We’ve seen some of your candy photos, and now you have another food-centric business. What started your obsession with good food?
I spent a large chunk of my career in the digital world, but I also did a 9-month rotation at Babbo as a prep cook to surround myself with food and clear my palate, so to speak. I was researching a lot of stuff in food and retail, and all the sudden I had a whole bunch of ideas. There was a trip to Marlow and Daughters that really tipped the scales. I was looking around at all this great stuff that they make, and their website was basically a map and hours of operation. So I thought, well I could probably solve all that, and make it feel really local, in the same way going to the store feels. So that was really what started it — going to Smorgasburg, going to stores that were selling this type of food, and realizing that there has clearly been a shift to selling online product. And also, that there are all these small, little local companies that are only available if you happen to live in Brooklyn. We started the company with the idea to sell small batch, local, artisan food — and what we settled on was “indie food,” as we started to realize that’s really what we were looking for.
Because a lot of those other words have begun to lose their luster?
Yeah, I think it was very clear that organic was a big shift when that happened, but people started realizing — What’s better for me, and the world? Eating an organic apple that was flown in from Chile, or a non-organic apple that was grown by the farmer 20 miles away. It’s tricky, because as soon as you say local, what does that really mean? Granola Lab is made locally but tamarind doesn’t grow in Brooklyn, and Brooklyn Hard Candy is a Brooklyn brand, but sugar doesn’t grow here either. So we came across a new idea that made sense. You listen to indie music, and the same way that an indie record store would want to sell what they think is great—artists that aren’t signed to big labels—we’re trying to sell great food by great artists, whether or not they’re made by big, large producers.
Has there been any stepping on toes with the locations already selling these items?
I don’t think so. Marlow and those kind of stores can do things we can’t. They can sell steak, they can sell cheese, fresh goods, produce. There are a lot of things that people won’t buy online. If anything, we hope that we’re just trying to build an audience for the same products they’re selling and vice versa. Because I’d much rather see Granola Lab sell more than Quaker Oatmeal.
So how does New York Mouth work?
We launched privately in the first week of December, and we opened the site to the public February 15, so we’ve been live now for about 3 and a half months. We started with about 30 producers, and we’re up to about 70 now. (There are still cheers among the 4-person staff whenever an order comes in.) The thing about most of our vendors being local is we don’t really have to stock a lot of inventory. I’ll give you an example: here’s a jerky from Greenpoint, we ran out, we called them, another five cases will show up tomorrow. So that’s the good news about being local, if we were shipping from Italy and we ran out, we’d have to wait a few weeks. These guys are across the street. We hand-wrap every product, we brand our own wooden spoons, and we’ve got hand-written thank you notes on little postcards.
Are you still seeking out producers for the site, or are they coming to you now?
It’s a mix of both. It’s a mix of what we taste in-store, we go and pursue them, and then we also have people that know about us now. But as I say, we’re very young, so we don’t have a huge exposure. Typically we would ask them to send us samples, and then we would taste it at this table right here. There are a whole bunch of things that are waiting to be tried that we just haven’t gotten around to sampling yet. Someone just sent us this caramel sauce from San Francisco with goat’s milk.
Wait, California-made foods are allowed? So far it’s just been the 5 boroughs.
Well, the New York area. So we have a ketchup from New Jersey, sunflower oil from upstate New York, some sauces from Connecticut. But yes, we get everything from around here. The first exception to the rule was a soy sauce from Lexington Kentucky, but the reason we wanted to carry it is because the story was too good not to. It’s the only small-batch soy sauce, made with non-GMO soybeans, which is a big deal, and then they age the soy sauce in old bourbon barrels. It just struck us as a real craft. There are great products all over the country that all have the same problem: they’re struggling artists trying to make their food product, and it’s carried in a bunch of their local stores, but it’s not carried online. Our intention was always to add other regions to the mix, but we don’t know exactly how that’s going to happen yet, whether we open California Mouth, or San Francisco Mouth, or Denver Mouth or something like that, that’s something that we’re working on to try to figure out, as opposed to keeping it as one big Etsy-type site.
Most of the products you picked up at first were from Brooklyn markets or eateries. What you think it is specifically about Brooklyn food culture that’s inspiring?
First of all, Brooklyn has a history of food, but I think it also has to do with the fact that space is cheaper in Brooklyn. Neighborhoods like Soho and Meatpacking in Manhattan, those places have disappeared as great gritty centers of art and affordable housing. People trying to do things as startups on their own, those people have moved to Greenpoint and Williamsburg, and other parts of Brooklyn. For whatever reason, whether it’s been planned or not, those neighborhoods in Manhattan have disappeared. Why is it the Brooklyn Flea and not the Manhattan Flea? That’s just where the people are. Brooklyn Flea spins into Smorgasburg, which basically spins in some ways into what we’re trying to do. I think it’s very different in the sense that Smorgasburg is very much about going there and eating something prepared on the spot. Almost half of our makers are there, and they do an okay business, but I just think it’s become more of an event to go eat than go shop.
So now that you are up to 70 producers, do you know all of them face-to-face and all their backstories?
Certainly not the ones in California. But the good thing about these small businesses is that they deliver the product themselves. So Alex who makes the granola, she comes here. And Chris who makes Kings County Jerky. And Dan Barber from Blue Hill, he lives around the corner from me, so we’ve been very lucky. I would say probably two-thirds of these people we know really well. And we’re starting to see them at the same events, so it’s developing into a bit of a community. It’s very early though, this is a young industry, a lot of these companies are only two or three years old.
Do you think you’re drawn more to the producers for their stories or their food?
It starts with the food, and then it moves to the story. I just think we have to carry products that are really delicious. At one end of the spectrum, you have companies like Hot Bread Kitchen in Manhattan, and they hire immigrant women who cook their heritage bread products in this non-profit space in New York City, and these women also get trained to run their own businesses - this is an incredible story.
And you have some other things where it’s just good food. Like Blue Hill — it’s honey, it’s a hive, there’s bees, they make honey. So from that perspective, there’s really a full range. But it’s really about the product, delicious first. So the music analogy is perfect. You hear a great song and you think ‘Who is that?’ And then you find out. Was that a big band I’ve already heard of, or was it something new? It helps for us, people like to connect with their food, their music. The stories are an important part of it. Would we carry a product that’s just really delicious with no story behind it? Yeah we have some of that, but we’re trying not to.
Craig Kanarick Opens His New York Mouth