Food Is at the Heart of the Brooklyn Navy Yard’s Transformation

Half performance art, half futuristic piñata, glossy melted Mast Brothers chocolate poured over this artful fountain at a recent Navy Yard event.

In a city teeming with new developments, why set up business in an old warehouse perched on the edge of the East River in an area that’s underserved by public transport? Or better yet, why get your visionary thinking-cap on surrounded by the hulking tumbledown shells of America’s naval bygones? The answers to these questions, as with many recent developments in Brooklyn’s grand city-led projects, are complex.

At the heart lies the need for cutting-edge innovation and, as it turns out, great food. Both of these things were in abundance at a recent dinner for 52 creative entrepreneurs inside SITU Studio’s fabrication space at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The event was the first collaboration between marketing entrepreneur Eric McLaughlin and his hosts, a Brooklyn architecture and fabrication firm with a string of innovative projects under its belt for the likes of James Turrell, MoMA, Google, DUMBO and the International Criminal Court.

McLaughlin, whose work for General Contracting firm SilverLining Interiors hinges on bringing fellow creatives together, started the stand-alone dinner series as an opportunity “to connect and work … with a community through food at the core.” Its success means SITU’s huge “repurposed locomotive repair garage,” just a stone’s throw from urban farm Brooklyn Grange, was the perfect backdrop for orchestrating another event. Allie Wist, associate art director at Saveur, saw it as an opportunity to show how food is an “interdisciplinary art.” Says Wist, “In a space like SITU, food, which is inherently creative, becomes a facilitator for conversation.”

The evening included wine from Saveur Selects and craft spirits from VOS Selections. Locavore chef outfit Highlands Dinner Club, overseen by busy founder Ben Walmer—an architect by trade and chef by inclination—offered local edibles from Fleishers and Brooklyn Grange. Aside from the warm glow of conversation and newfound friendships, however, the dinner also offered a telling glimpse into a new relationship that’s set to change this city.

It starts with a finale. That night, SITU’s partners and McLaughlin gathered around a white, custom-molded art piece specially created for the event by the studio. Half performance art, half futuristic piñata, glossy melted chocolate began to pour languidly over the object. The result was an improvised waterfall of Mast Brothers chocolate, a Navy Yard neighbor. Talk about designer dessert. As guests abandoned their plates and newfound friends to watch, they enjoyed an architectural spectacle that tasted as good as it looked.  

As it turns out, that same proposition is in store for food and beverage makers in the Navy Yard. It’s also all down to dimensions. “What really holds New York City back is space,”says Jason Albaum of VOS. “Having a distillery can eat up a ton of square footage.” At the dinner event, located just down the way from Brooklyn’s thriving Kings County Distillery amid millions of feet of new production space, you get the feeling anything’s possible.

For local foodmakers, that might just be the case. Last year the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) and the Mayor’s Office announced a 10-point action plan to provide 20,000 new jobs in food. They did so by designating parts of the Navy Yard and other city-owned properties like Hunts Point in the Bronx and a 55,000-square-foot space at the Brooklyn Army Terminal in Sunset Park as spaces for food production and manufacturing. For a city of 42,000 food outlets but little production space, according to the NYCEDC’s recent Food Supply podcast, that’s great news.

Initiatives from the Mayor’s office translate into a $140 million cash injection to develop 1 million square feet of space.

For the Navy Yard in particular, that translates into a $140 million cash injection to develop 1 million square feet of space. David Ehrenberg, president of the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation, views the 1.8-million-square-foot expansion of the yard as a means to turn the area into “the key anchor for 21st Century manufacturers” in the city. One of the main beneficiaries will be Building 77, built in the run up to World War II as a storage facility, which is undergoing a public-private $180 million overhaul to become a “state of the art industrial/manufacturing tech and design hub,” according to the NYCEDC. The building is set to open in 2018 and will add 3,000 jobs to the area; a 40 percent increase in employment. Among some of the big beneficiaries of the new consumer-facing food space are established brands like Brooklyn Brewery, supermarket chain Wegman’s and Russ & Daughters.

However, small food businesses and consumers are also set to benefit thanks to input from Tiny Drumsticks, which currently houses 30 businesses in its Long Island City outpost. Their LIC space houses a shared kitchen and commissary, which provides access to space that’s rentable by the hour. The business also provides ancillary cold storage, freezer storage and dry storage by the month. Co-founder Ben Sloan explains how it works: “Small businesses such as caterers and consumer products companies run their businesses out of our space until they can grow large enough to build their own space.”

In the Navy Yard, Sloan and his co-founder Connie Sun will be hosting a food court for the entire area. Ironically, for an area that’s fast-becoming a mecca for food lovers, the Navy Yard has been “a dead zone in Brooklyn,” as Sloan puts it. “Almost 8,000 people a day work there, and it will be 10,000 a day soon. With all those people there, the only thing to eat is from a delivery pizza place, a long haul walk to a coffee shop [an outpost of Brooklyn Roasters] and a hot dog cart.”

Sloan’s sentiment is echoed by Gwen Schantz, co-founder of acclaimed Brooklyn Grange, an urban farm perched on top of one of the Yard’s bleakest buildings. Schantz says, “As an industrial park, this place has been something of a lunch desert, with some small and sporadic food truck options, so we’re all really excited to have the food court come online in Building 77.” Clearly the feeling is mutual. As Sun of Tiny Drumsticks puts it, “having Brooklyn Grange in the Navy Yard has really given the Yard a shiny little diamond. Urban farming just makes sense.”

This new wave of food and design production in the Yard, alongside the recent tech-centric New Lab, is propelling the area forward into a new age that’s both new and firmly rooted in its industrial past. A naval site for almost 200 years until 1966, the area has overseen the advent of technologies like steam power and radio. After falling on hard times for almost two decades, industrial diversification began to take hold in the 1980s. Now the Yard is betting on new technologies and public-private partnerships to revitalize the area.

A lot of it rests on the power of people’s bellies. While businesses like Brooklyn Grange already provide food for the city, Building 77 will provide options for local workers. As those businesses grow, it’s only a matter of time before new businesses in the Yard alongside neighboring DUMBO and South Williamsburg begin to attract more food business and consumers. The influx will already begin in 2018 as Wegman’s, Brooklyn Brewery, Russ & Daughters and the nearby Tobacco Warehouse come online. This has already been the case for fellow 10-point action plan recipient the Army Terminal, which is home to vanguard food-tech businesses like leather biofabricators Modern Meadow.     

What does an already established food business make of that promise? “We expect to see a lot of foot traffic,” says Brooklyn Grange’s Schantz, who sees the area “becoming a destination for New Yorkers and tourists looking for good food and entertainment.” The fact she can even contemplate a bold new future like that shows just how far the Navy Yard has come already.

For its part, the event at SITU was brimming with that same new promise. It was both carefully orchestrated and a little bit wild. By the sound of it, that’s exactly what’s set to draw more entrepreneurs, hungry thinkers and consumers to the Navy Yard, too. The past and the future are both present here. A literal hunger for innovation binds them together.

Photos courtesy of for Fork Monkey.