Veronica People’s Club played host to Brooklyn writer Cara Cannella’s Speak Easy Series on Tuesday, April 5th, the second installment of the series. Local Collaboration: Brooklyn’s Secret Ingredient for a Successful Food Business featured a panel of seven food business owners discussing the methods behind their operations.
Cannella, who has interviewed musicians, filmmakers, and authors at her past talks, aims to share the stories of people who are accomplished in their fields because they do what they love. This time around, she focused on businesses that were run collaboratively, whether it was with family members, friends, or neighbors.
Erin Patinkin and Agatha Kulaga started their baking business, Ovenly, after meeting in a book club. They took a leap of faith, according to Patinkin, by opening shop before they had their own kitchen. “I don’t know if people decide to start businesses without a space, but it’s what Agatha and I did,” she said.
The two entrepreneurs would pull all-nighters to fulfill their orders. It was especially difficult for Kulaga, who manages the psychiatric research center at New York University. Both emphasized that starting a business may mean having no time for yourself.
According to Patinkin, Ovenly only had four clients until they started baking in the kitchen of Paul Giannone, owner of Paulie Gee’s. Then, that number jumped to 15. Now, their bar snacks, cakes, cupcakes, cookies, shortbreads and scones are distributed at places like Brooklyn Brewery, Joe The Art of Coffee, Paulie Gee’s, Bedford Hill Coffee Bar, and Brooklyn Kitchen. Ovenly’s signature snack, spicy bacon caramel corn, was given out to attendees at the Speak Easy.
Another delicacy served on Tuesday was Paulie Gee’s pizza. Giannone said that he “masqueraded as a computer geek for 30 years” before opening his restaurant at 60 Greenpoint Avenue. He taught himself how to make pizza and even built a firebrick oven in his own backyard. His friends encouraged him to start his own business, but he said it initially seemed too daunting to open a restaurant. “I learned that if you start telling people you’re going to do something you have to do it,” he said. On April 1st, Time Out New York named his establishment the best new pizza restaurant in the city.
The design for Paulie Gee’s place was done by Evan and Oliver Haslegrave, two brothers who live, work, and hang out with each other. Their company, hOmE, is an acronym of their names and those of their sisters. The Haslegrave brothers designed Motorino, Manhattan Inn, duckduck, and Van Leeuwen Ice Cream, among other eateries, and they work with reused items when building spaces. “There’s so much material in New York City, that there is no need to buy new material,” Evan said. They had complete creative control when building Paulie’s, and Oliver said that energy comes through in the restaurant.
Cannella also invited Sean Dimin, co-founder of Sea to Table, and Christopher Nicolson of Iliamna Fish Company to the panel. Dimin and Nicolson collaborate in the fishing industry. Nicolson is a fifth-generation wild Alaskan sockeye salmon fisherman who spends his summers in Alaska and the rest of the year in Brooklyn, working at the Red Hook Winery.
Dimin works to shorten the gap between the consumer and fishermen to ensure that the food stays fresh. “The most important thing about fish is the people who harvest them,” he said. “The control factor is the guy out there in the boat, with the hook, with the line. These guys… are the gatekeepers to the food source of our wild seafood. Without them, we wouldn’t have wild seafood anymore.”
It is vital, Dimin said, to ask waiters where the fish on the menu originated. “If the restaurant doesn’t know where the fish comes from it’s probably from a bad place… so just get the chicken.” This encourages chefs to be more responsible when choosing where to get their fish, he said.
Throughout the discussion, Cannella pointed out that collaboration was what made these businesses succeed. In her experience at Ovenly, Patinkin said that having a partner was crucial for her. “If you have an idea, go for it… But if you have a person to bounce ideas off and have someone who is going through the same things… it’s comforting.”