Incubators, Part Two: Brooklyn’s New Medicine

BevNET recently visited two food and beverage incubators in New York. Yesterday, we covered the Organic Food Incubator in Long Island City, Queens. Today, we head to 630 Flushing Ave. in Brooklyn. Photographs by Jon Landis.

630 Flushing Ave., Brooklyn

For Lease: 630 Flushing Ave., Brooklyn

When Jeff Rosenblum moved into Brooklyn’s old Pfizer building in February 2011, they were still rolling the Viagra and the Lipitor out of the place. Rosenblum, the founder of Acumen Capital Partners LLC, dropped $26 million on the building, now called 630 Flushing. The move carried extraneous risk, beyond the innate gamble of dropping such coin on anything — be it a mansion/yacht/divorce combo or an eight-story edifice that needs refurbishing, not far from historic violence.

Looming above the borders of the Broadway Triangle, which connects the neighborhoods of Bushwick, Williamsburg and Bedford-Stuyvesant, 630 Flushing watchdogs the 31-acre slab of land, illuminating the contrast of its own identity — one of copacetic progress — and the area’s troubled past.

The New Yorker counters the tensions of Hasidic Jews and blacks in Brooklyn.

The New Yorker counters the tensions of Hasidic Jews and blacks in Brooklyn.

Three miles south, on President Street in August 1991, a Hasidic Jewish driver ran over and killed Gavin Cato, a 7-year-old black boy. The death initiated the three-day Crown Heights Riots. This street may pinpoint the daily racial collision, and so may the Broadway Triangle. The notorious Marcy and Tompkins Houses sit a few blocks southwest of the near-scalene Triangle. Union Ave. borders the west side, Broadway borders the east and Flushing Ave, home of 630 Flushing, borders the south.

Within the building itself, once Rosenblum took control, morphing a medicinal institution into a small-business incubator didn’t require negotiating too many steps. Because of the building’s Pfizer background, it was already approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. And while the building has medicinally-specific intricacies, it fits with entrepreneurs. It already had in-floor drains, running water, gas, washable floors, massive refrigeration systems, privatized spaces. Rosenblum cleaned the place, opened it as a shop for startups and they quickly filed in.

The building’s eight floors and nearly 600 square feet contain more than 50 food- and beverage-related businesses, such as the revered McClure’s Pickles and Brooklyn Soda Works, but there’s more to its contents than grub and drink. You can find something as rudimentary as a gym and a furniture maker to something as distinct as the New York Police Department’s counter-terrorism training center.

Rosenblum maintains a hands-off approach and rarely courts a tenant, however, each day he walks the building’s eight floors and talks with the people. He wants to house innovation and that requires discussion. He’s already working on a rooftop garden. He wants to install aquaponics to farm tilapia in the building.

“We’re in the first inning,” he says.

And innovation doesn’t sprout from any mind, so Rosenblum opts toward selectivity. In upstairs rehearsal spaces, musicians jam into the twilight. Techies do their own thing and assist tenants in need. The founders of Kelvin Natural Slush Co., a frozen beverage brand, graduated from Northwestern and left their jobs as attorneys to work here. Rosenblum says that while there’s no blueprint, the building’s tenants are usually smart, eclectic people.

“Maybe they played in the symphony,” he says.

Stephanie Walczak, the founder of Rawpothecary, a cleanse juice company, says that moving here was one of the best decisions of her life, and her words don’t seem hyperbolic. She arrived after a stint at the OFI. While she loved her time in the space, she experienced some hardships because of its communal nature: as tenants opened and closed the shared fridge throughout the day, temperature volatility led to occasional spoilage and cross-contamination. Here and there, she says, things went missing.

“It’s a great place to start,” she says. “But when you’re really moving forward in a very high production, when you’re under a lot of regulation, you have to move into a more privatized space.”

On-the-go entrepreneurs reap the benefits of the 600-car parking lot at 630 Flushing.

On-the-go entrepreneurs reap the benefits of the 600-car parking lot at 630 Flushing.

At the OFI, you park on the sidewalk of Borden Ave. and walk right in. Granted, a parking ticket rested on the windshield after my visit, but getting into the place felt like opening a neighbor’s back door and walking into the kitchen, just to see if anybody’s home. At 630 Flushing, you park on the street beyond a gate. You’re questioned by security — helpful and cordial — but security nonetheless. Before entering the building’s guts, you’re met by another layer of security, this time at a desk. Again, helpful and cordial, but security nonetheless.

Walczak appreciates the tenant-by-tenant independence of 630 Flushing, where she keeps her own 40-by-40 foot fridge at 36 degrees throughout the day. She built her own water-filtration system. She can produce 20,000 bottles per day here and has the capacity for more, which suits her ambition. Rawpothecary juice sells across the city, can be found from Maine to Maryland, and she projects national distribution in a year to a year and a half.

She says that the space isn’t cheap and that it’s not for everybody, but, there’s no shortage of camaraderie. She regularly shares and sells her juice to tenants. Bartering has become commonplace. Only here since August, she says that she’s made wonderful friends.

Eric Childs, however, has been around for a while. Kombucha Brooklyn, of which Childs serves as the founder and CEO, was the building’s first tenant under Rosenblum. The company has been here for half of its five-year existence. After shuffling rooms a few times, the team settled on the fifth floor. Their windows provide a clear view of the Broadway Triangle; its angles, its unkempt body.

No brand but Kombucha Brooklyn, he says, both offers a homebrew kit and produces scobies, those alien pancakes that sway their tendrils in the golden liquid. Childs has mastered a recipe that enables him to grow scobies in four days. Most companies, he says, do the same in two weeks.

As the first tenant, Childs feels an obligation to encourage togetherness in 630 Flushing, which he calls “the dormitory for small business food.” He helps run a happy hour on the first Tuesday of every month and serves kombucha and craft beer. He brought a DJ along, but didn’t know his name, so he just says “D.J. Awesome, spinning the ill beats.”

In the Kombucha Brooklyn office, the scent of vinegar stings the air. It’s sour. It stays with you long after leaving the place. Childs talks about how, despite the area’s development, it hasn’t fully shed its hard-knocks history. Not long ago, a friend of his arrived at 630 Flushing wearing fresh scrapes, raspberries here, raspberries there. He was jumped on the way to work, but shrugged it off.

kb bk office

The view from Kombucha Brooklyn’s office on the fifth floor.

Childs contemplates, gazing out the windows of his office, toward the Triangle, toward the concrete and the detritus and the mechanical existence of North Brooklyn — the foreground to the ubiquitous tops of Manhattan’s skyline.

“When you’re looking at Manhattan, you feel like taking over the world,” he says. “When you’re in Manhattan, you feel like running away from the world.”

Incubation houses, like 630 Flushing and like the OFI, promise nothing to their tenants. You may flop tomorrow. You may gestate into relevance. You may swell into the next staple of New York, or the country. Being here, though, you’re due to find out, and you’ll do so together. That’s the camaraderie in the crèche.

Just outside of 630 Flushing, a young black girl crosses the street. She holds a bottle filled with water. The label reads: Sparkling ICE. It’s just outside of the building. It’s just outside.