The following is a guest post by NYU Business and Economic Reporting Graduate student Yuyu Chen on Dumbo’s history and the current food and restaurant market. It was originally posted on her blog:
A woman from New Jersey was crying outside 25 Jay Street, Dumbo. “My grandfather used to work for Arbuckle Coffee Traders. I feel as if he came back when I saw you roasting coffee here” she sobbed in front of Michael Pollack, partner and home coffee roaster of Brooklyn Roasting Company (BRC) located at the ground floor of the former Arbuckle Building. For the woman, BRC feels like a connection to her grandfather and a way to keep his memory alive. For Pollack, it is a beautiful coincidence.
“We chose [the location] due to the cheap 5-story space, but we didn’t realize it was Arbuckle Brothers Company, the largest coffee manufacturer in the U.S. during 1890s.” Pollack laughed, taking three Arbuckle Brothers antique coffee cans out of the shelf.
Vintage coffee and sugar bottles can be found in many buildings in DUMBO, reflecting its history as the home of New York City’s largest coffee maker, sugar refinery and other manufacturing businesses in the early 20th century.
“Next on the river front are store yards, Arbuckle’s immense coffee and spices warehouses, and behind them, Taylor’s founding and engine works. Bliss’ immense press and die works…” L.P. Brockett wrote in the book History of Kings County and the City of Brooklyn. Located “Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass”, the pier offers beautiful skyline of Manhattan and is very accessible to the heart of New York City.
DUMBO’s industrial prominence and waterfront location drew David Walentas, the founder and principal of Two Trees Management Co. LLC (Two Trees) to buy two million square feet in 1980s, at a price of about $6 a square foot. In respose to Brooklyn’s transformation, Two Trees, who owns a majority of property in DUMBO has converted some of old factories and warehouses into modern offices, luxurious condos and lofts. The neighborhood’s spectacular views, the large spaces and favorable rental rates have drawn hoards of young entrepreneurs and artists. With the influx of creative spirits, DUMBO is recognized as a paradise of creativity.
However, DUMBO is mediocre when it comes to food. “Given the number of people here, DUMBO needs more food options.” Pollack said. Nevertheless his “coffee lab” is a success there.
“When I want something to eat in the daytime, I have to go outside of my neighborhood to get something interesting.” Brad Macdonald who has been living in DUMBO for more than two years said with a disappointed frown. Unsatisfied with plain food, this Executive Chef of Colonie plans to set up another business in DUMBO.
Like Chef Macdonald, restaurateurs are encouraged by the emerging community’s lack of culinary delights, squeezing into this compact neighborhood with a hope to fill the void in dining.
“The retail market in DUMBO is in high demand. We probably receive three to four interests a day, the majority of who are restaurateurs.” Alexander Bos said, Leasing Department Assistant from Two Trees Management Co. LLC.
Among those seekers, Dawn Casale, founder of One Girl Cookies has found a niche in the Market and signed a 5-year lease (with an option) of 1,400 square feet with Two Trees.
“Growing families there cannot find a place to get birthday cakes or cupcakes.” Casale said.
Inspired by her happy childhood in the kitchen, Casale bakes American-style cookies using her family recipe. One Girl Cookies has earned a reputation for animal cakes, chocolate varieties, cupcakes and whoopie pies in Cobble Hill, a neighborhood close to DUMBO. After research, Casale found her shop complements the existing French-style Almondine Bakery in DUMBO:
“One Girl Cookies specializes in American-style birthday cakes and cupcakes which appeal to children while Almondine Bakery provides French sandwiches, soups and pastries etc. that One Girl Cookies [may not have].” Casale continued. She desires to share the comfort and happiness brought by American sweets with the neighborhood.
Demand for restaurants will be growing as more and more people move in DUMBO.
“At present there are 7 residential projects from Jay Street to Brooklyn Navy Yard and at least three more in the future.” said Chris Havens, Chief Executive of Creative Real Estate Group LLC.
The limited retail spaces, however, can hardly satisfy the surging demand for food. “Retail market is extremely small. Among 129 spaces in DUMBO, only 11 are available, at a vacancy rate of 8%. The mostly large spaces are on Jay Street and Bridge Street and there are almost none small spaces available.” Havens said.
Due to the tight retail market, Casale only had three available spaces to choose from before her final decision. Chef McDonald also agreed that “the blockage [for potential restaurateurs] in DUMBO is space”. “There are few spaces coming around. When a huge space came out, we were fortunate to get it.” He said.
After finding the space, DUMBO restaurateurs have to invest more to commit to preserve historical heritage. In 2007, DUMBO was designated as a Historic District by The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC).
“Any alterations to a landmarked property require a permit from LPC.” said Emily Rich, Public Information Officer from LPC.
To acquire the permit, installation of HVAC equipment, louvers or vents in historical buildings that serve commercial, retail or warehouse uses should meet the following criteria (excerpt):
- The louver or vent will be mounted flush with the sash or directly behind the sash; and
- The louver or vent will be finished to blend into the fenestration pattern; and
- No significant architectural feature of the building will be affected by the installation.
Since One Girl Cookies’ new location is part of a landmark, Casale has to put a vent in one window to seek appproval by LPC, which is costly and time-consuming.
According to Chef Macdonald, buildings in DUMBO have especially high ceilings. Ventilation has to be built either through the centre of the high space or up alongside the building, which require landlords to put in large investments to modify the space.
Given LPC regulation and the cost of modification, landlords are inclined to rent out spaces to non-restaurateurs. Take, for instance, the recent new retail space on Adam Street and Water Street owned by Two Trees could not be used as restaurants [currently occupied by Grammercy Park Flower Shop]. “We are looking at other options at this time. The space does not have any ventilation.” Bos said.
In addition to these hurdles, DUMBO’s unique demographics are a third challenge: most people who work there do not live there and vice versa. In the day time, DUMBO is energetic. Businesspeople walking on the street are like sharks. If you stop moving, they might bite your head off.
But after 5p.m., DUMBO is sleepy and bereft of night life. Wandering around might be the last thing you dare do. [Ed: Hmm, maybe in Stabbe alley.]
“There’s not very good food in DUMBO, so we usually buy sushi or soup in the market and eat in office.” said Katie Kaps, a business analyst from Tough Mudder, a DUMBO-based marketing company. Like Kaps, these commuters are usually stingy with time for food. Sandwiches, pizza and sushi are their daily choices.
In spite of this, restaurateurs are optimistic about the food traffic, because they believe the community is clamoring and ready for more food options. “More and more families will surge into this neighborhood. In the day time, we have workers. When they leave, we have residents who come back from work…” Casale believed DUMBO offered a seamless shift of two groups of customers.
When Casale looks forward to families, Chef Macdonald expects a bunch of creative consumers. “Cutting-edge designers, CEOs and artists in DUMBO appreciate value and are hungry for decent restaurants.” he said. Chef Macdonald who used to get trained at world-class restaurants Noma and Per Se will bring an exquisite chef-menu to DUMBO. He hopes that his 45-seat bar can become a destination restaurant.
“DUMBO needs another option no matter what it is, but the only thing it does not need is another pizza joint.” Chef Macdonald laughed.