Designing New York’s Food Future

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The Final Mile concluded in March 2016 with a panel discussion at the SVA Theatre in Chelsea. Part of the inspiration for the Final Mile was the swelling interest in food evident through the proliferation of farmer’s markets, food festivals, celebrity chefs, and food selfies. Every new development currently being built or proposed in New York has some food component such as a food hall or market or other unique dining experience. Yet with all of this interest and focus on food, nearly 3 million New Yorkers are still without adequate access to fresh food. Over the course of the series, OHNY visited nearly 30 different sites, from food incubators to urban farms, to food halls and distribution markets. As a whole, the Final Mile looked at how food has shaped the physical city over time and to begin to consider how the surging interest in food may continue to shape the city in the future.

To round out the series and to specifically tackle the question of the future of the city and its food system, Open House New York invited four panelists to join executive director Gregory Wessner in conversation. Panelists included: Kathleen Bakewell, a new York-based landscape architect, founding principal of Brook Farm Group, and executive director of BioCities; Carolyn Dimitri, an applied economist who studies food systems and policy and the current director of the Food Studies PhD program at NYU; Adam Lubinksy, managing principal at WXY Architecture and Urban Design; and Ray Figeuroa, a long-time advocate for community gardens and president of the New York City Community Garden Coalition. What follows here is a selection of excerpts from the discussion.

OHNY > The Final Mile > Designing New York’s Food Future

Left to right: Ray Figueroa, Kathleen Bakewell, Adam Lubinskk, Carolyn Dimitri, and Gregory Wessner (Photo: David Mark Erickson)

Gregory Wessner: One of the things that became painfully obvious during The Final Mile-which we also heard in the series on manufacturing that Open House did in 2014-is that there is a hyper-intense competition for land in New York, especially for the kinds of services that are necessary to meet the city’s basic needs like commercial kitchens and food distribution facilities and warehouses. Land in New York is inevitably used for housing-even in areas where it is expressly forbidden by zoning-because housing will always deliver the greatest economic return. I don’t know that there is an answer to this question, but even if we all agree that we need more housing, and more affordable housing, how do we reconcile all of these needs competing for a limited amount of space?

Ray Figeuroa: Sure, let’s take a stab at it. I’m thinking of a grandmother up at Brook Park who says, “I’m so grateful for my plot where I can grow my squash and my beans. When rent is due, at least it takes the edge off of me in terms of providing for my family.” You can go around to any number of neighborhoods–I look at East Harlem, I look at the South Bronx, well over 50% of folks are rent burdened in these areas of the city, as I’m sure they are in similarly situated communities in Brooklyn and other parts of the city. About a quarter are extremely rent burdened and when you are rent burdened, you become food insecure.

We gardeners understand and appreciate affordability of housing. We think that there are enough creative minds. With two community development organizations, the New York City Community Garden Coalition and Brook Park, we just submitted proposals to the Economic Development Corporation, to do housing development that incorporates urban farming and community gardens.

Adam Lubinsky: I think one of the ways in which the de Blasio administration is starting to address the issue of affordability, and one of the solutions, is to look at more of what we call density: how do you get more out of your city? Some of that means building up, but also increasingly that means figuring out how to mix different kinds of things together. That may be where people live, and that may be where people work, and that also may be where people garden. A lot of it is both a design and planning challenge.

I think that we’re coming out of an age in which we felt like places of work, places of residence, and places where you shop needed to be separated because there was a lot of noxious production. There still are questions about how best to do this, but I think we are definitely starting to think about ways to mix certain places of production where people live. Creating spaces for gardens–there’s a production side to it, but these spaces also create incredible community capacity. Integrating those community spaces is part of it.

OHNY > The Final Mile > Designing New York’s Food Future

(Photo: David Mark Erickson)

Kathleen Bakewell: To add on to what Adam was saying, I think we are getting more and more creative about the surfaces we’re looking at; some people are talking about vertical gardens. Rooftops, all rooftops, are now open to being claimed for green and open space, not just for food. I marvel every day when I look around the streets and I see thousands and thousands of private cars sitting there empty. To me, that’s another opportunity. That’s a lot of space, maybe not for gardens per se, but claim it for something else and give space to gardens. There’s still a lot of potential that hasn’t been tapped yet. I think we have to keep scraping away at it, going more dense, and looking for all those tiny spaces, or even larger ones.

Carolyn Dimitri: I’m a runner. I go up to Central Park to run and I see all of those empty apartments. A housing policy that allows people coming from other countries and bidding up apartment prices puts a lot of pressure on people who want to live here. In Copenhagen you’re not allowed to own an apartment unless someone lives in it. I know that Denmark is often held up as having this “terrible” socialist way to live, but it’s a very dense city and housing prices are significantly lower than New York. I think that would relieve a lot of pressure on the world, but it might also be considered un-American.

GW: Carolyn, you brought up the point earlier that it’s not going to be very easy to make changes to the food system because maybe we all like the idea of really good food, and we’re willing to pay a lot of money for it. I think it’s a really important point to bring up because we do have an urban population that is supported and made possible by an industrialized food system. The alternatives are not of a scale to regularly feed 8.5 million people. Before the panel, Kathleen, you were saying, “This system grew up over the past 150 years,” which you said was not a long time. Looking forward 150 years, how do we transform this system?

CD: I have a lot of opinions on that and I think about this a lot. I think we have social goals. We want to feed people. We want the environment to be of high quality. We want to take care of our agro-ecosystems and our ecosystems, so I think the problem is right now our food system and our federal policy supports cheap food. It really overlooks these other aspects of life that are related to food. We want the agro-ecosystem to be able to produce for generations to come. To me, it’s more of a hybrid that we need some industrialized food, but we also need some organic food and we need some food that’s grown with more organic practices. I tend to think that if somehow we could end up with some portfolio of food production systems, that that might actually meet the needs of society. I don’t think voting with your fork is really going to be sufficient to force that, but I do think that policy and regulation could put us along that path a little bit faster.

OHNY > The Final Mile > Designing New York’s Food Future

(Photo: David Mark Erickson)

GW: In terms of the food system, what do you think is New York’s single greatest challenge and what is its single greatest advantage?

KB: I think people are the single greatest advantage. The brilliance that we have in this region, it’s really mind-boggling. The greatest challenge, I guess, is the pressures on land and entrenched attitudes about how to use land.

AL: Land pressures really, really make things a major challenge here. I think the attention paid to what we eat is increasing and that the desire for organic food, local agriculture, and local production in cities is only going to grow. It’s grown in other places in the world and that will start to have an impact on the city. Since the city is going to get denser, I think people are going to care more about the quality of the environment within the city and that will have knock-on effects to how we approach food, how we approach industry. It’s a good time to be an urban planner because these systems are going to need to be controlled and looked at more carefully.

CD: I’ll bring up a slightly different point. I think the biggest challenge really is the huge income inequality in the city. I think that makes it really difficult to steer policy or for the market to provide what citizens really need. I think the most positive thing is the people. I haven’t been in New York all that long, just six years, and I’m amazed at how people in New York City love food. It’s really nice to see.

RF: I want to concur with Kathleen that the greatest resource is people. In the communities where I work, in the South Bronx as well as citywide, most community gardens are found in low-income areas of the city. Community gardens have served as vehicles, as hubs, for community organizing and for civic engagement. When you have food, when you’re moving food in a community, you’re able to organize in that community. Community gardens are highly visible, so folks in the community can see something good going on and really, really get excited about that and want to join in those efforts.

OHNY > The Final Mile > Designing New York’s Food Future

(Photo: David Mark Erickson)

Tour Recap: Le District

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New Yorkers have a remarkable ability to manage the anxiety that naturally stems from sharing public space with the other eight million people who call this city home. We have become accustomed to packing in like sardines on our morning subway commutes and exercise considerable grit to stock up at Trader Joe’s on Sunday afternoons.

When work began on a new food hall at Brookfield Place, across from the World Trade Center, HPH Hospitality selected ICRAVE precisely for its skill in designing for these realities. Founded in 2002 by Lionel Ohayon, ICRAVE is an experience design firm with a deep portfolio of work in hospitality design. As Ohayon put it, many of the projects the firm works on are about “managing anxiety” in spaces that often precipitate it, such as airports and hospitals. HPH brought ICRAVE onto the project for the express purpose of making what would be a highly trafficked site into a vibrant and functional market.

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The tour started off with glasses of champagne, courtesy of our guides from HPH and ICRAVE. (Photo: Ben Helmer)

For the third installment of a series of food hall tours organized as part of The Final Mile: Food Systems of New York, Open House New York hosted a tour with Ohayon and HPH Hospitality owner Peter Poulakakos at Le District on March 3rd. The two men behind the concept and design of the French-themed, 30,000 sq ft food hall began the tour by providing some context for the space’s development.

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Lionel Ohayon, center, describes much of his firm ICRAVE’s work—which includes airport terminals and hospitals in addition to commercial spaces like Le District—as the art of “managing anxiety.” (Photo: Ben Helmer)

While HPH looked to ICRAVE for its expertise in hospitality design, neither firm had worked on a food hall before Le District; the result is an “ever-evolving, living market,” Poulakakos explained. Although the fare is French, originally the partners did not know what kind of food they would highlight, so more of Le District’s initial inspiration came from its neighborhood context.

As Battery Park City and Lower Manhattan were redeveloped in the years following September 11, with more and more residents moving in, the neighborhood still lacked a vibrant streetscape. Ohayon and Poulakakos saw their food hall as an opportunity to “extend the sidewalk” and create a streetscape that was otherwise noticeably absent outside its doors. In addition to carving an inviting passageway through Brookfield Place, the Le District team also needed to bring the streetscape to life within the space itself, which they accomplished through design.

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Maps in the space help visitors to navigate between the food hall’s four ‘districts,’ where they can do everything from grab a cup of coffee, to take care of grocery shopping for the week, to sit down for dinner with friends. (Photo: Ben Helmer)

ICRAVE’s design and material selection for each District disrupts uniformity in the venue, and replicates the expansion and contraction of New York’s diverse built environment. That is not to say the food hall feels disjointed; Poulakakos explained there is “a slick industrial tone throughout, but each area has a unique feel.”

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HPH Hospitality’s Peter Poulakakos, left, noted that Le District’s design has “a slick industrial tone throughout, but each area has a unique feel.” (Photo: Ben Helmer)

Le District is about a 50-50 split between shopping and dining. The hall is made up of the Café District, with coffee, ice cream, a bakery, and a crepe and waffle stand; the Garden District, with a grocery store selling prepared foods, gifts, and other staples; the Market District, the central hub with a wine bar and gourmet food stations; and the Restaurant District, including a French brasserie and bar as well as the informal but high end dining room L’Appart.

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HPH Hospitality decided to try something new and develop a food hall at the site, in order to help create a stronger sense of place within the relatively new neighborhood of Battery Park City. HPH is the company behind a host of well-known restaurants around the city, including the recently restored Pier A, just a few blocks away. (Photo: Ben Helmer)

Another component of Le District’s success since it opened last year has been the ability to adapt and modify the space on the fly, in response to user feedback. For example, the flower shop was originally located in the Café District, but the team realized that it did not fit into the flow of the market, so they are in the process of moving it into the Garden District which will allow the ice cream shop to expand into the former flower area. They have also greatly expanded the Biergarten on the marina outside the Restaurant District after the premium views of the Hudson River and beyond proved to be exceedingly popular during warmer months.

All of this flexibility exemplifies ICRAVE’s design process: “the project never really ends,” says Ohayon. Just as the surrounding neighborhood continues to grow and change, so will Le District. The adaptable nature of the project, both on the part of the market purveyor as well as the designer, illustrates the intention for food to create a strong sense of place, a thread that defines food halls in New York.

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Much of the action during the tour, held on a cold February night, was indoors—but come warmer weather, Le District will spill out onto the adjacent plaza with an expansive Biergarten. (Photo: Ben Helmer)

Tour Recap: Berg’n

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In a city as culturally dense as New York, and in a world where the next social media fad can single-handedly launch an entire brand, finding a niche as an independent restaurateur has become increasingly difficult. That makes the story of Brooklyn entrepreneurs Jonathan Butler and Eric Demby’s foray into the New York food scene all the more remarkable. Butler and Demby have become household names for their joint ventures Brooklyn Flea, Smorgasburg, and more recently Berg’n.

Launched in 2008, Brooklyn Flea is an outdoor flea market (indoor during the colder months in Industry City) featuring a highly curated selection of artisan vendors. Operating across multiple locations in Brooklyn, the Flea has become “one of the great urban experiences in New York,” according to The New York Times. Not surprisingly, Smorgasburg, the duo’s food-centric spin-off launched in 2011, quickly became equally if not more successful than the Flea. With locations at East River State Park in Williamsburg, Prospect Park, the South Street Seaport, and Central Park SummerStage, Smorgasburg attracts thousands of visitors every week to sample hundreds of local food vendors.

But the more recent success of their latest venture, Berg’n, which opened in 2014, offers a significant departure for Butler and Demby from the large-scale, outdoor marketplace of Smorgasburg. While working on a Crown Heights office and creative space redevelopment, the business partners saw an opportunity to translate their bread and butter into a new kind of food hall through fixed architecture.

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Selldorf partner Lisa Green (center right) started off with an introduction to the project in the lobby of 1000 Dean Street, Butler and Demby’s creative office development, which is directly connected to Berg’n. (Photo: OHNY)

On a windy, rainy Wednesday evening Open House New York hosted visitors at Berg’n for a tour and talk with Lisa Green, a partner at Selldorf Architects, and Jen Watson, general manager of Berg’n. Green and Watson began in the lobby of 1000 Dean Street. The property directly abuts what became Berg’n and was the project that led to the idea for opening a new food hall. A former Studebaker showroom, 1000 Dean was designed by Selldorf Architects as flexible office space for smaller, creative companies that were in transition from co-working spaces to larger offices. Located in the heart of Crown Heights, one of the most rapidly-gentrifying parts of Brooklyn, 1000 Dean features offices ranging from 500 to 3,000 sq ft.

With an influx of creative professionals, there was a need for a place to grab a coffee, a quick lunch, or a beer after work. The team behind 1000 Dean quickly realized they could fill this need in the adjoining garage space with a food hall. A short staircase and hallway provides easy access for office tenants between Berg’n and the lobby of 1000 Dean. Building on the popularity of Smorgasburg, the Berg’n team created a 9,000 sq ft beer hall with four rotating food vendors offering a variety of cuisines in addition to a small coffee and pastry bar that is open during the day.

Watson and Green discussed the process of creating Berg'n in the event space.

Watson and Green discussed the process of creating Berg’n in the event space, which often plays host to private parties and gatherings. (Photo: OHNY)

From the outset, Butler and Demby worked with Selldorf with the intention of creating a communal space that was inviting to everyone, both the workers at 1000 Dean as well as the larger community of which Berg’n is a part. To channel that aspiration, Selldorf designed a series of long picnic tables to facilitate sociability. Since the food vendors were locally curated, Selldorf also wanted to source their materials locally, and the minimalist design, Green explained, made that easier to achieve. The picnic tables are made from reclaimed pinewood sourced from a local wallpaper factory that was torn down and the vintage bar was also found locally.

Formerly a row of four garages, the architects completely gutted the interior to open the space up, with one of the middle garages removed entirely to create an outdoor courtyard. New garage doors were installed on the remaining garages that could retract in warmer months to connect with the life of the street. The food kiosk design was intended to draw customers to the self-contained kitchens, where 85% of the cooking occurs (Watson noted that to be successful, vendors must have an offsite commissary kitchen where the initial 15% of food prep takes place).

In the year and a half since it opened, Berg’n has successfully established itself as a destination and a hub. In addition to weddings and bar mitzvahs, Berg’n also hosts community meetings and even card and game nights for local residents and families. Watson noted the demographic diversity of Berg’n guests in terms of age and ethnicity. She also explained how the great diversity of New York’s food scene, and in particular Crown Heights, is reflected in the vendors themselves. Berg’n features Ed & Bev’s* (a Detroit style “Coney” diner), Lumpia Shack, (Filipino), Samesa (Mediterranean), and the Smorgasburg staple, Mighty Quinn’s BBQ. (*Since OHNY’s tour, Berg’n replaced Ed & Bev’s with sandwich/burger/taco shop El Meat Hook.)

Berg’n’s vintage bar was found locally. (Photo: Selldorf Architects)

That diversity is in turn supported by Berg’n’s business model. Unlike some of the larger food halls, which rent space to tenants for a fixed monthly fee, Berg’n vendors pay a percentage of their overall monthly revenue. This fosters a more collaborative business arrangement; as Watson put it, Berg’n is “operating with” its vendors to ensure their mutual success. This also allows Berg’n to be flexible with its vendors. Individual contracts are specific to a vendor’s needs; some only want to be in the space for five weeks as a pop-up, while others prefer longer leases that they can renew. In much the same way that Smorgasburg does, this model enables Berg’n to serve as an incubator for chefs looking to experiment or refine their craft without the huge capital investment of their own brick-and-mortar establishment. Mighty Quinn’s, for example, started at Smorgasburg, then opened at Berg’n, and has since expanded to multiple locations throughout New York.

The rotation of vendors, of which there have been several so far, is also an important draw for Berg’n; Watson hinted that they would soon be announcing a new lineup, with some exciting surprises ahead. As New York’s food hall landscape becomes more and more crowded, Berg’n has firmly established itself and has already made a lasting impression on the community it calls home.

Tour Recap: Eataly

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If there is an architectural symbol of New Yorkers’ current food obsession, it has to be the food hall. As one of the first to open during this most recent food hall boom, Eataly provided an excellent jumping-off point for Open House New York to launch its series of food hall tours. Organized as part of The Final Mile: Food Systems of New York, OHNY hosted a group of visitors at Eataly for a tour with Diana Revkin, managing director of the retail studio at TPG Architecture. As the architect behind Eataly, TPG played an integral role in the design and execution of the “largest Italian marketplace in the world,” which was developed in partnership with the in-house creative team at Batali and Bastianich Hospitality Group (B&BHG) and the Italian planning team from Eataly.

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Diana Revkin (center), managing director of the retail studio at TPG Architecture, led the tour. (Photo: OHNY)

A joint venture between Italian businessman Oscar Farinetti and B&BHG, Eataly opened in 2010 to much fanfare and has sustained great success ever since. The market features distinctly Italian flavors, in both the food and the design, for a dining and shopping experience that is inspired as much by Italy as it is by the frenetic city just outside the market’s doors.

Fresh produce is displayed near Eataly’s entrance; TPG brought in a lighting specialist to design specific fixtures in each section of the store to help bring out the unique colors of each product. (Photo: OHNY)

Revkin began by leading the group through the produce section at the front of the store. With fresh fruits and vegetables displayed in carts and baskets, this narrow entranceway acclimates customers to the feel of the Italian streetscape, which is replicated throughout Eataly. TPG worked within the footprint of the building’s historic cruciform floor plan to encourage visitors to slowly drift between the small shops and restaurants, taking a circuitous route to experience the variety of spaces rather than moving mechanically as one might in a modern grocery store. As a result, the energy of the space is heightened, especially when the store is crowded (which it often is), in a way with which many New Yorkers are very familiar.

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During the tour, Eataly staff enjoyed a Friday morning breakfast in La Piazza. (Photo: OHNY)

One of the best examples of Eataly’s vitality is La Piazza, which is located in the lobby space of the hotel that originally occupied the building when it opened in 1856. The team designed La Piazza as an ode to the central square of an Italian village. Revkin explained that TPG tried to preserve much of the original architecture, including the marble niches that frame La Piazza’s four corners, each of which was carved from a single massive piece of stone. The ceiling was dropped to cover a number of major pipes that ran above the space, but the combination of industrial elements and the hotel’s distinctive architecture is apparent throughout the interior.

After winding through the market, Revkin ended the tour by answering questions about some of the broader implications of hospitality design and Eataly’s presence within the fabric of the city. The food hall’s construction coincided with a “renaissance of retail spaces” in the area, to borrow Revkin’s turn of phrase. Following Eataly’s opening in 2010, retail rent around the Flatiron District has risen by nearly $200/sq ft.

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Caffe Vergnano is one of several shops located within the food hall. (Photo: OHNY)

Eataly houses a number of shops, including Caffe Lavazza, Caffe Vergnano, and the Nutella Bar. The collection of small vendors, food retail, and sit-down eateries is a model that many food halls have experimented with, in varying proportions, but at the time Eataly opened it was an exciting and surprising format for New Yorkers. Since then, it has developed into a premium tourist destination, a gourmet grocer, and an Italian food lover’s dream. Looking across the rest of the city, it is hard not to see Eataly’s opening and remarkable success as one of the sparks that ignited the current food hall boom.

Eataly has an extensive selection of fresh pasta. (Photo: OHNY)

Eataly has an extensive selection of fresh pasta. (Photo: OHNY)

As contemporary food halls continue to evolve, the design of this particular space has undoubtedly had an effect on what New Yorkers envision when they think of what a food hall is. Asked how her colleagues at TPG think and talk about food halls, Revkin confirmed that it is a frequent and robust topic of conversation. “But there are no definitive answers,” she observed. “There are a lot of great questions about what comes next.”

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This festive spring display of chocolate Easter rabbits was one of the most memorable on the day of the tour. (Photo: OHNY)

Food Halls for Modern Life

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If there is an architectural expression of New York’s current obsession with food, it is the food hall. Combining elements of the enclosed public markets of the 19th century with the food courts of the 1970s, today’s food halls constitute, as one writer observed, “the most significant development in restaurant real estate this decade.”

In contrast to the tightly choreographed space of a restaurant, in which architecture and food unite in support of a single chef’s vision, food halls bring together a vibrant mix of vendors, cuisines, and activities under one roof—a commingling of takeout counters and cafes, bars and grocers, kitchen suppliers and community hubs. For consumers, they offer options; for chefs and purveyors, they are incubators for new ideas; for developers, they are important amenities in a crowded marketplace.

The elasticity of the food hall model is more than just a gimmick. With land costs and storefront space in New York more expensive than ever, food halls can be seen as a necessary adaptation by chefs and purveyors, a way to reduce capital investments while sustaining the city as a dynamic culinary hub. Where food courts of the past were all about speed and value, today’s food halls feature “curated collections” of vendors that celebrate and foreground the sourcing of ingredients and the process of making. This reflects a desire on the part of owners and tenants alike to foster a certain attitude or aesthetic, allowing the popularity of a given site (and its potency as a space for experimentation) to transcend fads and outlast the explosive boom-bust cycle that can be triggered by the viral success of a particular dish.

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For diners living in the age of #FOMO, food halls provide maximum flexibility for gatherings and display. Food halls allow eaters to mix and match, to try new things, to come and go as they please, and to offer a multiplicity of sources for posting to social media. There was a time when snagging a reservation for a hot restaurant was a marker of social currency. Today, it is the Instagram photo of the hottest new dish.

Food halls are more and more becoming places where neighbors and friends bump into each other unexpectedly, serving a function similar to the city’s bustling sidewalks. These types of casual interactions are what build a sense of community in a neighborhood over time, and add a sense of serendipity to urban life. At the same time, food halls are seen by some as totems of gentrification, spaces that, while open to all, may only seem welcoming to a few.

By exploring the design, function, and management of these spaces, the last set of tours in Open House New York’s The Final Mile series will examine what urban food halls can tell us about how we eat—and live—now.

Click here to visit the Schedule page for a full list of programs.

Tour Recap: Moore Street Market

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On a rainy Saturday morning in 1968, looking out over Moore Street in the East Williamsburg section of Brooklyn from a second-story window, the view would have been striking. That was the year that the Anibal Meats Market opened on the block of Moore between Humboldt Street and bustling Graham Avenue, and shopkeeper Angelo, who remembers the market from his childhood, can recall seeing hundreds of umbrellas forming a massive, undulating canopy in inclement weather. “It was so busy on the weekends,” Angelo recalls, “all you could see were the umbrellas, moving like waves.”

Today, the block in question is quieter, but it remains an important food hub for the surrounding neighborhood, as well as a launching pad for local businesses. Still owned and operated by the City of New York, the Moore Street Market is one of several public market sheds created by the city in the 1930s, with others on Essex Street in Manhattan and Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. As part of The Final Mile: Food Systems of New York, Open House New York partnered with Brooklyn-based Turnstile Tours for a tour of the market and its surrounding neighborhood to learn about the history of the city’s oft-forgotten public market system.

The tour group met at Anibal, which is located just across from the Moore Street Market, to sample some Puerto Rican pork. Before its current incarnation, the market was run by a Polish family, back when the neighborhood was home to a large Eastern European immigrant community. The shift in ownership reflected the changing demographics of the neighborhood, which became a Puerto Rican enclave following World War II. The area remains diverse, and Angelo noted that many locals had been coming to his business long before he owned it. “The same people that shopped here when it was a Polish market are still coming,” he said. “Now, we’re serving their grandchildren, too.”

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Turnstile Tours’ Cindy VandenBosch shows the group historical photos of the block. (Photo: Shelly Sang)

For their part, Turnstile’s Cindy VandenBosch and Andrew Gustafson first became interested in the area about seven years ago, when they learned about the Moore Street Market and its history as a local food hub while researching 19th century German brewing in the area. Intrigued by the clear impact that the market had had on its neighborhood—a large number of the surrounding businesses remain food-focused, long after the public market’s heyday—they undertook an oral history project to record the stories of market vendors, shoppers, shopkeepers, and other local characters.

VandenBosch shared historic photos and maps of the area from the years leading up to the market’s establishment. Before the city began regulating street commerce more directly in the 1920s and 30s through the creation of the Department of Public Markets, New York was known the world over for its pushcarts. These mobile shops were relatively easy (and cheap) for newly arrived immigrants to set up, making pushcart vending an important entry point into the American economy. As a result, pushcarts clogged many city streets, turning whole neighborhoods into informal market districts.

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The market’s interior is flooded with natural light thanks to overhead skylights. (Photo: Shelly Sang)

Pushcart vendors were known for being a bit aggressive (the term “schlepping” refers to the practice of vendors literally grabbing passersby by the coat and dragging them over to their carts), and Mayor La Guardia made it his mission to clear them from the streets, passing regulation that forced vendors into permanent, city-built market halls. According to VandenBosch, vendors in these new indoor markets were even required to wear white jackets. “The idea was to professionalize vending,” she explained. “Also, if you’re a vendor behind a fixed stall, you can’t grab someone walking by!”

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The market features a mix of food vendors, like this produce stand, and other local businesses. (Photo: Shelly Sang)

The Moore Street Market opened in 1941, and more than 800 people turned up for opening day. The market was designed with space for 150 vendors. It has been significantly reconfigured over the years, though, and contains just a few dozen vendors today. Now, city markets are managed by the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC), which is working with existing vendors to re-think the marketing for this local food hub as its neighborhood begins to see signs of gentrification. The Moore Street Market is located right at the hinge point between Williamsburg and Bushwick; across the street is NYCHA’s Bushwick Houses, a forest of 20-story towers housing almost 3,000 New Yorkers. More than a half dozen other NYCHA projects stand within a half-mile of the market shed. The neighborhood remains largely Puerto Rican, and many of the vendor stalls are Minority-Owned Businesses.

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Sampling fritters at the America Coffee Shop. (Photo: Shelly Sang)

Inside the market, participants sampled baked goods at a number of stalls, including delicious corn fritters at the America Coffee Shop. The stall’s owner, Drego, has a microphone in his stall that hooks up to a sound system throughout the market. On weekends, he hosts a live radio program where he chats with people who are passing through the market, chatting up customers about what they’re buying, and what’s going on in their lives. Sometimes, VandenBosch noted, customers will even take the mic themselves and interview each other.

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Body & Soul Bakeshop founder Deborah Gavito spoke with the group about how the market serves as a central base of operations for her business. (Photo: Shelly Sang)

Moore Street is also the site of the central bakeries for businesses that are well-known in other parts of the city, including Greenmarket staple Body & Soul, and Bed-Stuy’s Re-Connect, which provides local youth with entry level jobs. “We teach young people how to connect with their community,” explained Re-Connect’s Daytwan. “We tell them, the same energy that you put into illegal stuff, you can put into legal stuff, and in ways that keep money coming back into the community. These kids learn how to make everything from muffins to cheesecake.”

The last stop on the tour was Eden’s Organic Juice. George, the owner, is a fireman for the FDNY, and runs the juice stand as a side business with his wife. He noted that they had recently expanded their business into a second, adjacent stall, and that they were working with the city to build a garden on the Moore Street Market’s roof so that they could grow some of the fruits used in their uncommonly delicious organic juice blends on-site. “The more you can do locally,” he noted, explaining his thinking on the importance of the market as a neighborhood food hub, “you avoid that whole trip that food has to take to get to you.”

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George, an FDNY fireman, runs Eden’s Organic Juice with his wife and kids. (Photo: Shelly Sang)

Tour Recap: Good Eggs Food Hub

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New York City–often portrayed as a world capital of takeout–has seen a boom in recent years in cooking at home as the “foodie” craze has ramped up. Still, New Yorkers have ways of keeping their favorite part of takeout–the delivery–as a central feature of home cooking. Grocery delivery services have become a major force in New York’s food distribution system, an increasingly crowded field dominated by companies like Fresh Direct, Amazon’s Amazon Fresh, Instacart, and Peapod.

On August 3rd, Open House New York organized a tour of Good Eggs, a Brooklyn-based online food delivery service in East Williamsburg operating at the opposite end of the scale. Good Eggs bills itself as a “farmers’ market meets online grocery,” and has taken on the mission of connecting smaller regional and local farmers and food producers to the urban market.

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Good Eggs’ Brooklyn food hub was located in a warehouse in East Williamsburg, near the Newtown Creek. (Photo: OHNY)

As Open House New York learned on an earlier tour to the Hunts Point Produce Market, the scale of operations at the city’s food distribution center in the Bronx is such that many smaller producers cannot compete; they simply cannot provide their products in large enough quantities to do business with the wholesalers that supply so much of the New York’s food. As Produce Market manager Myra Gordon lamented at the time, this is despite the fact that produce wholesalers are seeing soaring public interest in purchasing locally produced food—a greater priority for more people, Gordon observed, than organics.

Good Eggs was founded in 2011 to take advantage of the connectivity that the internet makes possible. After establishing a foothold in San Francisco, the company expanded, opening local food hubs in Brooklyn, Los Angeles, and New Orleans. The Brooklyn outpost had a markedly youthful feel, especially compared to more established, large-scale distribution centers like those in Hunts Point. The space, large and bright, was designed for maximum flexibility, with very few fixed features.

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The humble plastic bin is the central organizing unit of organization within Good Eggs’ distribution system. (Photo: OHNY)

The tour, led by Good Eggs’ marketing director Summer Rayne Oakes, began in the morning, shortly before deliveries began coming in. As things picked up, employees began to rearrange metal racks containing hundreds of plastic bins, rapidly transforming the open central area of the warehouse into a temporary repack room. Before long, the bins were filling up with everything from fresh produce to locally manufactured frozen foods. Good Eggs kept almost no food at the warehouse on a long-term basis; the facility served only as a distribution center, taking in perishable goods that had already been sold, packing items together to fulfill orders, and sending the food right back out as quickly as it came in.

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Over the course of the tour, employees rapidly transformed the open central area of the warehouse into a temporary re-pack room. (Photo: OHNY)

Oakes noted that Good Eggs’ model was very hands-on, and that the operations team at the Brooklyn food hub worked closely with the vendors that sold on the company’s online site to ensure that the platform was a good fit. Once a vendor had established an online presence, Good Eggs then helped them to expand their reach, both through the sale of new products and through growth beyond the immediate area. The company was committed to minimizing food waste, and a surplus or shortage at one food hub could mean an opportunity for a vendor to think bigger. “Every food hub goes through cycles,” Oakes said, “so we do trade things with other [Good Eggs] hubs. We also try to give food makers opportunities to spread their wings and test out expanding into different markets.”

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“The idea of moving from a technology company to a food distribution company, as the business evolved, was a huge shift,” explained marketing director Summer Rayne Oakes, center. (Photo: OHNY)

Face-to-face interaction is as a cornerstone of the food industry, and it was no different at Good Eggs. Even for a technology company focused exclusively on online sales, Good Eggs relies heavily on these same kinds of direct relationships with their vendors on the back end. “The idea of moving from a technology company to a food distribution company, as the business evolved, was a huge shift,” Oakes explained.

Sadly, despite its best efforts, Good Eggs had difficulties making this shift successfully—at least in New York. Just two days after the tour, the company’s founder announced the abrupt closure of the food hubs in Brooklyn, Los Angeles, and New Orleans, refocusing efforts on Good Eggs’ home market of San Francisco. According to founder Rob Spiro’s blog post explaining the decision:

What we didn’t fully understand when we started was that we were creating a new category that required a different approach to supply chains, logistics, and commerce – all of the pieces of getting food from local producers to the kitchens of our customers…The single biggest mistake we made was growing too quickly, to multiple cities, before fully figuring out the challenges of building an entirely new food supply chain. We were motivated by enthusiasm for our mission and eagerness to bring Good Eggs to more people. But the best of intentions were not enough to overcome the complexity. Today we realize that in order to continue innovating in San Francisco, our original market, in order to continue figuring out all the complexity that is required to achieve our mission, we cannot productively maintain operations in other cities.

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Insulated packs allowed Good Eggs to deliver food kept in its huge industrial refrigerator directly to customers’ doors without breaking the cold chain. (Photo: OHNY)

With Good Eggs gone, a creative link between customers and vendors has been severed, reducing access to locally produced food despite surging demand. This will inconvenience customers but, as Eater detailed in an article shortly after the news broke, it will have an outsize impact on the vendors that came to rely on Good Eggs’ platform—especially the small producers that scaled up their operations at Good Eggs’ suggestion. It further underscores the high level of risk involved in running a food business, especially at smaller scales.

For these businesses, the high costs of the ‘final mile’ in the urban food distribution chain can often prove prohibitive, and there’s not likely going to be a simple solution. As with many systemic challenges facing the city, the answers to the question of how to connect New Yorkers to local and regional food will necessarily be as varied and complex as the city itself.

Tour Recap: Union Square Greenmarket

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“These two acres,” says Greenmarket director Michael Hurwitz, standing in the center of Manhattan’s Union Square Greenmarket, “represent 18,000 across the region.” Hurwitz, who was addressing a group that gathered at the market on July 29 as part of Open House New York’s The Final Mile series, was referring to the footprint of agricultural land taken up by the farmers who sell their wares at the largest of the city’s Greenmarkets. That footprint, illustrated on a map in the market info tent that morning, stretches 250 miles to the north, 175 miles from east to west, and 120 miles to the south. Within it are produced more than 13,000 varieties of products on sale at the Union Square Greenmarket on any given market day.

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Greenmarket director Michael Hurwitz (center, in the black shirt) started the tour off near the market info tent bright and early, at 8am, so that people could observe the market just as things were getting into swing. (Photo: OHNY)

The offerings weren’t always so complex. As the city’s main produce distribution center migrated to Hunts Point in the Bronx starting in the 1950s, New York increasingly relied on large-scale industrial agriculture and manufacturing for its food supply. Within just a few decades, there was enough concern over the widening disconnect between the city and its agricultural hinterland that the first Greenmarkets were created in 1976 to improve access to the urban market for regional farmers.

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“These two acres,” says Hurwitz, “represent 18,000 across the region.” (Photo: OHNY)

The very first market was located in Midtown, on 59th Street, and featured just twelve farmers. By 11:00 in the morning, Hurwitz told the group, the market was sold out. That this happened so quickly surprised even the organizers. The farmers on site asked, half-jokingly, if there was some kind of famine in the city that they hadn’t heard about.

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Peaches were in season, and the Greenmarket team gave a fresh, juicy peach to everyone on the tour—a welcome treat in the July heat. (Photo: OHNY)

Over time, the Greenmarket system, which is administered by the non-profit GrowNYC, has grown to encompass more than fifty markets at sites in all five boroughs. While most are not as robust as the one at Union Square, the network represents a critical piece of the city’s food system, as it provides small and mid-sized farmers and other producers with affordable access to the booming urban market. While interest in local food is soaring, the scale at which many of the wholesalers in places like Hunts Point operate is prohibitive for many local producers, which has created a gap between demand and supply. The Greenmarket system is playing a significant role in filling that gap.

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Radishes and carrots stacked high at a produce stand near the 15th Street entrance to the square. (Photo: OHNY)

To do so, though, requires a great amount of attention to detail. Hurwitz and his team work hard to create a sense of balance in their markets, allowing for a healthy amount of competition without creating a situation where one market or another is flooded with too-similar products. Different vendors are selected for in-demand spots at Union Square with an eye toward variety as much as quality. Once vendors are in place, the Greenmarket team works closely with the proprietors to help them navigate the demands of selling in a sophisticated urban market.

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“To do well here, you need to be a good farmer, a good marketer, your own distributer; you have to offer great customer service. There’s a lot to keep on top of.” (Photo: OHNY)

“To do well here,” according to Hurwitz, “you need to be a good farmer, a good marketer, your own distributor; you have to offer great customer service. There’s a lot to keep on top of. The display of a stall has to be strong—that’s their storefront, right there.”

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Andrew Coté speaks to the group about his business, Andrew’s Honey, which has apiaries across the city. (Photo: OHNY)

Hurwitz introduced the group to several of the vendors throughout the market, including Andrew Coté, of Andrew’s Honey fame. A fourth-generation beekeeper, Coté spoke with enthusiasm about the recent completion of a rooftop apiary just a few blocks north of Union Square, within sight of the market. Andrew’s Honey has apiaries across four of the five boroughs, and the jars displayed at the market stall featured decorative covers proudly displaying the name of the honey’s neighborhood of origin. An employee offered samples on tiny spoons, encouraging passersby to taste the difference between Bedford-Stuyvesant and the East Village.

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Passersby are encouraged to taste the local flavor. (Photo: OHNY)

Coté also explained the infrastructural reasoning behind the lack of full five-borough coverage: bridge tolls. As it turns out, the cost of a ride over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge is just high enough to make the transportation of honey uneconomical.

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Jars of locally produced honey are labeled by neighborhood. (Photo: OHNY)

Hurwitz also took the group to the market stall that houses Ronnybrook Dairy Farm. This third-generation family farm (83% of Greenmarket farmers own farmland) sells milk, ice cream, yogurt, and butter at Greenmarkets around the city. While discussing the ins and outs of life at the market with Ronnybrook’s Tom Toigo, Hurwitz impressed upon the group the importance of that age-old real estate maxim in the way that the market is laid out: location, location, location. “The number one thing [that influences a market’s success] is existing foot traffic. Nothing can beat that,” Hurwitz explained. Toigo agreed, noting that his booth was once relocated slightly while the city worked on the renovation of the north end of Union Square and had a measurable drop in business that week. “People were coming up afterward and asking, ‘Where were you last week? I missed you,’” Toigo chuckled. “Well, we were right there! All you have to do is make a left!”

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Ronnybrook Dariy Farm’s Tom Toigo speaks to the group at the end of the tour. (Photo: OHNY)

The ephemeral nature of the city’s Greenmarkets—the rapidity with which they appear and then disappear on market dates, the way that they shift, grow, and contract with the seasons—is part of their charm. But don’t let their human scale and social nature fool you; these markets are a significant economic force, collectively doing more than $200 million in business each year. They are also helping to strengthen regional and local agriculture by creating reliable access for farmers. “These are vital places of business,” Hurwitz told the group. “The children of our farmers see that they have a real economic future here.” IMG_4755

Alternative Distribution Nodes & Local Economies

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This spring, The Final Mile—Open House New York’s year long series exploring how our city’s food system shapes the built environment—kicked off with a series of tours at the Hunts Point Food Distribution Center. Together, tours of two of the city’s three major public wholesale markets, a regional specialty foods distributor, and the distribution hub for many of the city’s food pantries provided a sense of the immense scale of New York City’s food system: a 24-hour-a-day, multi-billion-dollar enterprise that employs thousands of New Yorkers, from wholesalers and manufacturers to grocery store clerks and waiters.

Hunts Point was built to centralize food distribution in New York, and to isolate the mess and traffic of this activity away from the city’s densely packed core. This effort was notably successful: today, fully half of the food consumed in the five boroughs comes through the Hunts Point peninsula. But what about that other half of the food that we eat? Some of it is routed to the city through suburban hubs, but there are also a host of secondary and alternative food distribution nodes embedded directly within dense, mixed-use neighborhoods across the five boroughs. Some of these nodes bypass Hunts Point altogether; some redistribute food that enters the city through Hunts Point for further processing; still others combine retail, manufacturing, and wholesaling, mixed in amongst the many diverse elements of daily city life.

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This summer, The Final Mile will continue its exploration of how food shapes the urban environment through visits to three typologically diverse sites throughout the city that serve as secondary or alternative nodes within the food distribution system. In the latest episode of How Great Cities Are Fed, food systems expert Karen Karp and her team look at how the evolution of modern transportation systems has impacted urban food distribution. The episode speaks directly to why flexible, multi-nodal food distribution systems are so important to the interrelated issues of resiliency and access to local/regional food. Says Karp:

“We need [urban food] systems to work no matter what…even when there’s a disaster, whether it be a security breach like 9/11, or a more climate-related natural disaster like Hurricane Sandy. In both of these cases, we found that the good idea that was to designate the Hunts Point peninsula as New York City’s food distribution zone is still a really good idea—but it is not the only idea. The city has become so big that small distributors [struggle to] get there on a daily basis, but when there is a disruption…they can’t get there at all. And what happens to the neighborhoods that are furthest away from these central distribution hubs? There need to be smaller distribution outlets in these places, not as back ups, but as part of a rebuilt network of [food distribution].”

If New Yorkers are serious about building a more resilient city, food security is one of the most important issues to be addressed. Join us this summer to see how existing secondary and alternative nodes within the city’s food distribution network operate, and to consider how these models might influence urban development in the future.

 

For a full list of programs, or to purchase tour tickets, click here to visit the Schedule page.

 

Tour Recap: Food Bank For New York

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By the most recent estimates, approximately 1.4 million New Yorkers—almost one out of every five—rely on emergency food, either entirely or supplementally. To meet that immense need, a complex, ecosystem of non-profit organizations has evolved alongside the city’s retail food system. As the system has scaled up, the city’s emergency food suppliers have had to follow suit. “As poverty became more large scale, people couldn’t keep up with it just cooking in their kitchen at home, or their church kitchen,” says Lee Cheney, the Food/Fund Sourcing Manager at Food Bank For New York City, one of the two food banks (along with City Harvest) that serve as the interface between local soup kitchens and food pantries and the modern industrial food chain.

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Food Bank founder Kathy Goldman (center) speaks to the group about the organization’s early days. (Photo: Nicolas Lemery Nantel)

On June 24, Cheney and her colleagues at the Food Bank hosted a group of visitors for a tour organized by Open House New York as part of The Final Mile, providing insight into how this “parallel system,” in Food Bank parlance, takes advantage of the food distribution hub up in Hunts Point, in the Bronx. At the Food Bank’s warehouse, a 95,000-square-foot facility located on the grounds of the Hunt’s Point Cooperative Market, the region’s primary meat wholesale market, the sophistication of the 21st century emergency food distribution network was on full display.

There are 205 food banks operating in the United States today, with 10 of them serving New York state. In 2014, the Food Bank, alone, distributed 78 million pounds of food to its member agencies across the city—enough for approximately 450,000 meals every day. About a third of the New Yorkers served by the Food Bank are senior citizens; children make up another third. After that, the largest demographic group is students, who account for about 8% of those served. And demand is rising, by 26% over the past two years according to Cheney. “Hunger in the US is very real,” Food Bank founder Kathy Goldman told the group on the bus ride up. “It is a tremendous shame; hunger has no faith, race, or age.”

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An enormous amount of food moves through the Food Bank’s 95,000-square-foot warehouse in the Bronx—enough for 450,000 meals each day. (Photo: Nicolas Lemery Nantel)

The Food Bank has over 1,000 member agencies across the five boroughs that feed these millions of hungry New Yorkers every day. Over time, as that network has grown, the Food Bank has taken advantage of new technology to allow them to become more and more responsive, efficient, and effective. In addition to 35 employees, the Bronx warehouse hosts about 850 volunteers every week to help with the distribution of large donations from industrial food companies and suppliers like Sysco, Chobani, and Baldor—just a few of the many conglomerates mentioned by name during the tour.

“The heart of this food bank is the guys in the warehouse,” Cheney told the group. “They move tremendous amounts of food—about 225 cases per hour.”

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“The heart of this food bank is the guys in the warehouse,” said Cheney (center), in introducing one of the warehouse workers, Kenny (right), to the group. (Photo: Nicolas Lemery Nantel)

At the warehouse, deliveries start coming in as early as 5:30 am, and continue until around 7. Pallets are broken down and re-packed by volunteers based on orders from member agencies, and a fleet of Food Bank trucks makes deliveries from 7 to 11 am. While the Food Bank distributes hundreds of thousands of pounds of food across the city every day, Cheney noted, they know where each item is at all times, thanks to a detailed tracking system.

“We have a record of everywhere that the food has been,” Cheney explained. “We have to have a full trail. I get recalls every day, and when that happens I can immediately reach out to our warehouse, and they can check to see if we have any supply on the floor. If anything has already gone out, we know exactly who to call. We can trace which driver, to which location—that is how tightly knot the system is.”

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The Food Bank provides food to more than 1,000 partner agencies across the five boroughs. (Photo: Nicolas Lemery Nantel)

Improvements in distribution and tracking have also allowed the Food Bank to be more responsive in matching supply with demand. In the past, volunteers would pack boxes or pallets for re-distribution to member agencies based on what was in the warehouse at a given time. Today, Food Bank members place orders via an online ordering platform, where they can see what is on-hand at the warehouse live, 24-hours a day.

And as the supply has become more directly responsive to local demand at the neighborhood level, the Food Bank has been able to completely re-think the food pantry experience for the people who rely on the emergency food system. Recently, they have been working with member agencies to move them toward something called the open campus model. “We went into agencies and set them up like mini grocery stores,” Cheney said, in explaining open campus. “We want cans to be with cans, boxes with boxes. Preserving the dignity of the people that we serve is so critical to our mission, and we have noticed a tremendous change in spirit [among the people who come and ‘shop’ in these open campus locations].”

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Dan Cinquemani, the Food Bank’s Vice President of Food Distribution, speaks with the group about the warehouse’s detailed categorization system. (Photo: Nicolas Lemery Nantel)

Technology, as always, is a double-edged sword. While better distribution has allowed the Food Bank to be more responsive, it has increased efficiency at all levels of the industrial food system—which means that it is becoming more difficult for food banks to secure large donations. The USDA determines “Best by” and “Sell by” dates that food manufacturers and distributors must abide by, but the government also maintains “extension dates” for food, which establish the timeframe during which food can safely be consumed after the official expiration date that commercial entities like grocery stores must follow. Food banks are the only organizations allowed to distribute food up through its extension date, but the gap between what is produced and what isn’t sold is shrinking. “With food companies and the rise of computerization, they just don’t waste as much,” Cheney said, “so they don’t have as much to donate.”

As a result, the Food Bank’s team has to stay creative, and is constantly working to build and deepen partnerships with food companies who can make large donations to supply their huge network of member agencies. For this, the organization’s facility within the hub of the Hunts Point Food Distribution Center offers a critical advantage. According to Cheney, “It’s a priceless location.”