The souffle falls? New city scrutiny could curdle the Greenpoint Food Market

The souffle falls? New city scrutiny could curdle the Greenpoint Food Market
Community Newspaper Group / Aaron Short

Vendors at the burgeoning and homespun monthly Greenpoint Food Market were thrown into chaos last week when the city confirmed that it is placing the amateur chefs under new scrutiny under the guise of public safety.

City rules require all vendors to have specific food-handling certificates based on the products they make and sell — but after the New York Times dining section followed our stories about the popular market, the Health Department announced new enforcement of home cooks and foodies who are hoping to make the leap from the marketplace in the basement of the Church of the Messiah into the food biz.

“Food vendors need to be properly sanctioned and [have] the proper permits,” said agency spokeswoman Celina De Leon.

The main fly in the honey is the city requirement that all vendors make their products in commercial kitchens, not at home — which is sort of the whole point of the market.

“These are not people trying to open a store or a café or launch a large company,” said organizer Joann Kim, whose next event is scheduled for June 26. “Trying to find a commercial kitchen to pay and work with them doesn’t make sense for them financially. For my vendors, the market is an incubator.”

Launched in September as a fundraiser for the Church of the Messiah, the monthly market has attracted an array of canned and fresh food products from start-up food businesses. A May 22 market featured more than 50 vendors ranging from Kings County Jerky’s chewy and salty dried Korean barbecue-flavored treats, Sugarbuilt’s ornately decorated frosted cookies, assorted flavored kombucha tea from Mombucha, pickled pears from Anarchy in a Jar, and customized chocolate bars from Chocri.

Now, foodies who are more accustomed to scrambling eggs are now finding themselves scrambling for city paperwork and find a commercial kitchen.

Greenpoint-based food industry professionals, including Harry Rosenblum of the Meat Hook butcher shop, think that food purveyors should apply for a free food-handling certificate right away, even if the courses could take longer.

“It’s not the vending, it’s the handling issues,” said Rosenblum. “There are things with transport, temperatures that food should be stored at, that are looked at by the Department of Health.”

After that, vendors may need to apply for specific vending licenses, which can be obtained online and can cost as little as $25, and rent space from a commercial kitchen at $150 to $200 a day.

Robicelli’s owner Allison Robicelli, who paid $25,000 per month in rent when she operated a freestanding store in Bay Ridge, she struggled for months to find a kitchen, as most charged her too much money to make a small batch of fresh cupcakes and store them overnight.

“There isn’t a one-size fits all solution for these businesses,” said Robicelli. “My best advice is to go to any local restaurant that you know that is suffering and talk to then about renting space on their off hours.”

For businesses specializing in making canned foods, finding a commercial kitchen may be less challenging than following a complex set of rules and regulations designed for food handling and storage.

Bob McClure of McClure’s Pickles had to take a food science course at Cornell University in order to earn his “acidified food manufacturers” license. After all that, his spicy pickles are now available in 150 specialty stores nationwide, including Williams Sonoma.

“It’s tricky,” said McClure. “There are a lot of rules and it takes a lot of legwork to figure out. It’s taken us two years to find everything.”

The new city enforcement effort — timed to the very moment when the market was becoming a citywide destination — is a startling echo of the Health Department’s crackdown on the Red Hook vendors in 2007. At that time, stepped-up enforcement required the vendors to purchase expensive food trucks rather than cook their huaraches, burritos and tacos on open grills. Several of the mom-and-pop vendors, who had worked Red Hook Park for decades — dropped out rather than meet the city requirements.

For now, Kim still has lined up 84 vendors — selling items such as homemade kombucha, chocolate truffles and vegan pate — but she remains unsure if the city will allow the event to continue.

Kim is hoping the emergence of a food incubator culture in Greenpoint will force the city to amend its policy. She has enlisted the help of Councilman Steve Levin (D-Greenpoint), who has called the market “an example of the vibrant entrepreneurial spirit of North Brooklyn” and is meeting with state and city health officials to determine the best way of proceeding.

Fans of the market hope that it stays open every month for good.

“It’s really great to have something that occurs so often because most of these events are seasonal or annual,” said shopper Ali Aschman. “And I really like the salted caramel by Bean and Apple. I want to go back and buy it every month.”

Greenpoint Food Market at the Church of the Messiah [Russell Street between Nassau and Driggs avenues, (718) 389-0854], June 26, noon to 5 pm.