The Incubation Jungle

OFI

A view of Borden Ave. in Long Island City, Queens, outside the Organic Food Incubator.

The people of Borden Ave. in Long Island City don’t dwell much. They work. They do so at storage buildings and warehouses and auto-repair shops and loading docks, arriving in 18-wheelers and branded vans and beat-up hatchbacks on the Queens side of the East River. In the backdrop, pinnacles of Manhattan skyscrapers glint and puncture the more refined borough’s sky.

The city packs a mixed deck of laborers: flannel-shirted MBAs who have rolled their pant cuffs and taken their degrees to the uncertain asphalt; girls who live for organic health, producing Whole Foods merchandise and exuding chill; and always men in hoodies or company polos who carry crates and boxes, roll dollies that hold product, back and forth they go, as if keeping time.

I enter the Organic Food Incubator (OFI), walk upstairs and a pair of young men half-run downstairs and past me. One of them holds a basketball in his right hand, green juice in his left. HPP hoops.

As you tour the facility, as you meet the tenants and the operator and the laborers, as you sample the products and share the laughs and look around, you sense community. These incubatees, at varying phases of development, illustrate and concentrate a pith of entrepreneurism — it’s a long road, why not make a go of it together?

BevNET recently visited two food and beverage incubators in New York. Today we cover the OFI in Long Island City, Queens. Tomorrow, we head to 630 Flushing Ave. in Brooklyn. Photographs by Jon Landis.

One for the Gipper

As Mike Schwartz coaches the OFI tenants, he also runs Bad Ass Organics, his "expensive hobby."

As Mike Schwartz coaches the OFI tenants, he also runs Bad Ass Organics, his “expensive hobby.”

Mike Schwartz runs things here at the OFI. He sports a half-buttoned flannel with a white T beneath, threadbare jeans and worn gray sneakers. He holds a 4th dan (a 4th degree black belt) in Seido karate, a traditional Japanese style of the martial art. His words ooze honesty. What he lacks in height, he compensates through generosity.

He tells me he goes by “Coach.” Later in the day, an OFI tenant laughs and goes: “He really said that?”

He also runs Bad Ass Organics, or BAO, which in Chinese means “precious treasure.” Under that brand name, he makes kombucha, liquid pickle shots, kimchi, ketchup, barbeque sauce. From the start, he had trouble making a dent. Bottle and label manufacturers, suppliers and regulatory agencies all boxed him out. He decided to make the steps himself and signed a lease in Long Island City.

In September 2009, when he first entered the building on Borden Ave., BAO was the only one. Schwartz had way too much space for his tiny company. Not long after signing his own lease, BAO was falling apart, so he began subletting.

Since then, Schwartz has spent the past few years beefing up his tenant list, adding more established companies like TumericALIVE and Liquiteria as well as rookie entrepreneurs like Alex Abbott Boyd of Cocktail Crate and Nick Haycock of Brooklyn Kava, formerly known as King Kava.

Schwartz teaches at cooking schools, delivers the occasional speech and lecture, participates in a panel here and there and has done some speed coaching through the Samuel Adams Brewing the American Dream program. One thing he doesn’t do is advertise for OFI tenants.

“They find us,” he says.

Schwartz’s job can’t be easily defined. Today, he’s a tour guide: he walks me through room after room, past stacked crates of carrots and cucumbers and tomatoes and kale.

In one production room, a team of workers in hair nets remove and blend apples from a water-filled sink, the extraterrestrial scratches and soundscapes of Portishead’s Dummy bumping from a speaker above.  Next to the sink, a row of metal tubes dispense green liquid into empty, unlabeled bottles. The workers don’t talk much until the blender kicks, when they shout above the grinding and the trip-hop. The blender goes off and the quiet work resumes.

As Schwartz explains what it’s like to work here, he weaves conversation with tips to the workers. In another production room, a worker fidgets with a busted label dispenser and Schwartz steps in.

“Push this in, pull that out,” he says.

The machine works again, the worker continues adding labels and Schwartz walks on, explaining why the facility is gluten-free, not nut-free. Gluten is airborne, he says. If you drop a bag of flour, the particles go everywhere. However, if someone wants to work with nuts, they can be isolated in one room.

Bheem Ramchran

Bheem Ramchran

We watch a worker hold a heat gun and apply shrink seals to BAO ginger pickle shots. The worker, Bheem Ramchran, was born in Guyana. He wears a hair net and a T-shirt from Hella Bitter, one of the companies on the second floor. Ramchran says he likes working here, keeping busy, talking to people in the building.

He says: “make sure you do a good job for the guy, you know?”

The workers and the tenants want to do well for “the guy,” Schwartz, because he always wants to do well for them. While BAO production continues, he refers to the project as an expensive hobby. Instead, he spends most of his time consulting with the young entrepreneurs of the building, helping them with a busted sink or a new machine, offering advice about a certain retailer or distributor, answering all the dumb questions. It’s a job that requires versatility. It’s a job that develops by the day.

“It’s not profitable,” he says, “but I’m in business.”

The Tenants

Loading docks, storage spaces, refrigerators, bathrooms, parking lots. These things don’t make juice, but they’re necessary cogs of business. They come with costs that can burden startups. However, at incubation facilities like the OFI, these costs are covered, granting entrepreneurs more time to develop a brand, less time to brood about a thinning wallet.

The proposition fosters a community of entrepreneurism, attracting a hodgepodge of small but growing companies, such as Cup & Compass, a producer of lemonade, limeade and tea for food service companies. It appeals to Free Bread, a gluten-free bread maker. It appeals to LuliTonix, which makes juice and chia cleanses and elixirs.

“Everybody knows the same triumphs and the same frustrations,” says Liana Sugarman, the founder of LuliTonix.

For Love Grace, another of the several juice companies in the facility, the OFI isn’t just a production space — it’s a respite from another world, a troublesome world not too far away.

Meet Andrew Giangrandi, a New Yorker born-and-reared. Giangrandi, co-founder and CFO of Love Grace, grew up in Levittown, Long Island, about 30 miles east of the OFI. He lives in Fort Salonga, Long Island. He talks with a thick Island accent. Right out of Long Island University, he began working on the New York Mercantile Exchange. He endured the typical life of a broker in the big city:

The happy hours. The alcohol. The late dinners at the fancy restaurants. The alcohol. The non-stop entertainment. The alcohol.

“It catches up to you,” he says.

Giangrandi struggled to stay in shape; a fact that became difficult for him to bear. He’s had multiple gym memberships. He wanted a way to stabilize his lifestyle.

“Diet has always been, um, an issue,” he says.

His cousin, Jake Mabanta, introduced him to a healthier life of raw, vegan food, and Giangrandi started to make his own juices at home. The pair then thought about turning this into a full-time business.

love_grace_logo

Now working on the second floor of the OFI, Giangrandi and Mabanta talk about their company’s pervasiveness in New York. They talk about drawing consumers from the CSD category and the consumers who seek juice beyond Evolution Fresh, Suja and Blueprint. They talk about going national, maybe international, and they want to do it a little differently.

“We try to get the most badass, cool ingredients we can find,” Mabanta says.

Take their Longevity Tonic. The juice contains lemon, cayenne, agave, himalayan sea salt and shilajit, a medicinal substance found mainly in the Himalayas, known to improve cognitive function, according to The National Center for Biotechnology Information.

To see Giangrandi, a New Yorker since the good days (read: early days) of Darryl Strawberry, join the health-focused lifestyle of Mabanta and the other tenants at the OFI proves the community that Schwartz preaches. As a whole, they face the trials of the marketplace.

“People that are suffering together bond together,” Schwartz says.

Love Grace and TumericALIVE share a freight truck, for example. The brands have adjacent offices on the facility’s second floor. However, TumericALIVE has graduated from the OFI. After starting in founder Daniel Sullivan’s home and moving on to a church kitchen, the company arrived here. Now, their OFI office mostly serves as a mailing spot and a hangout. They produce elsewhere.

Nonetheless, the TumericALIVE office exemplifies the liberal culture of the OFI. An intern named Danielle files papers and drinks her company’s green juice while sitting on a yoga ball chair. A canvas of abstract art sits on the ground, leaning against the wall. Another piece of art that looks like a disassembled peacock hangs on the center wall. A stone Buddha meditates by the window. A box of Runa rests between an assortment of plants.

Alessandra Jackson, business development, sips water dyed green from a massive TumericALIVE bottle. She talks about the kinship here, how people swap drinks at lunch, discuss marketing events, collaborate on products, print stuff together.

Boyd, who makes cocktail mixers under the brand name Cocktail Crate, doesn’t have an office of his own. But the OFI is the kind of place that makes you excited to pick up mail, even if you’re not waiting on a letter. He shows up and discusses distributor relationships with Sullivan. He compares results at Whole Foods Bowery and Whole Foods Columbus Circle. Alongside Ariel Glazer of Kombrewcha, another of the building’s tenants, he prepares for a meeting with the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, which may offer them subsidies for the upcoming Fancy Food Show. At the OFI, help doesn’t come in one fashion.

“It completely runs the gamut,” Boyd says.

Over beers, Boyd talks about the fine details of the liquor industry and a shared distributor with the founders of Hella Bitter — Eduardo Simeon, Tobin Ludwig and Jomaree Pinkard.

Liquiteria's stock

Liquiteria’s stock on the OFI’s second floor

On the OFI’s second floor, beyond Liquiteria’s production space and a barricade of Liquiteria boxes that read “Killer X, Grasshopper, Royal Flush, Killer XX,” the Hella Bitter trio makes and markets upscale bitters for craft cocktails. They have about 1,200 gallons of bitters sitting there, ready for sale, in mason jars and Cambros and 30- to 55-gallon barrels.

Pinkard, a graduate of The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, brings a calming presence. Wearing a black baseball hat with the letters “HB” in red cursive and a Chicago Cubs shirt, he establishes structure in this place of communal madness. Ludwig, laconic with an air of wisdom, works as the flavor alchemist. Simeon, who sports thick-rimmed glasses, a smart button-down shirt, a swoop of gelled hair and a light beard, does most of the talking.

They formerly produced the bitters in Hot Bread Kitchen, a food and business incubation house for lower-income, foreign-born citizens. The Harlem-based kitchen focuses on multi-ethnic breads, but also rents space. Hella Bitter used to filter and macerate product there. However, moving into the OFI has provided them with a different kind of place; one with efficiencies and collective enthusiasm that counter the oft-draining grind of starting a business.

Simeon says: “It’s really been something special.”