People's Pops, Kelvin Slush, and Delaney Barbecue: A Small-Scale Food Revolution at Brooklyn's Pfizer Plant
"Should I turn the music down?" People's Pops founder Joel Horowitz asks as we embark on a tour of his ice pop manufacturing kitchen in Brooklyn. As explanation, he adds, "You don't make a tasty ice pop without loud music."
People's Pops headquarters is located at 630 Flushing Avenue on a nondescript stretch of road sandwiched between the Marcy projects (Jay-Z's provenance), Woodhull Hospital, and the sleepy, southernmost extension of Hasidic Williamsburg. Originally the Pfizer world headquarters, the building spans a city block, and it employed over 2,000 people in its heyday. In a corner lab several stories up, a doorman, somewhat wide-eyed and jabbing his index finger at the ceiling for emphasis, tells me, "They invented Viagra right up there!"
People's Pops is on the fourth floor near a big conveyor belt once used to bottle pills. It's one of many artisanal food startups that have opened in the building since Acumen Capital bought it in 2010.
Horowitz walks up to a table where Sharlena Powell is cutting fruit: "So much awesome fresh rhubarb," he says, glancing at a bucket of stems waiting for the axe. "This rhubarb was picked like, three days ago." It comes from Finger Lakes Farms and is about as fresh as any New Yorker can reasonably hope for--probably unnecessarily fresh, considering it will be cooked, frozen, packaged and shipped in an operation that's every bit as industrial as it is mom-and-pop.
We approach the stick-stamping station. "All of our sticks are hand-stamped," he says, noting the need for eagle-eye quality control, as mis-stamps happen. "Sometimes they say People's Poo," an employee chimes in, laughing above the music.
Across the room, Scott Morgenthaler pulls newly frozen pops from their molds. Later, they'll be packaged by a highly efficient but finicky machine from China that everyone affectionately calls "Xiè Xiè." ("That's 'thank you,' in Mandarin," Horowitz's partner David Carrell explains. "We do everything we can to keep her happy." Packaging the pops by hand is a nightmare.)
When the tour is over, the partners feed me an ice pop--strawberry with Angostura bitters. The Angostura aromatics shine through at the back of the palate and add a nice complexity to a pop that's not actually bitter, which is delightful and kind of fun. Next door at Kelvin Slush, Zack Silverman churns out all-natural, artisanal slushies that are served from a roving truck around the city; they're mixed with booze at Madison Square Garden and other locations that allow it. Silverman's syrup, which he and partner Alex Rein spent years developing in Rein's kitchen, is made off-site and shipped to Brooklyn. At Pfizer, they add water and put it in machines to cool it to the right consistency.
On summer weekends, Kelvin sends slush to Smorgasburg, where People's Pops also sells their treats. "All our employees know each other," Silverman says. Saturday mornings for both companies are early affairs that involve packing, moving, and loading frozen goods into freight elevators and then into trucks bound for the Williamsburg waterfront.
Those freight elevators and loading docks are key to the building's appeal, says Carrell. "It allows us the infrastructure of a multinational corporation. With four freight elevators and six loading docks. Compared to our last location, where we had one loading dock-- when it breaks down, it brings the gauntlet down on everything you do that week."
Carrell also noted that the spaces are immaculate and fully washable. Every room has floor drains from when they were laboratories, and many were kept sterile for pharmaceutical production, which means the building is uniquely clean, great for working with food, unlike so many of Brooklyn's industrial backwaters.
Perhaps because of this, food startups make up a large portion of the new tenants, and there are benefits to that, too. When the guys at Kelvin test new flavors in their kitchen, their neighbors at People's Pops are ideal tasters. "Whenever we have something new in the [slush] machine, I'll run over and grab them, because I trust their palates," Silverman says.
Horowitz says they often piggyback orders with other companies: "It's awesome to have friends in the building. We order sugar with Steve's Ice Cream [another tenant]. We buy a few pallets at a time, and it's a lot cheaper to buy it in bulk."
Heartbeet founders Danniel Swatosh and Maria Margolies.
Upstairs on the eighth floor, Heartbeet Juicery founders Maria Margolies and Danniel Swatosh agree. "Every question we have we discuss with everyone [in the building], and we help each other out. Everything from 'I need extra fridge space, can I use your fridge?' to, 'Are you guys getting a delivery of produce?' It's great to have that instead of being somewhere all alone by ourselves."
Heartbeet makes cold-pressed juices and smoothies. The day I visit, they've just finished a fresh batch of new summer varieties. "Do you like spice?!" Swatosh asks, after deciding that I must take juice home with me. I do like spice. "This one is a new flavor, pineapple jalapeño. It has kale and cucumber, too. We don't have a label for it yet," she says. Margolies adds, "We just hand-wrote it."
The juice is light green in color with a fruity start and spicy finish that lingers in more of a vegetable way than a peppery one. It has balanced flavors of cucumber and kale and is refreshingly bright for something that packs several servings of roughage into a single 16-ounce bottle. Drinking the juice feels like doing yourself a favor, and looking at the juice ladies, who have a radiant, healthy energy about them, I wonder if juice may be the key to everlasting youth. Heartbeet shares a wing with Sfoglini Pasta, Milk Truck grilled cheeses, Delaney Barbecue, McClure's Pickles, and a handful of bakeries. At Sfoglini, Steve Gonzalez is prepping a pasta salad for a collaboration with the New York Historical Society and the New York Times, but he's more interested in discussing the pasta itself.
He picks up a piece of radiatore, drying on sheet pans against the wall. It's from Sfoglini's BxB line, which they make using spent grain from Bronx Brewery. "Beer people really love it," Gonzalez says. "It has a malty, chocolaty flavor, a little deeper than whole wheat."
Sfoglini also sources Hard Red Spring wheat flour from Wild Hive Farms. "It's an older grain that they're trying to bring back, it's not a modified wheat," he says. This is for their New York Blend, which is a shade darker than traditional semolina pasta but "Not as hearty as whole wheat. ... It's whole grain, not whole wheat. The color's lighter, and it's certainly milder," Gonzalez explains.
Gonzalez has the cadence and demeanor of a seasoned cook; his passion lies squarely in the food. When I ask about the community in the building, he says he used to go on the roof for beers with the guys from Brooklyn Kombucha, but since the building has started to fill up, "there's security up there now." No more beers on the roof.
Even so, Sfoglini hosts weekly pasta lunches for the people in the building, since the neighborhood is a culinary desert. Nearby restaurants include a McDonald's and Burger King, some Halal carts near Woodhull, a dicey pizza joint, and a couple Chinese places, and these are blocks away.
Down the hall, Delaney Barbecue also hosts a weekly lunch. Delaney uses an eighth-floor space as a meat locker and prep kitchen for their service at Brisket Town in Williamsburg, which arguably ousted Fette Sau as the King of Northside Barbecue when it opened last fall. Delaney's latest project, 'Smoke Line," a food cart stationed at the High Line in Chelsea, was an instant hit when it opened this spring.
Downstairs, Delaney has a shipping container in the Pfizer parking lot. Inside is a smoker shipped in from Texas. Philip Powers, Delaney's pit boss and kitchen manager, leads me to the trailer, where firewood is stacked outside, tarped against the soaking summer rain. It looks like something you'd see in the rural Dirty South, and I say so. "That's the inspiration," Powers replies, "It's all inspired by the guys down in Texas, whose operation pretty much looks like this--there'll be a smoker, and a couple picnic tables outside, and they'll serve the brisket right there."
Back inside, Kelsey Torstvet, market sales manager at Brooklyn Kombucha (whose fifth-floor space offers a building-wide happy hour once a month with DJs and snacks) remembers a crawfish boil Delaney hosted awhile back, just outside the smoker-trailer: "Daniel Delaney was just there cooking for everyone. It was really fun and cool. Only working here would I have such a random and great experience."
It's a striking image: a Southern-style crawfish boil in front of a Texas-style smoker in a shipping container at the base of a massive pharmaceutical factory in Bed-Stuy with young entrepreneurs and their young workers enjoying hand-made, natural, locally sourced food. Will slow food change the world, and is it good for our communities? There seems to be something happening here that suggests so.
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