61 Local: the Profits of Virtue

The buzz of Brooklyn’s BoCoCa neighborhood is a cacophonous mix of old-meets-new. Throw-back butchers, all-the-rage restaurants, inviting art spaces, all- too- proud Brooklyn bars, art installation converted dumpsters, yarn stores that serve alcohol, educational centers, community gardens, and the list goes on. Each establishment possesses its own characteristic quirk. But one spot is a little harder to nail down. That spot is 61 Local, a community center/public house/bar/restaurant/art space/community garden/think tank/beer hall.

All those slashes might seem to indicate a place that’s trying too hard to be everything for everyone. Thankfully, that’s certainly not the case. Their multi-functional mix works. Moreover, it thrives. 61 Local is a privately owned public square, where creativity, community, and collaboration collide.

Photo by flickr user ethikus.

Dave Liatti is the owner and mastermind behind 61 Local, which he opened in 2010. A former Sixpoint Brewery engineer, acclaimed foodie and designer, and one of the entrepreneurial icons behind Brooklyn’s locavore movement, Liatti’s vision for 61 Local is more than just another bar. “61 Local is a meeting place for friends, a watering hole, a house party, a creative space and an inclusive environment that fosters collaboration and the positive exchange of ideas,” Liatti and Kris de la Torre, his manager, told me.

The one defining characteristic you can pin on the place is its theme. Everything at 61 Local – from the beer you drink, to the cheese on your sandwich, to the stool you sit on – is locally sourced. The cavernous interior is repurposed from its roots as a sprawling town house and garage, marked by a large map on the wall to indicate the exact origin of each item you’re consuming. Here, locavorism reigns. But Liatti’s aim goes deeper than just practicing ethical eating and buying habits; his reason for sourcing locally is that it creates stronger relationships. At 61 Local, the aim is to bridge the gap between the care and creativity of the craftsmen and the customer who enjoys their products.

“The relationships we have with our vendors is one of the greatest pleasures of working at 61 Local. In almost every case we have met face to face with the individual or collaborative that’s behind the product,” de la Torre says. “We strive to understand their process, their inspiration and their needs as a small, independent business. Opportunities are arranged every month for our staff – and sometimes customers – to meet with different vendors, volunteer with them and establish a personal connection that many bars do not prioritize the same as a public house would.”

But what does all of that mean for the customer? More ambitious than sourcing locally is maintaining a profitable business that exists to serve its community. 61 Local is a community center. Literally. “The community center component of 61 is really evident as you watch the slew of patrons through the course of a single day. In one afternoon you could easily see artists from Invisible Dog Art Center next door co-mingling with professional and home brewers meeting to swap some brew, creative professionals who work from their new home office at 61, babies and neighborhood moms, three generations of a family celebrating an anniversary, urban farmers delivering flowers for the tables or selling us some greens, neighbors gathering to pick up their CSA share, actors prepping for an audition on our mezzanine, or any number of friends who know that coming into 61 probably means running into a good friend or beer buddy,” says de la Torre. “It’s great to feel this sort of buzz.”

And there’s quite a buzz. Shortly after its opening, the blog “Brooklyn Based” said that Liatti has “turned 61 Local into a creative hub for neighborhood artists and foodies looking for a place to kick back and collaborate.” TimeOut New York said, “With its single-minded focus on hyperlocal purveyors, Dave Liatti’s sprawling beer hall doubles as an unofficial clubhouse for Brooklyn’s DIY artisans.” New York Times’ food critics said of the establishment, “Never has hanging out at a bar seemed so virtuous.”

Photo by flickr user bhuny.

Any New Yorker will tell you that it’s hard to find a true ‘third place’ that achieves community building free from the trappings of profit-mongering. This raises the question: is localism a kind of temperance to avarice?

I once heard a customer come up to the bar at 61 Local and try to order a Coke. In a fascinating exchange, the bartender kindly explained that they don’t carry those kinds of goods. “Most customers are really excited and appreciative to forgo the typical bar selection for something a little closer to home. Who knows? That soda they just got served might have been made by the couple sitting next to them at the bar. There’s something extra enticing about that.”

What’s different about 61 Local is the intention behind their entrepreneurship. “At 61 we really strive to make connections. Taking the time to meet and understand who is behind each of these events has allowed us to bring together some wonderful, ambitious and creative individuals. What makes this successful is that often times new projects are born from the connections first established at 61 and we are more than happy to provide the context for realizing these projects.”

How Liatti’s vision was actualized is as much a product of his surroundings – he’s lived in DUMBO since before it was called DUMBO – as of his own brilliance. “The creative, DIY nature of what is happening in Brooklyn right now has absolutely shaped 61 Local. The public house was born as a resource for just that sort of effort. This is also why we carry such a large number of products ‘Made in Brooklyn’ and much of our programming is geared towards spotlighting local projects. The spirit of 61 is very much a reflection of present day Brooklyn.” And as for how they want 61 Local to grow: “It would be great if the reach of 61 Local continued to expand and we became more widely acknowledged as an advocate for local projects and community building. If more bars could act as a resource for their community that would be a positive step.”

Part of 61 Local’s neighborhood is negatively affected by the environmental dangers of the Gowanus Canal, a south Brooklyn sewage gross-out that recently received superfund status. With the addition of a new NBA arena nearby – the hotly debated Atlantic Yards – sewage overflow is likely to increase, sending the Department of Environmental Protection into a tizzy.  Last year, 61 Local received a DEP green infrastructure grant to build a roof garden that will absorb rainwater, which will help prevent the run-offs that cause sewage overflow and serve as a rooftop garden to grow herbs and vegetables to use in the restaurant.

This is just one example of how 61 Local is experimenting to see how privately owned ‘third spaces’ can be defined by the goal of caring for the community it serves. It might be idealistic to say that locavorism can completely transform communities and the way we think of free markets. Cultural homogeneity is still a wolf at the door of those dining at the local-only table. But perhaps it’s not too far-fetched to wonder if, in locavorism, we’re seeing a mode of capitalism that’s fueled by collaboration as much as competition. Of the customer it asks: can we consume more virtuously? Of the vendor it asks: how can we create deeper value from this good? From both these questions, 61 Local is finding positive and profitable results. Lets see who follows suit.





Want to check out what’s happening this summer at 61 Local?

“Summer at 61 Local is going to be HUGE! We are currently developing a free bike tour to Red Hook every first Saturday. Riders will get to meet some of our friends making delicious things down in that ‘hood and end the journey with lunch and a beer at 61. We’re also hosting new lecture series on local ecology and the watershed, spending lots of time at various urban gardens in Brooklyn and will offer plenty of opportunities for customers to tag along. We also have a great line-up of seasonal brews coming out on tap and a growing selection of exceptional wines on tap as more wineries jump on board with the keg program.” – Kris de la Torre


Finding Home Where the Hearth Is

The rootedness of most New Yorkers – their attachment to the city and their intention to stay there – can often be measured by their kitchen. First: do they have one? Second: is it an approximation of a covert freshman dorm kitchen (hot plate and mini-fridge), or does it have adult-sized appliances? Third: what is actually in the appliances? New York apartment lore is rife with tales of ovens which exist to store stilettos and refrigerators containing a moldy hunk of Gouda and a six-pack of Corona.

My own attachment to New York has evolved with my kitchens – from a shared, narrow affair where I cut my teeth on living as an urbanite, to my first kitchen of married life, to a place where I stopped playing house and starting living it.

I moved to New York a month after my college graduation. I’d landed the classic (pre-recession) twenty-something package: a cushy job at a large investment bank, housed in a tall glassy building overlooking Central Park, and an L-shaped apartment right at the bend of a crooked street in the West Village, shared with a kind classified-ads roommate, Katie, who was not much older than me but enough to be far more settled in her life of entertaining traveling friends and playing tennis and working at an architecture firm a few blocks away.

The kitchen was long and narrow, with a window at the end that looked into a luckier neighbor’s courtyard. We had two cabinets: one held Katie’s dishes, and the other we split between us to store our food. I was too green to know how lucky I was to have an oven, refrigerator, and enough counter space to easily cook multi-course meals. And so, I didn’t do much cooking; I ate a lot of Cheez-its and chocolate chips. It was okay. I knew I wouldn’t be living there forever.

I wasn’t an incompetent cook – my mother made sure of that – but since I’d lived at home during college, I had to learn to buy groceries for myself. The West Village is devoid of good supermarkets, and I shopped at the exorbitantly-priced gourmet stores like Citarella until I stumbled upon a bare-bones, run-down, but completely adequate grocery store called Strawberry Fields, apparently run by an enormous family of Pakistanis. (With typical Gotham transience, it’s now a bleeding-edge couture boutique.)

Katie had lived in Europe for a while before moving to New York and had fallen into the habit of shopping for that day’s food on the way home from work. That worked well for her, as she subsisted mainly on what could be purchased on nearby Euro-wannabe Bleecker Street: fresh bread from Amy’s Bread, fish and salami from the Italian butcher, coffee from Porto Rico, cheese from the inimitable Murray’s.

And so I fell into the habit, too. Amy’s was easy enough to navigate – large, crusty loaves of artisanal bread, ciabatta rolls shot through with rosemary, softball-style muffins, melty croissants, all baked fresh every day and familiar to me, lined the cases and shelves behind the register.

But as someone who, until recently, never liked cheese, I hovered on the periphery of Murray’s until one day I ventured in to see what the fuss was about. It’s an intimidating place, filled with colorful and exotic fare. I bought some paradigm-shifting handmade dried pasta and a big ball of fresh mozzarella from Brooklyn, and eyed the stacks of imported chocolate in colored foil wrappers, the jars of gourmet pesto, the trays of sliced prosciutto. Murray’s became my guilty pleasure haunt.

Still, though I was becoming aware of these local culinary delights, I didn’t spend much time in the kitchen. I mostly ate easily-prepared food in the living room with Katie, where we occasionally watched television, or in my room, where I chatted with far-flung college friends on my computer. The kitchen was a place filled with someone else’s utensils, someone else’s dishes, someone else’s pots and pans and knives – and while Katie was happy to share, I could hardly feel like much more than a sojourner.

On December 23 of that year, I was headed home the next morning to celebrate Christmas with my family upstate. Katie had already left, so my boyfriend and I decided to band together and throw a dinner party at my place. Our friend Apryl, who worked in finance but had gone to culinary school, offered to cook, and I splurged at Citarella on Cornish hens, fresh rosemary, tiny red potatoes, fresh butter, crusty Italian bread, crunchy green beans, and a crème brulee.

I brought the food into the kitchen and watched as Apryl got to work. She tied together the legs of the hens, then rubbed rosemary under their skin. Reaching toward the back of our black wire shelving unit, she pulled out our thickest cutting board and sliced the bread onto it, then added some cheese and prosciutto. She halved the potatoes, dotted them with butter, and roasted them in the oven in their jackets. We opened a few bottles of Riesling and had a memorably cozy feast by candlelight.

By the following summer, I was engaged, and had moved to Park Slope – as one does – to a tiny studio apartment with all the furniture I owned: a bed, a desk, a futon with no mattress, and a floor lamp. The new place was all one room, but bucked the Brooklyn studio trend by having a tiny kitchen set off in a separate room from the living room. There was a three-quarter-sized refrigerator, a big-enough gas stove, and, mercifully, a lot of cabinet space to fill with wedding presents of dishes and gadgets and wine glasses.

It was a peculiar room: nearly square, except the wall to the right of the door, which suddenly angled out at about twenty degrees – too narrow to fit a tiny table, too irregular to fit a shelf. It was a mystery. The angle was quite clearly intentional; it was not an architectural flaw, but it had no matching angle on the other side of the wall and no apparent purpose. Hundred-year-old buildings often befuddle the tenants.

The window, once again, looked into the backyard of a luckier neighbor.

We had moved above a gourmet grocery store and around the corner from the most famous natural foods co-op in the country, and fresh food was now available all the time – and I had my own fun kitchen toys to play with. Using my immersion blender or vegetable steamer basket gave me an embarrassing amount of pleasure: I could be creative, geeky, and a heroine to my hungry husband.

Our favorite wedding present was an Italian-style stovetop percolator; not only did it make espresso, but you could pour milk into the top and it would froth into a lovely latte. Unfortunately, one fateful day, we forgot to turn the pressure knob inside all the way to the right, and the espresso and milk exploded all over the daisy-yellow walls and ceiling in a brown cascade of drops, right as we were both trying to leave for work. I quickly washed everything down with soap and water, but when we came home that night, the drops were back. And the next night. And the next night. No matter how many times I washed, the drops came back. For all I know, they’re still there, coming through fresh coats of paint and puzzling the current resident.

It was also in this kitchen that I learned what it was to cook as a wife, not a girlfriend. Girlfriends order Chinese take-out and serve it on paper plates, but being a wife in a sophisticated Brooklyn neighborhood feels distinctly more grown up. Like Julia Child in Paris, I felt driven to learn to do things like poach an egg and make a salad dressing and use the right kind of wine glass for the right kind of wine. I learned that men don’t particularly want to eat the same thing day after day. I came to recognize the value of a Crock-Pot.

We lived there happily for two years. The kind older man living downstairs was a jazz musician. In the summer, we went onto the roof and drank chianti and ate ice cream and watched the fireworks displays that inexplicably happened every weekend at Prospect Park. I tried to grow rosemary on the roof until the pot blew over and away, leaving the plant and its soil stranded. We gained a reputation for throwing raucous dinner parties, with a dozen people crammed onto the floor eating chili or pasta caprese and chocolate mousse and contributing bottle after wine bottle.

But one day the man downstairs moved to Long Island, and our landlord – a quiet but reasonable guy not much older than us – said the wall downstairs was apparently rotting out from a leaky pipe and he had decided to just renovate the whole building. We started packing and apartment-hunting.

Mercifully, we inadvertently landed in a slightly larger apartment just across Flatbush Avenue, in a brownstone neighborhood that rivaled Park Slope for beauty and was a whole lot less yuppie.

When we came to see the apartment, we instantly loved it – bright and airy, with a huge casement window looking northeast. We slowly circled the apartment, looking at the layout and architectural features. The kitchen was a marvel, with a half-height wall that connected it to the rest of the apartment visually, but kept it separate enough that leaving a few dishes in the sink wouldn’t make the whole place seem messy. It was a little larger, with more counter space and a lot of shelving.

One problem: it only had a mini-fridge. While that could be made to work for people who shop every day and eat out a lot, I like to have room for my vegetables and my yogurt, and my husband cannot face the day without knowing that there’s a pint of ice cream at the end of it.

“We love the place, but we need a real refrigerator,” we said, and the owner liked us enough to consent. The new kitchen now included one and a half refrigerators.

If I’d learned to shop in my first kitchen, and cook like a grown-up in the second, the third is where I learned that good food is essential to relationships, especially in a city where people are loath to put down roots and never seem to have enough time to sit down and have a meal.

In this kitchen, I learned to guesstimate how much food would be eaten at monthly open invitation brunches for the twenty-plus people who would crowd around our coffee table and spill into circles on the living room floor. I found out that certain meals – breakfast casseroles, smashed potatoes, cinnamon-kissed lentil stews – go a long way for little money, and people grew fond of a certain grapefruit cake I started making as a bright spot in a dreary winter.

I discovered that friends who had lost jobs or couldn’t find freelance work were subsisting on ramen and canned beans, and started surreptitiously sliding a chicken and some potatoes into the oven when they came over to watch a movie. Hungry people are usually too proud to let you cook for them if you ask first, but if you ambush them with food, they eat with grateful alacrity.

This kitchen was where I discovered the healing power of a meal of spicy cod and rice and a comforting pot of coffee, with a box of chocolate chip cookies and a bottle of blood orange soda sent home after a quiet family crisis. It’s also the first kitchen of mine which my mother visited, several years after my father died, on her first solo trip to New York. I think it comforted her to know that I had proper appliances and utensils, even if I lack a dishwasher.

And it’s the kitchen where I officially realized I’d set down roots in a neighborhood. It’s the place where I bring home vegetables from the local farmer’s market, where I started growing oregano and basil and dill and thyme on the windowsill, where I started baking bread and grinding coffee and attempting – not yet successfully – to make cheese.

Other things have happened to make me feel like a New Yorker since that first apartment. I’ve bought couches and televisions and other things that root you to a spot. I changed the address on my driver’s license and passport. I served as a fourth alternate juror in Brooklyn Criminal Court. I’ve stopped carrying maps of any kind, and I’ve become the kind of New Yorker who grumbles quietly about the inefficiency of every place that isn’t New York.

But it’s my kitchen that’s home, where I have my favorite bottle of olive oil and too many boxes of tea and my phenomenally heavy Ralph Lauren Home wine decanter. It’s where my French press and my pretty stacks of plates and bowls live. It’s where a friend who travels half the year sighed happily and said, “So many delicious things in your home.”

We may not have a hearth, but our kitchen makes this city our home.

A Dinosaur Crawled Into My Backyard
(Attempts at Connecting with Nature)

A dinosaur crawled into my backyard last week. This reminded me that I live in a city where you don’t regularly see dinosaurs. Or even backyards. You see pavement. And now, apparently, you can see dinosaurs, too.

I stood looking out at the gray dawn of a Brooklyn morning towards our anomaly of an urban backyard. And suddenly I saw it: the dinosaur, emerging from our neighbor’s yard by way of a hole in the tattered fence that separates our two territories. I stepped back and thought about lying down and playing dead, because if a dinosaur is like anything in this current world, it is like a bear, and we all know that bears hate dead people, especially when they’re lying down. But I denied my natural instincts and stood frozen, in a sort of old-West showdown with the Jurassic Knickerbocker. I thought to myself: For he is a dinosaur, and I a human with a massive urge to Google “what to do in case you see a dinosaur.”

It wore a black and orange shell, a half-bowl on its back that was scattered with some sort of hieroglyphic pattern, like it was carrying with it some map or scroll of ancient tradition long forgotten by its present surveyors. There is no story I know of his. He is a relic. He stands stoic, wise, ancient, hopefully herbivorous. Probably herbivorous.

For he is a dinosaur.

And I a twenty-something white guy, who can’t imagine a world before cell phones.

He was small in stature and had a long neck and seemed confused. Perhaps an infant offshoot of the triceratops, I thought, or maybe some mentally handicapped dwarf version of the brontosaurus that decided to put a seashell on its back, like some adult-sized cape that he insisted on wearing outside the house much to the chagrin of his irritated mother. He paraded in costume across our stone path and held his nose in the air to determine which portion of our backyard to traverse next. I hoped he would eat the Allegheny spurge, which is ugly and weed-like. For he is a retarded dinosaur, and might like to eat weeds. And I a humble onlooker, fascinated by his disabled wisdom.

He crept along slowly, with patience, as if he had no train to catch or iPhone to monitor. I had forgotten, for a second, that a dinosaur would probably be unfamiliar with the pace of the world he has now returned to and thought of going up to him and teaching him how to use Twitter so that he could update us all when he eats a leaf or has a “sad day ‚òπ.” Or perhaps he would appreciate if I taught him the basics of social networking sites so he could post embarrassing pictures of his drunken friend, the stegosaurus, who totally got wasted at Sarah’s birthday party last week. He might like that. But then again, he might also just like a piece of lettuce. For he is a dinosaur. And I a great educator of useless cyber relationship sites.

It looked at me as if it wanted something. My urban conditioning urged me to say, “I’m sorry, I don’t have any change,” or, “No, I don’t like stand-up comedy,” or, “No, I don’t have a minute for the environment or dying children.” These were the things I normally said to strangers in the city. But he was a dinosaur. And I a speechless inhabitant of his once home.

After a moment of silence, I finally went inside and yelled out to my wife with childlike glee, “The dinosaurs are back! The dinosaurs are back!” She sardonically, distastefully looked up at me. I had to explain to her – “There is a dinosaur in our backyard, come look” – and she begrudgingly followed my beck and call like a mother responding to a child screaming for more toilet paper. She looked out and saw the midget beast. I said to her, with cathartic wisdom, “For he is a dinosaur.” She stared at the creature in an existential trance and, after a long silence, quietly replied, “No. For he is a box turtle. And you, you are an idiot.”

According to Wikipedia, box turtles can live for over 100 years. The one in our backyard has been alive for at least 30. Our neighbors explained to us that, some decades ago, a pebbled-toothed man was digging in his backyard and struck a shell that birthed a head and four legs and crawled out from the ground that it had been hibernating in for the past five months. It was as if the pebbled-toothed man had stumbled upon a mix of magic, some perfect mineral combination that conjures extinct residents and resurrects them from the dirt. The box turtle was fed tomatoes by the local neighbors and trekked through the backyards of four of the brownstones on our street, and has lived here ever since.

It has a name that no one can remember, which seems appropriate for a wild turtle living in an urban environment. New York can have a short memory at times.

I’d like to think that the turtle has been here for centuries, and was second lieutenant to George Washington during the Battle of Brooklyn, but stayed behind when Washington ferried his troops across the river in retreat – the first true American, who was too stubborn to let the Brits push him around. I can picture him brandishing a bayonet against a sea of Redcoats, like a character in a Disney movie. “Tell us who you are, you rogue!” the Brits would say. And he would reply, in a wry matter-of-fact way, “I am a turtle. And I don’t mess around.”

A few days after the sighting, my wife’s grandma regaled us with a story of when they found a box turtle some years ago and took it to the high school science class for it to be looked after. The class for some reason wanted to heat it up, and did so (perhaps in a microwave, I don’t know) and the turtle expanded and internally exploded and died. A cruel fate, to be sure, but a lesson to remember: Never microwave a turtle. Like a Ding Dong, it will explode. But perhaps that fate is apt in its irony; in that we have a propensity for crushing ancient, sacred things for convenience sake; in that we are addicted to microwaves and anything that can perform a task half as well in half the time.

A few days ago, I awoke to find the box turtle perched on a dirt mound staring at me through the window, like it was creepily watching me sleep. After the awkwardness subsided, I opened the back door and stared back at him a while. “Hey,” I said. “Hey,” he said back, in a slightly higher pitch, as if he had always known me, yet I could never fully know him. He waddled away with his wrinkled and rocky skin like some boulder come alive from the ground. A time capsule. And for the first time in a long time, I felt in touch with the softer places of this earth, where concrete had no reign and grass still grew. I knew I was privileged to be witnessing the ancient and forgotten nature of the city to which I belong. I take comfort in the fact that we still share this space with elderly reptiles. I hope we can sit down over a rotten tomato or head of lettuce, and they can tell me what it used to be like.

Sweets with a Dash of Spice

I stumbled upon Whimsy & Spice’s website last year as I was searching for co-worker Christmas presents. Immediately I was hooked: cardamom marshmallows? rose and black pepper cookies? lavender and honey shortbread? Who were these people and why did they get the spicy-and-sweet combination so well?

A little digging (and a purchase of maple, cardamom, and caramel marshmallows) later, I realized that not only were they a great business with unique products, but they were a husband-and-wife enterprise and were practically my neighbors. When I stopped by the Brooklyn Flea, Mark handed me an exquisite cup of a white hot chocolate that involved cardamom, coconut milk, and lemongrass, among other things. Through their blog I got to know a little more about their lives and their philosophy. So I was delighted when Jenna, who handles the design and marketing end of the business, agreed to share a little about their company with us.

Tell us a little bit about how Whimsy & Spice got started. Where did you get the name?
My husband Mark and I started Whimsy & Spice a year ago when he left the restaurant business after working as a pastry chef in New York City restaurants for over eight years – he spent 12 years in the industry overall. We had always dreamed about opening our own business together “some day”, but didn’t take the plunge until Mark got unexpectedly laid off from a new job early last year. As scary as it was, we sensed that this was the right time since we felt like we had nothing to lose. Mark knew that he wanted to transition away from restaurant work at some point, and so while he was looking for a full-time job, we pushed ahead with our plans at a furious pace so we can launch the business in time for the opening of the Brooklyn Flea in April. I guess you can say that things quickly got busy – enough so that Mark officially abandoned his job search a month later.

The name of the company popped into my head randomly one night. We knew that we wanted to include “Brooklyn” in the name somewhere, so I always imagined that we would name the company something a little more “urban”. As the name grew on us (we didn’t fall in love right away), it helped shape the direction and concept of the company. Mark has always loved cooking with spices, in both sweet and savory dishes, so things fell into place and the name suddenly clicked. I also like to think of the name as being a moniker for our two daughters. Our older one is definitely spicy and the younger one is quite whimsical.

What’s a typical day like in your business?
Since Mark and I both work from home, each day varies. In addition to designing and handling the marketing and customer end of the business, I also work as a freelance art director and designer. Each morning we check in with each other to work out the day’s schedules. We have a part-time nanny two days a week who’s been with us for five years, but on the days we don’t have childcare, Mark and I will coordinate on school drop off/pick up and trade off on childcare. We’ll start our day around 7:30am.

The first thing I do after I say good morning to the family is turn on the computer (sad, but true). I check email, see if any orders came in during the night, and publish posts to various blogs. Mark will often go to the kitchen where he does his baking to get orders fulfilled. He’ll also make a run to the post office at some point during the day to drop off orders that need to go out.

When I’m on a freelance project, my day is pretty intensive and I’ll work 9-12 hours a day, often juggling a few projects at a time. I try to take a break during the day, either to pick up our older daughter from preschool or to make a trip to the playground with the girls. I make up those work hours by working at night when the kids are in bed, usually till 2:00 am. In the evenings, Mark will usually be packing up orders to drop off at the post office the next day.

It’s a really full day and it’s quite rare to have a free day. Weekdays and weekends blur together since we work for ourselves, but we do try and catch a breather and have family fun time at some point during the weekend.

Whimsy & Spice is truly a family business. What effect has that had on your family, your marriage, and your children?
The business is definitely a perfect collaboration of both of our skill sets. We feel very lucky to be able to bring both our strengths in food and design into the company and the business has benefited from this collaboration.
One of the reasons why Mark wanted to leave the restaurant industry in the first place is because chef life isn’t exactly family friendly. He used to work every single weekend and every holiday, waking up at 4:30am to get to the restaurant. When the kids were babies, it didn’t make such a huge difference, and it actually worked to our advantage because I was able to work during the week on his days off.

But I worried that as they got older and started school, that they’d never see him because of opposite schedules. Being free from restaurant hours has been the single most positive change in our lives. We can actually celebrate holidays as a family and spend a weekend together just like any other normal family!

It also allowed me to ramp up my freelance work without worries and stress over childcare. This has been a tremendous relief. It’s not without any challenges, of course, and we still deal with childcare issues when both of our businesses get busy, particularly at the same time, but we feel pretty fortunate to have built this very flexible lifestyle so that we can be there for our kids.

How has your work has affected your customers?
We’ve gotten many emails and comments through our blog from people thanking us for being so honest and open. I started the blog as a way to document the business when we were thinking about launching something of our own. There are people who have thanked us for giving them the inspiration to do the same. I think that’s pretty freaking cool.

Where do you hatch ideas for new products?
Since the sweets business is seasonal, we tend to think up new products around the holidays and seasons. Our concept is “sweets with a dash of spice,” so we try and incorporate a little something unexpected in each cookie, like a bit of white pepper in the white chocolate filling of our pumpkin ginger sandwiches, or orange and cardamom in our chocolate shortbread cookie. Mark has a pretty good feel for what flavors might complement each other, but developing a new cookie is mostly just trial and error and experimentation. Sometimes we succeed with a cookie that totally excites us, and other times we fail and abandon the idea altogether.

Part of the goal of The Curator is to uncover signs of “the world that ought to be” as we find it in our midst. What part do you think delicious confections have in building that world?
There seems to be a growing interest in artisanal foods and handmade products these days. I don’t know if we’re riding that wave, but we’re a small company with only two employees (us!) and we do everything ourselves: cookies are hand-rolled and hand cut, brownies are individually wrapped, and we package all of our products by hand. When a customer orders a package of cookies, there is a lot of work and love that goes into that little package.

Desserts and pastries are definitely a little luxury, especially these days, when people tend to stick to buying essentials and little else, but it’s a relatively affordable little luxury. Everyone should treat themselves to a little indulgence once in awhile, even if it’s a two-dollar brownie. We’ve gotten so many nice emails from happy customers and gift recipients who say that we’ve brightened their day. This makes it all worthwhile. This is why we do this.

Have a hankering for a little indulgence? Check out Whimsy & Spice’s store; read about their work, daily life, and adorable daughters on their blog; and if you’re in New York, visit them at the Brooklyn Flea.

More on urban simplicity

From The University Bookman: On Brooklyn’s Side.

many agrarian or regionalist (the two are often unfortunately conflated) polemics often neglect the notion of vocation, or rather they universalize the notion of vocation to mean only a back-to-the-land kind of reaction. . .

Brooklyn fits even less the New York stereotype. My family, for example, has lived here for four generations, mostly in the same neighborhood. My wife’s family has been across the river in Manhattan just as long, though perhaps I should add that part of her family hails from the South and bore the CSA standard for the state of Georgia. I need not shop at a superstore, preferring instead the many family-run businesses in my neighborhood. We buy produce directly from farmers, do not need to drive a car for weeks at a stretch, and we live within five miles of where my grandparents were married and my ancestors are buried. This is not some “crunchy con” fantasy. Oppressive congestion, dirty subways, and rude pedestrians aside, this is Brooklyn, too.

For more thoughts on the same subject, see Rebecca Tirrell Talbot’s Curator article on urban simplicity from February 27.

Nontraditional galleries flourishing

From the New York Times‘s Bushwick Journal: Art Galleries With Less of a Profit Motive Flourish in Brooklyn .

There are drawbacks to putting an art gallery in one’s living room, among them having to keep the floors spotless and hide dirty socks. But there are definite benefits, too: no overhead, for one, which comes in handy if the art market, in keeping with most other markets these days, happens to sputter to a halt.

In Bushwick, Brooklyn, galleries owned and run by artists have sprouted over the past few years in living rooms as well as in storefronts and factory spaces. Unlike gallery owners in Chelsea or SoHo, many of these artists-slash-gallerists have an extra layer of insulation against the spiraling recession. Most have full-time jobs and said their motive for showing art was just that: to show art.

The new hip thing: food culture

From the New York Times: Brooklyn’s New Culinary Movement.

These Brooklynites, most in their 20s and 30s, are hand-making pickles, cheeses and chocolates the way others form bands and artists’ collectives. They have a sense of community and an appreciation for traditional methods and flavors. They also share an aesthetic that’s equal parts 19th and 21st century, with a taste for bold graphics, salvaged wood and, for the men, scruffy beards.