator,” providing business consultation and perhaps even financial investment advice.
“We would be intimate with them, as far as knowing who these people are, what their needs are. Simply making a great food product isn’t the only thing that needs to happen—there is distribution, there is shelf life, there is web design,” said Hu. “There are so many aspects to making a project successful in the market today.”
A report published in March 2016 by the American Communities Trust, EConsult Solutions and Urban Development surveyed culinary incubators across the country, looking at their missions, financial circumstances and services. The report examines 61 of the more than 200 facilities across the country, a number it said had doubled since August 2013.
The report found that of the incubators surveyed, 82 percent reported an increase in revenue in the past three years. Fifty-two percent of kitchens were in urban areas, with New York City at the top of the list, followed by Austin, Denver and Chicago.
As “slow food”—artisanal, locally sourced and sustainable—becomes increasingly popular in New York City–and the number of culinary incubators continues to rise, many people say they increase the chances for financial success for startups. Others say that incubators only postpone the inevitable reality of rent prices and equipment costs.
Natalie Vichnevsky, who runs the Evergreen Exchange Small Food Producers Network, advising food manufacturing companies in Brooklyn, said that while starting a food production company is easier with the support of culinary incubators, businesses making the jump from incubator to the “real” food world are often overwhelmed by the cost rent.
“The rates of manufacturing space in New York City have gone up astronomically,” Vichnevsky said. “When you’re coming from a shared space where the overhead is so much less than it would be, the differential is just too high.”
Industry City, purchased by the Jamestown development group in 2013, has itself been criticized in some quarters for its high rent and its gentrifying effect on the surrounding neighborhood.
Gabriel Arvizu, who co-owns ARV Sweets with his brother Pedro, hopes to someday open a kitchen of his own. “To keep creating more jobs, to give opportunity to other people who started the same way I started,” Arvizu said. “That way we can make a change, help each other.”