Stepping into WeWork’s newest Food Labs in Manhattan’s Chelsea District is like stepping into a botanical hothouse—and not just because there are literal plants growing within sight of the entrance.
One of the beleaguered We Company’s more recent ventures is a work space/incubator hybrid aimed at cultivating startups in the food industry by offering an R&D kitchen as well as merchandising, a lab and office space, and special programming to help them grow.
Despite WeWork’s recent woes including a failed IPO, the departure of founder Adam Neumann, a plan to divest many of its non-essential businesses, and a scramble to install a CEO who can right the ship, its Food Labs has managed to buck the odds—over the last year, it has amassed a membership of more than 400 entrepreneurs (starting at $300 per month) across locations in three cities: New York, San Francisco, and Austin. Food Labs is part of WeWork’s larger Labs initiative, which has grown to more than 4,600 memberships in 19 countries.
Though modest, if it scales, this could be exactly what the company needs to remake itself in the aftermath of a disastrous 2019. A company spokesperson told me, “WeWork Labs continues to contribute to our core desk business, providing early-stage founders with access to well-designed and economic work space, custom programming, and a global network to grow and succeed. The launch of WeWork Food Labs demonstrates our unique ability to tailor this offering to fit the needs of growing and innovative industries.”
The mood inside
A few days before the official launch (the space has been open since November 2019), every work space on the main floor was taken up by entrepreneurs tapping away at their laptops or working in the central kitchen. And no one seems to be terribly concerned about the larger WeWork story that’s loomed large in the news recently.
Take Edouard Freda, the founder of Talia di Napoli, for example. Just after ferrying a couple of his company’s pizzas into the wall oven, Freda asks if I’d like a sample before launching into a description of how the company is disrupting frozen pizza (made in Italy exclusively with locally sourced ingredients and cryogenically frozen) and is about to be available online and at Whole Foods Market. The secret sauce, Freda contends, is the ability to connect with other businesses through Food Labs. The logistics of shipping from the point of production in Naples to different points of sale in the U.S. was quickly solved, he says, by networking through Food Labs.
Ditto for Farmshelf founder and CEO Andrew Shearer, an earnest and affable young man who relates both his business model (grow fresh produce virtually anywhere in specialized hydroponic cases the size of a bookshelf) and his seat within Food Labs with equal enthusiasm for the possibilities of growth through making connections.
For her part, WeWork Food Labs manager Tessa Price points out that this is one the first times a work space and program designed specifically for food and beverage businesses have been made available in New York City. Price underscores how cost-prohibitive a test kitchen would be for a bootstrapped startup, not to mention how little interaction a founder would have if they were in a space alone.
“There’s a lot of cross-collaboration facilitated by the open work environment,” Price notes.
Startups, sustenance, and the network effect
Of course, the placement of startups next to each other within an open-floor plan has always been part of WeWork’s strategy. However, a floor plan that has the R&D kitchen smack dab in the center takes it a step further, as it makes it easy for entrepreneurs in the food industry to try new products and ask questions, Price says. One founder might see a vertical growing wall of greens and query, “How do we activate those herbs?” Price adds.
If the goal is propagation—to get the founders connected and funded, and moving into larger WeWork spaces—they have their work cut out for them. In New York City, WeWork was the largest office tenant with more than 100 locations and close to $50 billion of long-term lease liabilities against its monthly memberships, according to a MarketWatch report.
SoftBank’s Marcelo Claure, who has been helming the company as executive chairman and spearheading its attempts to recapitalize the business, sounds confident though. In a statement provided to Fast Company, he says, “WeWork Food Labs is a perfect example of how our global network uniquely positions us to create diverse workplace solutions for companies across industries and geographies.”