BEHIND THE BUSINESS

Milene Jardine Chocolatier

DF Mavens

Q & A with Aaron Tung, Marketing Director and Ivoire Lloyd, Marketing Coordinator at DF Mavens

When did the company get started?

FalFoods Worldwide, DF Mavens’ parent company, has been around since around May 2013. FalFoods Worldwide is a conglomerate expert in a few different types of foods. FalFoods Worldwide makes dairy-free ice cream, coffee, and offers business-to-business services.

In starting the DF Mavens brand, the original founder’s intent was to take on a challenge. He felt that he could make a vegan ice cream better than anyone else,  the texture of dairy ice cream without compromising flavor. DF Mavens has been manufactured out of this facility in Astoria, Queens since the very start of FalFoods Worldwide. We make small batches of dairy-free ice cream in addition to full butter fat ice cream, gelatos and novelties. It’s a full-on factory and a lot of fun things come out of here.

In addition, DF Mavens just opened a retail store in the East Village at 37 St. Marks Pl., where all the products are vegan, dairy-free and gluten-free.

What does DF Mavens specialize in?

DF Mavens currently specializes in four lines of products: the soy collection, the coconut collection, no sugar added, and the almond collection.

 

How big is the DF Mavens manufacturing facility?

FalFoods and DF Mavens occupies an 18,000 sq. ft. space.

 

How many employees did you have when DF Mavens got started?

The DF Mavens  brand started with about 20 employees. Currently to date, we have about 35 with an additional 12 at the DF Mavens retail store.

 

What kind of equipment do you use?

Something that separates us from any other factory is that we’re the only factory in New York State that is able to make its own ice cream base. A lot of equipment and investment went into this process. Our equipment includes a VAT pasteurizer, homogenizer, sanitary mix tanks, continuous freezer, batch freezer, cup filler, fruit feeder and variegator. Our Director of Worldwide Plant Operations, Sotero San Miguel, also has a Processing Plan Superintendent certification, and a Principles of HACCP-CODEX certification.

Many companies will say they make their ice cream from scratch, but many actually buy their base from an outside supplier (like us!). So, that’s something very unique about our manufacturing capabilities.

Since we’re one of the only companies making our own base, our ice cream bases are sold to other businesses through our co-packing line, Desserts that Matter.  We currently co-pack for about 5-10 other companies.

What types of ingredients to you use?

When it comes to ingredients, we try to use local and high quality ingredients. Since our ice cream is small batch, we aren’t trying to make a million gallons of ice cream a day. We charge a premium, so we look for the best ingredients possible. We look for ingredients that are all-natural and organic if possible, non-GMO verified, and traceability is an important factor. The small batch process has allowed us to fill a niche market, where we create a fine product using the finest ingredients.

Are you able to find a lot of local ingredients?

Yes, Upstate New York has been great as a source for local dairy, for our non-vegan ice creams. We use a lot of local producers of vegan chocolates, which is a big market in NYC. Of course, certain ingredients like an Alphonso Mango will need to be frozen and shipped from India, for instance. So, our ingredients are from diverse sources, but we’re always looking for the best ingredients possible.

 

How has your industry changed since DF Mavens got started?

One change that we’ve noticed is that although dairy-free ice cream caters toward individuals with dietary restrictions, everyone that’s tried our ice cream is satisfied. They’ll say “this doesn’t taste dairy-free.” We’ve attended several events where we top all of our competitors, even dairy ice creams.

In addition, we’ve noticed that allergies are changing all the time. Keeping up with new preferences and dietary restrictions has always been a challenge. You really can’t be everything to everyone. We’ll find that more and more ingredients are being banned by certain retailers. For instance, Whole Foods will ban Carrageenan and other food stabilizers, so we have to adapt to that rapidly changing market which can be a challenge. But we’ve learned that there’s always room for progression.  For instance, we’re going to work on a cashew nut collection soon. While we might not be able to satisfy everyone, we’re always trying to give people more options.

Can you point to anything specifically that’s contributed to your company’s success?

There are a few! We always try to meet needs and understand people’s preferences: Communication with our customers is key. We like to call everyone a member of the DF Mavens family. We reach out using social media, and respond to everyone via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter within 2 hours. We’re frequently at trade shows, ice cream pop-up shops, and local fairs and events. In addition, we do 40 demos a month at Whole Foods and other retailers in New Jersey and Long Island.  We’re always trying to reach as many consumers as possible.

Who are your main clients?

We primarily use food distributers, who are able to make deliveries to stores and retailers who just don’t have the volume to pick up a whole pallet of ice cream from us directly. Recently, we got into Fresh Direct, which has been really helpful and has increased our distribution direct-to-customer. We’re grateful that a lot of retailers have shown us support, taking an initial loss in their margins too to help us get our products on their shelves at a promotional rate. So altogether, retailers and distributers at all levels have been worked with us to get our product out to customers.

What is DF Mavens’ geographical reach?

We’re primarily in the NYC tri-state area. At Whole Foods, we’re currently in stores in the North East region. But we’re slowly gaining distribution in the South and recently were picked up by a large retailer out West. We’re currently gearing up for the ice cream season, which is between April-September, and we’re hoping to expand our national reach during that time.

 

Do you hire additional employees during the “Ice Cream Season?”

No, generally our production team stays constant year-round. We’re always hiring, developing and growing. We look for people who are passionate about what we do, but they don’t necessarily need a background in food manufacturing. We are a food startup, so as we figure things out as a business, there’s plenty of room for growth and opportunity. Employees that are willing to be risk averse and deal with uncertainty are often more patient, and do better with the chaos of working at a startup. Patience and creativity goes a long way in this workplace.

Do many of your employees live in Queens?

I would say the 75% of workers in the factory live in Queens. A few live in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Manhattan, New Jersey and West Chester.

What are the challenges of operating in NYC?

New York has all its challenges. For those of us who live here, we know it’s not an easy city to live and work in, and running a business can be even more difficult. There’s always a lot of competition in New York, sometimes friendly and sometimes not. The government can present challenges too, including high taxes, regulations and violations. And finally, delivering in Manhattan and transportation can be a huge barrier.

But of course, we have access to some of the most talented people in the world which is always great for building a business. And being Made in NYC means a lot. When we’re out in California, for instance, we take a lot of pride in saying we’re from NYC. We see that a lot of people respect DF Mavens for operating in such a tough business climate. People know that to be successful in NYC, you can make it anywhere.

What’s next??

We’re definitely going to work on a cashew-milk line collection to diversify our products. And of course, we’re always working on new flavors and at the DF Mavens store, where we offer exclusive flavors. For instance, we launched a rosewater flavor for Valentine ’s Day in addition to a very popular strawberry coconut flavor. For retailers, we’re going to come out with a Bananas Foster flavor soon. In general, we respond to holidays, customer requests and feedback, trying out new flavors at the DF Mavens store. If the flavor works, it works! And if it doesn’t, we stop production. Our products are about 90% stationary and 10% creative new products.

DF Mavens is a great brand that has a passionate following. But though it’s growing, the vegan population is very small niche in the market. So, we have aspirations to develop full dairy lines, in addition to gelatos and sorbets. A lot is possible in this factory, we can make almost anything. So we’re also thinking about moving into baked goods, bonbons, chocolate desserts and novelties.

To learn more about DF Mavens, visithttp://dfmavens.com/

Bedi-Makky Art Foundry

Could you give us a short history of the business

The business actually started in the early 1920s. Originally it was in Manhattan, around 72nd street on the East side, then the original owners got bought out and the business was brought over here to Brooklyn, where we are today. They started here in 1935 or 36. Then my dad worked for those people and eventually bought them out and that’s where we are today! So I’m the next generation: the first family generation, but it’s really been a generational business for the past 70-some odd years. We have three lots and our total square footage is 7500, and we average anywhere between four to ten employees, depending on the economy. We try to keep it less than ten people.

What kind of equipment do you use? Anything highly specialized?

Everything is really hand work. It’s really artistic abilities. We have cranes and we do have an operating furnace. We’re still grandfathered in so we’re a legal, legitimate foundry where we can melt metal. That’s one of our heaviest pieces of equipment. Other than that, it’s using natural resources, sand, to do our castings.

Could you elaborate on the main materials you use?

Our main ingredient is what we call French sand. It’s a soil that originally came from France. It was imported to the United States and that’s our primary molding material: we make prints of the sculptures with the sand and then we pour the bronze into it, we break open the molds and we add water to it again. It’s constantly recycled. So from when they started the business back in the 1920s up until today, we’ve been using the same material.

How has your industry changed over the years?

A lot of changes. Prices have gone up considerably, in terms of raw materials. Mostly what we use is bronze, and since I’ve owned the business, it’s more than doubled, almost tripled within a short range. Also the market has changed. Everything today is immediate and the job that I do is not something that can be done immediately, but still that’s what’s demanded. They want immediacy, so sometimes you have to cut corners where you don’t want to. You’re getting pushed away from the perfection part of it just trying to meet schedules.

So how have you been able to adapt to those changes?

It’s pretty much just through years of experience. Like my father would say: it’s never an easy job. You think the job is easy, you’ve done it many times, and then you just push that much further, you just gotta get it done.

What should people know about your company?

For one thing, I’m still proud of the fact that we are in New York. Manufacturing is making a resurgence, but it’s not how it used to be. We’re proud of the stuff that was made in New York and belongs in New York. One of the things I tell everybody is “I guarantee you’ve seen my work.” We have many monuments: the bull down by Wall Street was cast over here; we have the Iwo Jima monument in Arlington Cemetery in D.C. We have pieces all around the world! And it’s just a reminder while everybody’s shopping around looking to go to China. Just to remind them: no, we can do it over here.

Do you source any of your materials locally?

The sand we’re using is the same sand, constantly recycled, so that’s all in-house. Our bronze we get from New Jersey. There’s a smelter there. They actually smelt the bronze and we buy it by ingots. In my particular business, we use a little bit of everything: when you’re sculpting something, you could use a baseball bat, an old saw blade, different materials. You can go around locally and get what you need.

Who are your major clients?

Times are changing. From my father’s generation, the major clients were older artists: Leonard Baskin; Chaim Gross; Arturo Di Modica, the sculptor for the bull; Felix de Weldon, who did the Iwo Jima monument. But it’s sad to say that a lot of them are dying off now. There was a period where, because we had such a lock on these customers, the younger artists wouldn’t come to us. In the art world, if you were dealing with that type of art, they didn’t want to be involved with you. But now it’s coming full circle. I’m starting to get the younger artists: Rashid Johnson, Carlyle Stewart, Peter Coffin. Up-and-coming artists. The art scene in New York and Brooklyn is strong and people are taking pride in the fact that things are being made in New York.

What would you consider some of the biggest challenges of being a business owner in New York?

The cost of doing business in New York is very difficult. Today everything is done by computer. It’s a global market. And not just global: I have to compete with prices if there’s a foundry in Oklahoma or Arkansas. Their cost of doing business is almost half of mine. That’s the biggest thing. When people are doing work for the city, city contracts go out to bid and those bids are going out of state. So if I’m in-state, in-city, trying to get the bid, I’m almost disqualified because I can’t afford to meet their requirements, cause they’re always going for the cheapest bid.

What’s next for you guys?

Everybody talks about advancing and growth. What we try to do is be stable. This is a business that’s been around for so many years. We have a tradition. So what’s next is trying to keep everything the same, the way they did it 70 years ago, but do it in the modern times.

Evan Eisman Company

We sat down with Andrew Bearnot, Studio Manager; Chadwick Augustine, Shop Manager; David Krawczyk, designer, and Evan Eisman, owner of Evan Eisman Company, specializing in incorporating blast finishing and effects into art, architecture, and design.

Can you give us a brief history of the company?

Evan: We started out in the late 90s, when it was just me and the focus was on etching glass. Over the past 20 years though, we have become more interested in exploring the technology behind etching. We have started to focus more and more on the effects of blasting and less and less on its specific applications in glass and plaque etching. We have 5 employees devoted to various aspects of the business.

How long have you been in this location?

I started to do this work in New Jersey, working out of my garage, and about eleven years ago I moved into the Brooklyn Navy Yard, into a 1000 square foot space. Six years ago we moved into this space, which is 3500 square feet. Sandblasting at home is not a very good idea.

Why did you move to the Brooklyn Navy Yard?

Why did I move to the Navy Yard?  I was seduced by the industry here, and all the activity.  The prospect of being in a community of makers was very appealing. Having the opportunity to interact with people who are making all kinds of things has helped my business expand in numerous ways. We have numerous clients who are our neighbors.

What is sandblasting?

Evan: Sandblasting is the process of propelling particles at a surface, wearing parts of it away to achieve a particular effect.  We experiment with many different types of materials.  Sharp, round, soft, hard … Anything we can put in the blasting cabinets, we will use. We’ll use glass beads and aluminum oxide, which are typical blast media, but we’ll also use other things.  Rice, for instance.

Andrew: We blast glass, metal, wood, plastic; essentially anything can be blasted. The properties of the material that you’re throwing against the surface, the size, the hardness, the power with which you’re throwing it at the surface, and the properties of that surface define the effect that you get.

E: Blasting is, when used in industry, tailored to very specific operations: to treating surfaces, texturing surfaces, and cleaning surfaces, or etching: etching signs and things like this, making marks on different kinds of materials.

E: We are using the blasting to etch text and pattern, superimposing pattern and text onto various materials. We’re also using it to enhance materials, to texture them, to bring out their inherent material qualities, to emphasize the grain structure of stone and wood. Our technology is really process-based. We don’t consume a lot of materials. We actually finish them.

What is the landscape of the New York City sandblasting industry today?

E: We are in an industry that is pretty sparse. There don’t appear to be a lot of sandblasters in NYC. The people who do sandblast in the city do what most people think of when they think of sandblasting, which is that they’re sandblasting bridges, and they’re cleaning motorcycle parts, cleaning concrete, or stripping brick walls and things like this. Our particular way of using the technology is a bit different from that.

What kind of equipment do you use?  Anything highly specialized?

E: Yes, we have numerous specialized machines, and the technology is pretty quirky. With our focus being on the varieties of sandblasting and its applications and effects, we have brought into one place numerous operations. The way these operations get mixed and matched, makes for pretty unusual effects, actually. So the specialized machines are the various blast machines: we have five cabinets and a blast room. With those we’re able to mix different kinds of media and produce varied effects.

Can you elaborate on the main materials you use?

A: So we have here a whole variety of blast media. We have soft media: plastic and walnut shells. We have a variety of glass materials: crushed glass and glass beads. We have aluminum oxide, in a variety of sizes from very very fine powder to almost course, like rocks. And we have stainless steel, steel shot, and fine ceramic beads.

E: I would say that most of our work these days has been texturing and finishing wood for furniture and interiors and various architectural applications. We have a lot of neighbors who are woodworkers, so our proximity to them gives us an opportunity to find new materials and get a little peek into the range of projects that happen in the Navy Yard. That stuff informs and drives our finishing into new areas.

Where does sandblasting fit in the age of etching and finishing by computerized numerical control?

E: There are a few ways of engraving materials, and blasting is one very special way of doing that. The limitations of CNC routing and machining, or laser engraving is that typically those processes are limited to flat materials. And blasting is something that can happen in the round. We often do engraving projects that will have patterns or text that moves all over a surface, or on a piece of furniture it’ll go around a leg, up over an edge. It’s a very efficient way of marking surfaces.

What should people know about your company?

E: For one, they should know that we’re here. People may be surprised, delighted to learn of the ways that sandblasting can make things very beautiful, soft, and ephemeral in some cases. Blasting is a terrific way of bringing out the inherent qualities in materials. It removes the soft parts of wood and leaves the hard parts. It does the same to stone, it eats away at the different particles that make up the stone in different ways. People from all different areas come in here and find new ways to push their projects forward through exposure to our technology. They drive our business forward by introducing new inventive ideas for our technology, and they move their projects ahead by finding ways to make their material even more unusual and even more special.

Who are your major clients?

E: Our clients are artists, architects, and designers, typically. We recently did the signage at the high line and the annual donor wall, which is a pretty elaborate blast-processed aluminum signage. We also did a project for PS 290Q, a very large glass mural designed by the artist Sarah Beddington. Being in New York is wonderful and it provides us with easy access to people who are consuming our surfaces.

So that’s a particular benefit of being in New York City?

David: By being in NYC we’re able to interact very quickly with clients. People can come in and view our sample finishes first-hand, in addition to seeing them on our website. Since a lot of the clients that we work with are located in the city, we can turn around samples faster and they can come in and see what we have to offer.

E: The speed of that back and forth is something that being in New York affords us.

What’s next for you guys?

Chad: When I came to Evan a year ago, he was ready to change the trajectory of the company to something more exploratory. With my background in ceramics, Evan had come to me thinking about the potential for ceramics in what he does. Thinking about the rich architectural history in NYC and the pretty lively ceramic arts practice here, we thought of Pratt Institute, which is so close to us, and whose program in ceramics would make for a great opportunity to develop a new kind of language for that material. So we’re excited about not only applying this to clients that have ceramic projects, but also developing our own materials here that we can offer for people interested in working with ceramics.

E: Our project of late is developing a “Brooklyn Blast Studio.” The idea is for us to have a center for the exploration and appreciation of sandblasting. It’s not a generic process and doesn’t have to be. The finishes can be quite extraordinary and very unusual. At Brooklyn Blast Studio, we have a collection of objects that have been finished in various ways in various kinds of materials, and we have a library online with images of this collection.

A: The idea is that any finish that the client might find on our website is backed up here at the studio with a schedule: a recipe for how to make that finish. We’re compiling this expertise, this knowledge, so that people can see something, get inspired, and reach out and have that information readily available.

E: The focus of the company, in the beginning, was on etched glass and it has opened up increasingly over the years into a focus on process. Our work started out as being a response to our clients’ visions for their work and it has developed into explorations of the things that we are discovering in the shop. I think that where we’ll be heading in the future is that we’ll have more and more work that originates in the studio.

Organic Food Incubator

Michael Schwartz explains business incubation and the importance of local manufacturing, and offers an inside view of small food and beverage manufacturing in New York City.

 

Could you give us a brief history of the business?

My original business is BAO Food and Drink. That was started in 2009 and it makes a variety of fermented food and beverages. When we first started BAO, nobody would help us out, but we ended up being relatively successful and moved from our very small space in Hell’s Kitchen to this space of 12,000 square feet in Long Island City, which was way too big for us. Over the first year of business, we met a lot of people who were trying to do the same thing as us and were facing the problems that we had already solved. Since we had this space and had the know-how, we invited a few companies in to help share that knowledge, the space, and obviously the rent cost. That was in 2010. In 2011 we realized that this part of the business model was really successful, so we formed the Organic Food Incubator and actively pursued other companies and had them move in. Now, three years later, we’re working with 55 small food and beverage manufacturers, ranging from natural chewing gum, to juice, to bitters, to organic truffle products. Along the way, we’ve learned from them and they’ve learned from us.

What does the Organic Food Incubator do?

OFI offers a variety of services to people who want to get started in the food and beverage business. We offer educational classes, coaching and consulting, and space rental on both a monthly and a shift basis. We’ve also expanded our services to include small batch co-packing*, which we began about two years ago, and to include the possibility of organic certification.  With small batch co-packing, we do really small-run production of artisanal products, usually ranging from 25 to 150 gallons, which is far below what most co-packers will handle.

*The business of processing and packaging other companies’ products to their specifications. These companies can focus on other aspects of their business (such as promotion and distribution) without being weighed down by the responsibilities of production.

Can you describe what a business incubator is?

It depends on what world you’re in. An incubator in the tech world is a cooperative work space. What they do is offer legal, bookkeeping, and concierge services and generally the incubator takes a percentage interest or some kind of equity stake in the businesses using its services. A food incubator offers a range in services from just work space, to equipment, to assistance with labor and employees. We incorporate all of that and we include permanent workspace and contract manufacturing. We’re trying to add a bookkeeping service that we can offer on a shared hourly basis to try to save businesses some cost. We’re also looking at the possibility of doing distribution and then, of course, the end goal is to take an equity stake in some of the businesses that start.

Tell us about your tenants.

Over the course of three years, we’ve had 70 or so companies come through our doors and they use a variety of services: from consulting, to contract manufacturing, to shift rental. Some of them stay on and use this space on a monthly or weekly basis, 20 of our clients are permanent residents, about 18 of them are daily shift users, and the remainder are co-packing clients. We’re starting to attract clients from outside of NYC for the co-packing, which is really great. We have six companies from outside NYC that come into the city to have their products made.

What kind of equipment do you use? Is any of it highly specialized?

I come from the restaurant world and I thought that this was going to be a really easy move: I get a couple stoves, a couple kettles, an oven and I’m in business. It turns out that food manufacturing uses completely different equipment than restaurants do. The machinery needed to package is very specialized. It varies from solid to liquid. And even within the liquid world – whether it’s thin or viscous, whether it’s hot or cold – you could potentially need a different filling machine for each product. So what we’ve tried to do is find solutions and be able to either create or resource machines that are able to do more than one job. I think that’s one of our strengths as a co-packer. It helps that we’re very small, but we have five different types of liquid filling machines, used for a variety of products, and that’s just liquids. If you get into power bars, for example, it’s completely different machinery. If you get into chewing gum, it’s completely different machinery.

Can you describe OFI’s focus on organic and local-centric brands?

One of the main goals of OFI is to promote local food manufacturing and local sales. We really want the companies that work here to be selling in NYC, and maybe the region, but our goal isn’t really to have them go national. By the time they do go national it’s likely time for them to move on to a bigger space. At that point they’re too large for us.

The organic aspect is also very important to us. We encourage companies to get certified organic, however we understand that it is quite costly. We do what we can to help decrease those costs by sharing our license with them. They actually join our license at a reduced rate so that they can save that desperately-needed capital for their manufacturing. We have twelve different companies on our organic license right now.

While we do want people to be certified organic, it’s not mandatory. We do however draw the line at chemicals and additives that we think are not healthy.  We don’t allow companies to use high fructose corn syrup in the facility or sodium benzoate. In addition to that, the facility is gluten-free and vegetarian. The main reason for being vegetarian is that the regulation is easier: once you bring meat and fish into a facility you have extra regulations and bigger pest issues, so it’s cleaner being vegetarian. One of our first clients was a gluten-free bakery so we kept the entire facility gluten-free for them and that has helped us attract other gluten-free businesses that have nowhere else to go.

What would you consider some of the biggest challenges of being a business owner in NYC?

Working in NYC has been a very interesting experience. I’ve had two businesses here for five years and for the most part it’s been great. I’ve worked a lot with the NYC Economic Development Corporation and with Made in NYC, which has been an awesome partner. There are a lot of resources available when you have your business in NYC, but they’re not always the easiest to find, so you really have to do your homework to find those resources. The other side of it is that it is very expensive to work here. Here I pay eighteen dollars a square foot for rent and I could go to another town outside of NYC and pay five or eight dollars a square foot. Trucks charge more to deliver here because they have more tolls. So those are issues that we have, but for the most part I love New York, I’ve been here for 25 years, I consider it my home, and I love having my business here.

What should people know, foremost, about OFI?

The key goal of the OFI is to help other small businesses get a leg up, so we do a lot of things that are not necessarily in our interest, economically, to help other businesses get started. I really believe in – and it’s one of our main goals – promoting local food and small food manufacturing. For environmental reasons and for the strength of NYC alone, I think that those are really important. And I think, nationally, eating local food is really important, so anything that I can do and that I can afford to do to help further that goal, I do. Sometimes it hurts my bottom line, but you know what? That’s OK. Because I think that the more growth we have as local manufacturers, the more advantages we’ll start to have. That’s the main thing. OFI is here to help other small businesses get started.

What’s next for OFI?

The OFI started off at 12,000 square feet and after Hurricane Sandy we took another 8,000, so we total 20,000 square feet of space and we’re at the bursting point. We’re approaching the limit of how many people we can help and we have a seemingly endless list of people who call and want to do something. We’re looking at either a second space or a larger space, and we’re looking to increase our co-packing options so that we can service both the companies that are here already and growing, and newer or more mature companies that aren’t quite ready for a full-on, large-scale co-packer. So growth in size and in potential space rental, and in the co-packing aspect of the business are where our main options are right now.

The American Knitting Company

Please give us a brief history of the company.

The American Knitting Company goes back to when I was in college, which was not too long ago – I graduated in 2014. I became interested in locally sourcing sweaters, knowing that locally-made products are very important to today’s buyers, but discovered that there were very few sweater manufacturers in the US. So about nine months ago, we set up shop in the Brooklyn Army Terminal. We started out with a really barebones team of five people, two being management, three being actual factory employees. And we’ve grown now to have an average of eight. As we scale up in production within the next year, we’ll have about fifteen, and very quickly up to twenty or twenty-five employees. And importantly, by recruiting people who have run knitting facilities in the past, we’ve brought in thirty to fifty years of industry experience, as you’ll see on our website. Eric Schiffer, our senior director, is crucial to the operations here. He grew up in his grandfather’s knitting mill in Brooklyn many decades ago and he brings a very long history of made-in-USA knitwear knowledge to the team.

 

What kind of specialized equipment do you use?

The most important equipment here is the Stoll knitting equipment. It’s the most technologically advanced, computerized, full-fashion knitting machinery on the market. In addition to that, we have linking machines which link the parts coming out of the knitting machine together to ultimately produce the final garment. We also have a steam table and washing and drying equipment.

 

What is full-fashion knitwear?

Full-fashion construction and cut-and-sew: those are the two ways to make a sweater. The lower cost option is the latter. Cutting and sewing a sweater looks like big sheets of fabric stacked on top of a table, twenty-four lays high. You throw a pattern on top of it and take a band saw, cut out the pattern, and then sew all the pieces together. There’s a lot of waste there – usually about thirty percent – and it’s a very high-volume way to produce a sweater. The other way to make a sweater – which is what we’re doing – is full-fashion knitting. What that means is that when a piece comes off of the knitting machine, everything is knit to shape. There’s no waste. That’s why a lot of our customers are using higher-end wool or cashmere even: because there’s no waste on the raw materials side. After the piece comes out, in full-fashion knitting, then its linked together, meaning that the end loop that is on the side trim of a piece is connected to the matching loop on the other piece, and then linked. So it’s essentially a final knitting process which replicates, you could say, 3D printing or your grandmother knitting you a hand-made sweater.

 

Can you elaborate on the kinds of materials you use?

We’re really producing with the kinds of materials that our customers send us to produce their sweaters, which includes wool, cotton, cashmere, and a host of other specialty yarns. Cotton is second to wool, given that knitwear is primarily a Fall product. So when we’re outside of the Fall season, we’ll be knitting with cotton yarn. The specialty yarns include cashmere and other kinds of space-dyed lurex yarns for shiny products.

 

Is any of it sourced locally?

A lot of the wool is coming out of Italy, but there is still a number of companies producing yarn in the US. For example, there’s Jagger Brothers up in Maine: a spinning mill about a hundred years old. Yarns from there are sent to a local dyer: Saco River Dyehouse. You can see the supply chain as the yarn coming from Jagger Brothers, going to Saco to be dyed, and then ultimately coming here to be knit into a final product. So there are still local suppliers of yarn but, like the knitting industry, it’s a very small number of people.

 

How has your industry changed over the years?

Twenty or thirty years ago, you would see knitting mills and spinning operations and dye houses all throughout Brooklyn, Queens, and over into New Jersey and Connecticut. Eric, who really lived that experience, since his family was in the knitting industry, says there were probably 100 to 150 knitting mills alone. However about twenty or fifteen years ago, all those mills essentially closed down and went to China. Everything has been over in China for the past fifteen years and right now we’re really seeing a resurgence in demand for made-in-USA product. There are many reasons for that, but included is the rising costs in China. They are beginning to have a tough time competing, especially on the high-end side. Volume product will always come out of China or a country that can provide the really really low cost, but for the customers that we’re dealing with, who are in the contemporary market and selling sweaters between 200 and 500 dollars, it’s really making sense financially to produce here, given that you have to pay duty, you have to fly to China if you want to be really involved with the initial development phase, and given shipping costs and the like.

 

How has The American Knitting Company been able to come into that evolved industry and see success?

When we reach out to our target market through the network that Eric’s been building over his entire life, the response that we get is “finally there’s a domestic knitting source that we can rely on” and they either launch a new specially made-in-USA, Made in NYC, or made-in-Brooklyn collection of products, or instead of doing business in China or in Italy, they give their production to us. So we have had a really lucky time in going to market and we’ve received a really great response.

 

How much does your ability to do this have to do with computer numerical control machines rather than traditional methods?

Our ability to knit full fashion relies totally on the capability that we have through the machinery. For example, if you came to us to make a sweater and gave us all the specifics, the first thing we would need to do is have our programmer, who knows a specialized programming language, create a program for your sweater in the computer and then send it to the machine. It’s highly reliant on computerized machinery.

 

Who are your major clients?

Right now we’re working with Tanya Taylor, an up-and-coming designer brand selling in the high end markets. They came to us to produce a sample sweater – a really quick turn (the ability to produce something really quickly for someone is another advantage that we have). They submitted it to the women’s national Woolmark prize and advanced to the regional final. Our core market is the designer market, which includes Rachel Comey and Public School for men’s and women’s, but as we grow over the next few years, we’re going to start to scale up so that we can handle a customer like J.Crew, Lands’ End, or DKNY. There’s a just a huge list of hard-hitting names that are getting started with us on producing mostly new collections of made-in-USA branded product.

 

What are the challenges and benefits of being a business owner in New York City?

The most challenging aspect of locating our business in New York has been the cost. The Brooklyn Army Terminal is relatively competitive with regard to commercial leasing prices. Definitely, the cost of everything here is higher than if we were over in New Jersey or down south. However the benefits outweigh those challenges in that we’re really close to our market. Every brand that’s worth talking about has a location in New York: either a store or, most likely, their headquarters. They’re able to send their designer to us on the train and they’re here in forty minutes.

 

What’s next for you guys?

The next thing for the company is growth. We’ve just begun to tap our market and we’ve really had a great response, so we plan to grow. That means bringing in more machinery. By the end of next year, we hope to have maxed out the production capacity within this space, which is pretty ambitious, but I think we have the market to do that. So beyond the end of next year, we’ll be launching another production facility, probably within the same building.

Italo Leather

Please give us a brief history of Italo Leather and your experience in the leather industry.

Italo leather has been a leading leather skin supplier on the West Coast for over thirty years. In the last few months they had a desire to open a new location in New York City’s Garment Center and approached me to set up, organize and run that operation. I’ve organized the showroom and the warehouse in a way that I can operate it solo for the first few months and once we start getting our firm footing in the market here we will hire more people.

Before Italo, I was working with Libra Leathers Inc, the premier leather skin supplier here in New York City since 1977. For the last 18 years I ran the gamut from from sales to manufacturing to production to administrative work. I was a key person there for many, many years.

Does your family have a history in supplying leather in New York City?

My father was a leather cutter, born in Argentina, exposed to leather at a very young age. He was raised in a town where there was a big slaughter house and tanning facilities. In the early ‘60s he decided to take an adventure and move up to New York where there was a mecca for manufacturing, especially in leather. He decided to come here for a few months before bringing the whole family and became a master leather cutter in the garment center around 1964.

What was the Garment Center like at that time?

The vibrancy of the Garment Center back in the mid ‘60s to the end of the ‘70s was something to behold. You could not walk down any of these local streets without seeing 10-20 racks being pushed up and down the sidewalk. You couldn’t push the merchandise fast enough out of these factories. There were those racks going out to the trucking companies who were all stationed here between 9th and 10th Avenue from the high thirties down to the twenties. All of those consolidated trucking companies were there to receive leather and wool coats on racks ready to ship to the stores.

Has your industry changed since you started 18 years ago?

It’s changed dramatically over the last 15 to 16 years. Before the advent of the internet the world wasn’t so small and a lot of these designers, unless they actually traveled to Europe during the leather fairs, never had direct contact with the leather tanneries. Designers used to come almost exclusively to people like us, who basically are leather middle men, and we would expose them to all these great leathers from Europe and other parts of the world. Since then you have designers and manufacturers buying directly from tanneries. That has brought a lot of tanners, who before never used to travel to New York, to show their collections.

How have you adapted to those changes?

You definitely have to adapt. We have to work on much higher margins, we have to try to show leathers that are perhaps very different from what the designers may be seeing when they travel, so it’s really ramped up the efforts on our part. You also have to be a lot more tolerant with the demands from the designers in terms of color and quality. If they see a particular leather in a particular shade of red and that red comes in 5% too pink, you better be able to adjust before shipping those goods. There are a lot more testing protocols, there are a lot more compliance issues that you have to deal with today. A lot of buyers and manufacturers are very concerned about the tanning processes, about what type of chemicals are being used to make sure that everything fits with the compliance regulations especially set by the EPA here.

Why should manufacturers buy from a supplier rather than directly from a tanner?

Designers and manufacturers want to buy from the tanner primarily because of price. What’s the advantage of buying from somebody like us? Number one, we’re here. Whether we bring skins here or whether we ship to a manufacturing facility in the far East, we stand behind the leather. We take financial risk. If there’s a claim, we’re here. If a customer calls me and tells me they got a garment in from China and the skins don’t look the same, in a subway ride I can get to the customer and take a look at the garment and examine what the issue may be and try to resolve it. Whereas when you’re dealing with a tannery direct, you have language barriers and you may not get the result as fast as you want it.

What is the best part of supplying in New York City?

The beauty of supplying leather here is that the fashion district is so concentrated. I love it when a customer calls and they’re looking for particular leathers and I can say ‘I can be up to see you with 50 skins in half an hour”. Whereas if they call a tannery in Europe, they’re not going to get that kind of service, it may take 2 to 3 weeks to get a sample. And they may not be able to get the variety of skins that they’re looking for. Also, I just like the interaction of working with the New York based manufacturer and designer.

Do you feel like there is anything the City could do to help your industry?

One of the things that can be done is promoting the fact that we’re here. The other day I got a called from a teacher at FIT because she saw one of the listings that I did with the Garment Center District and she had never heard the name before, so she called to ask questions. I gave her some of the background and now she’s going to be sending her students up here to buy skins. That sort of promotion really would help.

What’s next for you all?

We’ve only been here a couple of months, what I’ve been doing in these first few months is planting the seeds to get our name out there. I feel that Italo can find a niche here that is moderately priced. We’re trying to help the small designer or the emerging designer, who perhaps can’t afford to pay for high leather skin prices especially when they start out sampling. We will tend to be very competitive when it comes to production quantities and our production minimums won’t be as high. I think that if we reach out to the small and emergent manufacturer and designer the word will pass around and we’ll get a more firm footing in this market.

Aldine Specialty Printing

Please give us a brief history of your company.

Alan: The company has been in existence for 34 years. We’ve been located over here in the printing district, when it was a printing district. Things have changed radically.

I started the business as a broker with two people at 200 Hudson Street with 400 square feet. I was in that location for about 5 years. Purchased some equipment and moved that company to 75 Varick Street, and there I got about 10,000 square feet. We expanded, purchased more equipment. I was there for about 15 years. Then we came to this location which is a fantastic space, about 15 years ago. And this is 22,000 square feet.

How have you seen the industry change over the years?

Alan: When I was a teenager an uncle of mine had a printing company on Hudson Street and I used to go there during the summer, it was just something to do to earn some money. That was 1957. There were little presses and it was very tedious job to get something printed.

Things had advanced quite considerably when I went in to the business in 1982. The whole industry has changed. For the better obviously, and we are getting better quality. What is really amazing is digital printing. It basically rounds out all our capability by adding this one particular process. And we enhance digital with our other printing processes—engraving, foil stamping, letter press, dye cutting, so we can offer clients a variety of different things.

Lee: I’ve been with Aldine for over 20 years. I’ve seen the industry change a lot. Quantities of printed materials have dwindled quite a bit and the money that was invested in quantity now focuses more on quality. Companies may upscale from offset printing to letterpress to engraving or something like that. I’ve noticed a real trend in the craft. In recent years craft has been threaded through many things, beer, chocolate, what have you, and it has been the same with printing.

Can you tell us about the machines that you use? Anything highly specialized?

Alan: The most traditional machine that goes back centuries would be engraving, which is the most beautiful printing process.

Lee: Three of our engraving presses, called carvers, were built in 1892 and they are the same presses, except for a few parts which have been changed.

Printers often express pride in old presses, what is beneficial about using an older press?

Alan: Right now, the presses that are available are old presses. There are no new presses being made. The carver, a particular type of press, is the best, and they don’t make them anymore. So what we do is we fix them as best we can, we keep on working on them. I have four of them and if one breaks I have to repair it because those are the best presses.

Digital printing has been a relatively new service that you offer. Why and when did you start the shift to digital?

Alan: I started using digital a year and a half ago. The reason we considered shifting to digital is because we don’t do four-color work here; we only have two-color presses. I don’t have room for four-color presses, it takes up a lot of space. Digital does four-color. The digital press is perfect. The footprint is not too large, and it does great work. We happen to have the Hewlett Packard Indigo press which is the best one of the market.

Why do you think you are one of the only printing companies left in this area of Manhattan?

Alan: The reason we are still in Manhattan is because we are a boutique organization, we don’t try to do everything, and particularly four-color work. Many of the companies that left Manhattan did four color work and there was no place where they could put those four-color presses. The reason we’ve been successful is because we have been preparing ourselves to handle certain accounts that demand and want our services. So we have been very fortunate, dealing with some great accounts.

What’s the best part of having your business in New York City?

Alan: Clients find it very accessible. We have meetings here with a lot of clients; we have open houses a couple of times a year. It’s important to speak to a printer to see if their design is feasible to print. The clients really find it helpful to meet with us because once they are here they can say, I want to make the color a little bit lighter, a little bit darker, can you press this a little bit heavier, and a little bit lighter, and you can’t do that if you’re not there, and that’s what the big advantage is.

Aldine works with a wide array of clients, from corporations to small-scale designers. Could you elaborate on your experience with your client base?

Lee: One of the most important principles at Aldine is clear communication with our clients. When it comes to supplying us with artwork, the artwork is analyzed by our preflight team in our graphics department to make sure that the files are prepped properly for print. We will point out any red flags, not from a design perspective, but from a printing perspective, because not everyone is an expert in printing. We feel it is our responsibility to point those things out.

One of my favorite parts of my job is sitting down with a client and asking what are they looking  for, what are they envisioning and making sure we incorporate the paper in the printing processes to carry through their vision. When we successfully carry that through, it is very rewarding. Aldine’s client base is spilt half and half with designers or anyone in the creative field, and then financial institutions, law firms, and so forth. So, it’s a really nice balance.

While there are many benefits to being based in Manhattan, such as proximity to clients, there can also be major challenges. Can you tell us about some of the biggest challenges for Aldine that come with being based in New York City?

Alan: Being based in Manhattan you have a lot more expenses. Your rents are higher, so we have to condense. We don’t have the luxury of a lot of spacious areas. But the most important thing is clients don’t want to go for a press check in New Jersey, some will, but I know a competitor who moved to New Jersey and they’re struggling. Clients really want to do something that is convenient for them.

What, if anything, could the city be doing to support you more?

Alan: The City can help in certain ways. I think the most important thing is trying to give some benefits to the companies who are here. I’m not asking for tax breaks, but just be a little considerate that we are employing all these people working in Manhattan.  Something could be done, I don’t know exactly what.

Lee: One of the biggest hurdles is the expense of rent, and the greatest thing the city could help us with would be with helping us with subsidizing rent. We are in the same building as one of the most successful advertising firms in the world, so you can imagine what the rent is like in this building.

You referred to the asset that you are providing to the city through job creation. Who makes up Aldine’s core employee base?

Alan: One of my key employees is the foreman of the shop; he has been here 32 years. Most of my employees are here an average of twenty years. I try to hire people from friends of friends who really recommend somebody. I have a policy that I try to promote from within. I have two very key people, one who was a messenger and he now runs the digital press, I have another messenger who is now running an engraving press. I like to think of this more as a family. I do the best I can to help them as much as possible.

I had one employee that appreciated working here so much, that he would thank me for letting him work here. This is a wonderful feeling when someone thanks you for letting them work.

Before we wrap up, can you tell us about anything new in the works at Aldine?

Alan: Aldine is looking into hard covered books. It’s a very interesting area where we could get a machine to make hard cover books and it’s a big market. So we are looking to expand in different areas.

Milène Jardine Chocolatier

Milène Jardine Chocolatier offers exotic chocolate truffles and bars inspired by Milène’s personal mantra: Live by Love. Each chocolate tells a story about the flavors used and takes you on a journey to a different country. The hope is to spread happiness, unite cultures, and inspire a world to “Live by Love” with each piece.

She proudly creates in her hometown of Queens. To shop visit milenejardine.com

Made in Queens