Jul 25 2011

A General Store for the 21st Century

I’ve noticed a common thread among the local artisans, farmers, and purveyors I most admire: they’ve each learned to accept, and even embrace, nuance and unpredictability without sacrificing the quality of their product. These local food innovators aren’t seeking awards or out to prove something. The people I’ve talked to are guided by their beliefs: “this product is good, I believe in my product, I believe in what I’m selling, I believe there’s a gap that I can fill”. Dedicating yourself to a craft, whatever that may be, translates to sleepless nights and moments when you realize you haven’t taken a day off in three months. With something so personal, often isolating, and nearly always challenging, inspiration comes from within.

The current trend in online culture, especially related to food, is to share the visual stimulation: the rolling hills of a farm in Vermont, a bright yellow sunflower, a well designed bottle of olive oil. As a photographer, I appreciate and crave visual stimuli. But I recognize that while scanning photos and imagining a bucolic life, I’m missing the more important story. Yes, the product looks beautiful or tastes good, but why was this product (or service or store) created? What makes it as good as it is? What makes it worth my money or the producer’s time? It’s easy to see the surface beauty, but to only see this is to completely miss the surrounding story.

It’s hard to miss the surface beauty at Brooklyn Victory Garden. Located in Clinton Hill, BVG’s bright yellow striped awning beckons those passing by to walk in and be enveloped in a warm room lined with a variety of foods and products. That’s one story: a cute store with great products. Though my interest was initially peaked by the visual details of the store, I wanted to learn about the surrounding story. Looking beyond the surface details of the logo and color, I spent time with Tom and Tess, the fun, fascinating couple behind Brooklyn Victory Garden, and learned about how they’ve embraced the nuances and unpredictability of small business ownership--and more importantly: why.

Brooklyn Victory Garden opened last October 23rd for just two hours. Tess and Tom reported that opening day was invigorating and exhausting, a swirl of emotions that left their bodies in a state of collapse but their heads spinning in excited circles. If you’ve planned a wedding, you know that the anticipation for the event grows with the length of the engagement. Brooklyn Victory Garden’s opening day had been conceived three years before it became a reality: a long time to imagine and hope.

One might expect that the idea for Brooklyn Victory Garden came from a love of food, but instead it comes from a love of something very different - cats. Three years ago, Tess and Tom were both actors--Tom continues to act today-- and Tess, desiring a change in her life, started considering what made her most happy. From her experience raising two cats and rescuing stray kittens, she recognized how important animal welfare was to her. That concern for animals “translated into more health conscious eating,” reports Tom. While Tess and Tom aren’t vegetarians, they felt that they shouldn’t be “eating animals that are fed what they’re not supposed to be fed.” Rather, “animals should be allowed to have room, allowed to be animals.”

Tess threw herself into learning as much as she could about sustainable agriculture, permaculture, the Slow Food movement, and community gardens. Her path towards a new career in food could have led to a very different outcome--a life in Italy instead of a life in Clinton Hill. Tess applied for and was accepted into Italy’s Slow Food University, but ultimately, the couple wasn’t able to afford relocating abroad.

Visiting Brooklyn Victory Garden, it’s hard to imagine a space better suited to its purpose. Beyond the carefully laid out products and quirky, inviting decor, there’s a nook tucked above the rest of the store, accessible via a curvy staircase. The cozy office, complete with a couch and desk, overlooks the store. It’s from here that Tess and Tom arrange orders, contact vendors, and run their business. Tess worked with a local designer and friend, Jody Formica, to design the interior and exterior of the store. When Tess and Tom purchased the property, they described the store as a blank canvas--and not even one they initially considered. The details that appeal to customers today were less than appealing to new shop-owners, including a steady tilt to the floors in the space (which they’ve since fixed).

After looking at properties on other streets and neighborhoods, they finally came back to this location, titled floors and all. Despite the challenge that the space presented, its benefits couldn’t be overlooked. Most notably was its location: Tess and Tom live right around the corner. They don’t even have to cross the street to get to the store! Having lived in Clinton Hill for over 6 years, this neighborhood is their home; they feel a true sense of community when they leave their apartment. Knowing the community like they do meant that they were very aware of what the neighborhood lacked: a place to buy quality locally sourced food!

Because of their shared passion for sustainable agriculture and their awareness of the neighborhood’s need for fresh, sustainable produce, Tess and Tom originally planned to sell fruit and vegetables along with the dairy, canned goods, cheese, and meat Brooklyn Victory Garden currently sells. Ultimately, space constraints--one of the main reasons they initially hadn’t considered the location in the first place--prevented them from including produce in the store. “It was a hard pill to swallow when we decided not to go with the produce”, Tess admitted. But the audaciousness of attempting to sell produce at the start of Brooklyn Victory Garden’s life now elicits a chuckle from Tess. She and Tom are quick to acknowledge that produce is a “different animal” and they’re glad they started small. Helping them sit more comfortably with that decision is imminent creation of Greene Hill Co-op, which will be brimming with local fruit and vegetables.

On my recent visit to Brooklyn Victory Garden, Tom took time to speak with me while Tess worked on the floor (though she did excuse herself for a 10 minute break to sit on the couch and chat). Tom pointed out that usually their roles are reversed--he’s more often working the register while Tess is upstairs. The initial idea for the store actually relied much less on Tom’s involvement; Tess and a partner were to run the store, with Tom helping out as needed. When the partner chose to back out of the project, Tom significantly increased his involvement. Even if the two business partners weren’t married, they’d make a well-matched team. Tess brings her knowledge of local agriculture, purveyors, and animal welfare, while Tom has an innate desire to support small businesses and “mom and pop” stores.

In the three years before opening, Tess meticulously researched products, vendors, and foodsheds. “I spent three years going to the Brooklyn Flea, little markets, doing a ton of workshops--Slow Food, Just Food, Astor Center,” she says. “So I’d meet and see different vendors.” She combined her years of research, along with the logistical realities of setting up a new shop, to determine what would end up on Brooklyn Victory Garden’s shelves. “When it came down to planning our opening inventory,” Tess explains, “it was taking a look at our shelf space and refrigeration space. Then the whole song and dance of dealing with the vendors. What do they deliver here? What are their minimums and terms?” She continues to maintain a database of vendors that she is always adding new people to.

Tess’s dedication towards local food is matched by Tom’s support for local business. While he’s not “anti corporate”, he “likes to support the smaller stores, the mom and pop shops. I’ll pay a dollar more for something. It’s not that big a deal to me but means everything to a business.... It’s this community, they know their neighbors. It’s touchy-feely”, Tom admits, “but it makes me feel good.”

Brooklyn Victory Garden’s motto succinctly reflects Tess and Tom’s beliefs: “local goods for the local good”. But a focus on responsibly-produced or small batch products results in prices that are higher than what one might expect; stores like Brooklyn Victory Garden run the risk of being considered out of touch, or even worse, unnecessary. Tom and Tess battle this perception through their customer interactions and community engagement, always being clear to explain the importance of their food sourcing. “I grew up eating crap, mac and cheese, all the junk,” Tom says. “I felt shame when people would eat things that were good and good for you and kind of flaunt it. I never enjoyed that growing up (and still don’t). I approach it: it’s just food; it’s not fancy or crazy.” Their personal interactions with customers go a long way towards justifying the higher prices of their products. Tom points out, “You are paying a bit more but you’re paying for a person who cared for this animal or plot of land, not a machine that came by and doused it with something. You’re paying the real cost of food.”

Tess and Tom are enamored with food and food sourcing in a completely unpretentious, welcoming way. They encourage food exploration, through their constant rotating array of samples and their “bit” cheese bin, which offer customers a way of trying a new cheese without the risk of spending money on something they might not like. They’re quick to listen to customer feedback and take it to heart, whether it’s about a kind of cheese they should sell more of or a bacon they should bring back.

But what is the source of Brooklyn Victory Garden’s wonderful visual appeal? The yellow awning, the name, the logo? The concept of a “victory garden” very much reflects the spirit of the store. Victory gardens started during the World Wars when Americans wanted to feed their families and community, and lessen the strain on our country’s food supply. The idea of “we can take care of our own”, evoked both nostalgia and that tender feeling Tess and Tom had about their neighborhood Clinton Hill. Tom elaborated, “Nostalgia is comforting. Food is comforting.” The logo, designed by Jen Harris of Black Sheep Heap, symbolizes their commitment to local sourcing--nothing they sell is from beyond 400 miles, though the majority of the products come from under 250 miles away. The bright logo greets you when check out and because it’s always there, “people always know what we’re about”.

Any small business in its first year experiences unpredicted bumps. Brooklyn Victory Garden’s less savory moments have included hiccups with vendors, uncooperative refrigerator lights, consistently sore feet, and even challenges with bacon. But unpredictability can also shine light on something you never thought you’d enjoy--like cheese.

Despite having a combined zero years of experience as cheesemongers, Tess and Tom both lit up when talking about their well-stocked cheese case and the recent Cheesemongers Invitational they attended. “I love my cheeses and my pretty little cheese case,” Tess enthuses. While they’re quick to point out that they’re “still novices”, they’re very happy with how much, and how quickly, they’ve learned about cheese. “When we opened, people took to our cheeses so much it shocked me. And then people started referring to us as the cheese shop,” Tess laughs. “I was tickled pink”.

If you spend any amount of time talking with Tess and Tom, it’s not hard to imagine both of them riffing off of each other on stage or in a commercial. Tom had a few stories that had me laughing pretty hard--including one about passing out coffee fliers at the subway and realizing he had become “one of those people”.

Is the sign of a successful business when the store is never empty? If so, Tess and Tom are having a stellar first year. They’ve recently introduced an outdoor icecream cart, they’re now serving iced coffee from Brooklyn Roasting Company, and they have several ideas in the works for the coming year. “Anything we do will probably be mostly community driven.”

More than its delightful branding, welcoming decor, and meticulous sourcing, it's this connection with the community that’s enabled Brooklyn Victory Garden to have so much success in so short a time. It’s hard not to feel a sense of warmth and welcome visiting their store. Look beyond the yellow awning and see passion, humor, and a neighborhood’s heart.

Keep up with Brooklyn Victory Garden’s continued changes and updates by following Tom’s amusing updates on twitter and and Facebook.