Tattooed shoulder to wrist, Neki Davis is sitting in the small, comfortable space that is her second home. Workers in white aprons and hair nets mill around while she settles down at a small work table/breakfast nook that’s always crowded with something or other.
This is no hipster hangout—it’s Davis’s shared factory, where for a year and a half now, she’s been baking sheet after sheet of her Early Bird granola with the help of a handful of locals from the Brooklyn area. Here in the Red Hook neighborhood, behind the only colorful door on an otherwise drab, industrial drag, Davis spends her days working alongside two other female artisans: Betsy Devine, proprietor of Salvatore Bklyn, and Homa Dashtaki, the California transplant behind White Moustache yogurt.
Each woman in the small, unlikely entrepreneurial circle brings something different to the group dynamic: Davis is the forthcoming one, while Devine likes to stew a bit over questions before taking them on, and Dashtaki, the newest addition, often seems content to absorb the knowledge of these two women, whom she says “blazed trails” long before she arrived in Brooklyn. At times, however, she’ll happily launch into a discussion on the difficulty of maintaining your sanity while running a business, or mull over the empowering aspects of running such a business in one of the country’s most demanding retail scenes.
“The [New York City] market is intolerant of anything but the best,” says Dashtaki, as the machine that fills glass jars with her handmade Persian yogurt grinds away in the room next door. “I couldn’t do my business in any other place in the whole country, and the fact that I could do it here is because you guys built this whole community of foodies.”
The other women nod thoughtfully, reflecting on the early days of going artisanal in Brooklyn—even before such methods had become Portlandia punchlines—and eventually throughout the city. Early on Davis, crafted her granola anywhere she could, from Long Island City to Queens, Coney Island to Brooklyn, baking, packaging, and boxing her granola (a product of “olive oil, salt, and love”) in frenzied, eight-hour sessions.
Meanwhile, Devine began making her silky ricotta in the commercial kitchen she worked in after failing to find anything on par with the high-quality ricotta she tried in Italy. The two women ended up meeting in 2009 through mutual friends at the now locally famous Brooklyn Flea. For both of them, the Flea played an integral role in growing their businesses, giving them a platform where they could work out the intricacies of their fledging ventures.
“It was like this little incubator where people could afford rent to have a storefront once a week,” says Devine. “Which allowed people to be creative and follow what they’re passionate about.”
Within a year, Devine and Davis felt secure enough in their businesses to find a more permanent place to work. They searched for a year before settling on a seventh-floor space near the waterfront-adjacent Brooklyn Navy Yard. The space was far from perfect—a lack of ample copper wiring forced the pair to work in shifts—but it was still well-equipped enough to allow Davis and Devine to invite Tin Dizdarevic, founder of Tin Mustard, and eventually Dashtaki, to move in. Within a few years, the quartet were growing too quickly to remain in the space, and soon arrived here, in industrial but fast gentrifying Red Hook.
It’s been a whirlwind six years for Devine, Davis, and Dashtaki, but the time has been essential in helping the three women understand how the artisanal landscape has transformed their lives and their businesses. Here, some advice from all three on finding one’s passion and capitalizing on it—without losing your mind or your motivation.
“I had a friend who worked at Martha Stewart, I had a friend who worked at the New York Times and New York magazine, and everyone loved it and wanted more of [the granola],” says Davis. “I happened to be really lucky to make something that was in demand at the time.”
Not everyone can have such high-powered pals. Devine, meanwhile, leveraged her years in the food industry to get her ricotta into as many restaurant kitchens as she could, hoping word-of-mouth would kickstart her company. While some would consider that a slow start, it allowed her to safely grow her business among people who would appreciate the process of creating high-quality ricotta before selling on the retail level.
“I’d worked in kitchens for most of my professional life, I knew a lot of people. I knew chefs in other restaurants, I knew some distributors,” says Devine. “And it was easy to start slow in that way.”
When the group decided to move to a larger production space in 2013, they found themselves in a hard spot: They were all medium-sized businesses caught in a Goldilocks-type situation: some spaces were way too big; others way too small.
“We’ve always been in that middle ground,” says Devine.
Another problem with the middle ground? Scaling.
“I still deal with [the inherent inefficiencies] deeply,” says Devine. “There’s no alternative to my product. It’s a handmade product. And that is great, but it also sucks because our business is a volume business. It’s a conundrum for me.”
Dashtaki sees the positive there.
“For me, I just embrace that I have a cap,” she says. “This is going to be a handmade product and putting it in glass jars is super inefficient. Our label is super inefficient. I’ve just come to accept it and now sort of take a sick sense of pride in it in a business sense.”
The day we meet, Davis is struggling to fill an order. It’s a problem that all three women face from time to time. Their businesses are wildly popular, but their ability to meet demand is limited by the size of their businesses. Everyone they know seems to have an opinion about how to fix the problem.
“The main thing [I get] is, ‘You should move out of Brooklyn,’” says Dashtaki.
Davis nods, adding that if she simply moved her business anywhere else in the U.S. she could probably make double what she makes now, while Devine notes that the consumer bases they have now—urban and upwardly mobile—are more than prepared for these inefficiencies, especially if the product stays high quality.
“I think that people genuinely are into great products being made well nearby,” says Devine. “We’re held accountable. There’s nowhere to hide here. I think that resonates because it’s hard to find as a consumer.”
Thoughtfully, Dashtaki adds: “My business took off here. Brooklyn allowed me to do what I do, and there’s a lot of loyalty to that.”
The Brooklyn artisanal scene, for all its glory, remains male-dominated with some of the biggest product names—Mast Brothers Chocolate, Grady’s Cold Brew, Brooklyn Salsa Company, Kings County Distillery, and Brooklyn Brine—run by men, while the ventures of female artisans remain woefully hyperlocal. But the women at the Red Hook factory are wary of putting too much stock into the role their genders might play in the success of their businesses.
“I just want to throw the idea of gender out the window and have it not matter about anything,” Davis says emphatically. “I feel like we’ve kind of carved out our own path in this world and we’re kind of making the path how we want. I don’t feel any limitation because I’m in charge. ”
Still, Dashtaki is the first to admit that a part of what drew her to working with Davis and Devine was their positions as powerful women making it in the competitive market of homemade goods and crafts.
“I think that you learn from the people who came before you, and to whatever degree we choose not to think about [sexism] is a luxury,” says Dashtaki. “But it was an issue for a really long time.”
“I’m more proud of finding this weird, alternative niche of my own up here and showing that there is something outside that norm, there is something that’s on the fringe that’s totally respectable and totally sustainable and you can craft the path of your life in a different way,” says Davis. “That’s the fringe I’m proud of.”
“The cycle is you go whole hog, working around the clock, and then you burn out,” says Davis. “And you completely disengage for a little bit.”
By her estimates, it’s this cycle of burning out, taking time off, and coming back to the work that helps an entrepreneur get a better grasp of organizing what needs to be done now—and what wait until tomorrow.
“I don’t need to answer every phone call. I can answer every other one,” she says. “I’ve learned through being completely burned out and recovering from that where I can set a boundary and live a better life.”
If there’s one thing Dashtaki, Davis, and Devine agree on completely, it’s that despite the everyday stresses of running a business, they are passionate about what they’re doing. All agree that if their businesses were to go under tomorrow, they’d simply start another because there’s no going back.
“It’s the kind of thing that once you find it, you won’t be able to quit even if you want to,” says Dashtaki. “You’re like, all in, with time, money, emotions, everything. You’re just in it.”
Thinking about this idea, Davis recalls a Whoopi Goldberg quote from Sister Act 2, saying that if you wake up every morning with only the thought of your passion on your mind then you need to pursue it, while Devine compares running Salvatore Brooklyn to being in love, where caring for her business is never a chore, just another in a long line of loving acts.
“For me [starting a business] felt like accidentally getting pregnant,” Dashtaki says. “I’m going to feed it, I’m going to love it, and I’m going to take care of it.”
At which point Davis chimes in with the final word: “And it’s going to be twins!”