As New York City’s unemployment rate rises to 10 percent, Southern Brooklyn’s residents are using whatever means necessary to carve out a career path in this rough economy.
And many of the area’s entrepreneurs are dealing with it by converting their home spaces into places of work. Small kitchens turn industrial, extra bedrooms are converted into hair salons and apartments become toy workshops.
The burgeoning home businesses of Sheepshead Bay and Brighton Beach may be a mystery to the neighbors, but what they do reveal is the surprising, and sometimes strange, independent business landscape of Southern Brooklyn.
Jessica Lewkovitz started Sundrops Organics, a natural catering and private chef company, in a Neptune Avenue apartment after her graduation from The Natural Gourmet Institute for Health and Culinary Arts.
For months, there wasn’t a single empty cabinet or cupboard in the place she shared with her two roommates. Boxes of arame (a type of seaweed) and packets of seitan (a low-fat protein made from wheat) had taken over.
Space wasn’t the only causality. Lewkowitz’s roommates had become the unofficial taste-testers for her novel concoctions.
“The two girls have traditional Russian and American palates so this was probably quite bizarre at first!” Lewkovitz told Sheepshead Bites. “They were shocked at how much they liked the dishes, especially the Avocado, Mango, and Cucumber Nori Rolls.”
Her specialty is vegan and raw cuisine; like a true entrepreneur, she saw a niche and capitalized on the area’s lack of options.
“There isn’t a cafe around here that focuses primarily on freshly made vegan or raw dishes, and I don’t just mean salads. I make things like raw soups and vegan mac-and-cheese that taste insanely close, and even better, than the real thing,” she boasted. “Sure, there are a few juice bars, but they don’t encompass anything like that. People are really curious and receptive to healthy cuisine.”
Many of Lewkovitz’s initial customers were locals eager to try gourmet raw food. She catered parties and events in her neighborhood. Word of mouth spread and the business grew quickly. Soon, her phone was ringing with calls for catering all around New York, and she’s since moved into a bigger apartment and expanded her services to include residents of the other boroughs.
Every few weeks, though, she returns to her home-turf and prepares the favorites for her original customers.
Owner of Alli Jane’s Beauty Boutique, Allison Menake, started a home and traveling hair salon in Gravesend after working extensively in both high-end and independent hair salons throughout New York City.
After experiencing both sides of the spectrum, Menake is convinced that a home business can focus on a clients’ needs more so than a commercial outfitter, even a small one, could.
“[My business] allows me to be more available to my clients. I’ll get house calls at all hours of the morning or night and working for myself at home allows me to take them,” she said.
The extra attention Menake gives clients paid off with a returning base that frequently refers friends and family. The close-knit relationships she’s formed also gives her the ability to carefully manage her own price points. For the clients who may be facing hard times, this is a flexibility that goes a long way – and this is where home-based entrepreneurs gain the advantage.
And Menake has seen some funky stuff working in the homes of her clients.
“You never know what to expect! One women had a parrot that would not stop talking and repeating over and over again, ‘I need a hair cut.’ I’ve done people’s hair with dogs and cats sitting on their laps, children, and even their husbands,” Menake said. ”When [I go into a client's home] it’s like I become like their best friend because they look forward to the visits, cook, make crazy cocktails (after you’re done, of course) and treat me like a part of the family.”
Like Lewkovitz, Menake has found enough to success with her home business to plant stronger roots. She now operates Alli Jane’s Beauty Boutique from a house she purchased with a part of her home business gain.
Not all home-based businesses come about as a means to earn an income, but it never hurts to put some extra cash in your pocket.
Adee started her business, Adeeart, as an outlet for her creativity. She’s an MFA graduate and art therapist with a passion for making custom-order dolls, toys and paintings.
“A few years back I decided not to pursue art-making as my primary income,” she explained. “I feel like a lot of the joy would be lost and ultimately affect the art itself .”
She started her doll factory in 2000 and has made dolls for people from Turkey to Prague. Because she doesn’t spend on marketing, (“People find me through a Google search, so they are looking for something very specific as opposed to walking around a toy store,”) and because her clients seek her out based on unique requests, Adee gets to be as selective and creative as she wants when it comes to her work.
She’s also developed a close connection to customers who request commemorative dolls of pets that have passed away. While working on her degree, this was the only aspect of her business she kept up.
“[It's] an extremely intimate exchange…Those always affect me greatly and I’m honored to be asked to create something in their pet’s memory,” she said.
As for odd doll requests? Surprisingly, not too many.
“A client once requested that I use human hair,” Adee said.
With companies as massive as Google having started in a garage, it’s no wonder that there is a rekindling of the entrepreneurial spirit. Home-businesses provide opportunities to make your own path through a tough economy, with very little overhead costs and lots of flexibility not afforded a brick-and-mortar business.
Perhaps the next big business success story is right next door.
Do you have a home-based business, or a hobby that puts some extra income in your pocket during hard times? Feel free to let us know and promote it in this article’s comments!