When we stopped by Brooklyn Victory Garden on what we thought would be a quiet night a few weeks ago to chat with Tess Gill and Tom Bartos, the owners of the new mom n’ pop shop in Clinton Hill, the place was buzzing with customers. It looked like it would be tough to find time to chat, so we offered to come back another time, but Tom said, “Just hang on! We get these rushes every time the subway stops at the station on the corner! That’s one of the first lessons we learned after opening the doors!”
About ten minutes later, things did indeed quiet down and we asked just how the couple came to open a provisions shop that exclusively features sustainably- and regionally-produced meats, cheeses, and artisanal foods in Clinton Hill, a neighborhood that hasn’t exactly been known as a food mecca in recent times.
Nona: I know you’ve only been open a few weeks – what inspired you to open the shop?
Tess: You know, we started working on the project three years ago. I was looking for a career change. A few years ago I had a business that was actually the complete opposite of this. I used to import products from halfway around the world in Indonesia and wholesale them.
I did that for about seven years, then went into acting. I had studied acting in college and that was kind of my real passion. After seven years of working as an actor, I decided I needed another change. My business senses were kind of spiking up again, and I’d become engrossed in the development of the sustainable food movement and fascinated by all the amazing food being grown and made in Brooklyn and the region, so I started to get excited about opening a shop featuring those kinds of foods right here in Clinton Hill. We’ve lived here for years. The neighborhood has been desperate for good, sustainably produced food options.
In our shop, the meats and dairy all come from pastured, grass-fed animals. The main reason we feature those sorts of things is because we really believe they just taste better. They’re more delicious. The health and environmental benefits of sustainably-produced and locally produced food matter to us too, but the taste is first and foremost.
Tom: We just want to offer good food, made in a positive way, by people from around here. Not stuff that’s coming out of a factory, down a conveyor belt where it’s squished, wrapped, squished, wrapped…real food made by real people on real farms and in real kitchens right here in this area. We want to support our neighbors, not the shareholders in a multi-national industrial food company. We’re supporting people who live next door or close to it, and we want to give access to this sort of food to a neighborhood that hasn’t really had it.
Nona: Tell us about the cheeses – you’ve got a nice selection here.
Tess: It’s funny – a lot of people in the neighborhood refer to us as ‘the cheese shop.’ We’d never really thought of ourselves as a cheese shop, but you know what, that’s great! These cheeses are like our little babies. We love every one!
Nona: Any personal favorites in the cheese case?
Tom: Yes! The Ascutney Mountain Oma!
Tess: Ha – for the first few weeks we couldn’t keep it in stock. Just about all of our cheeses are farmstead cheeses, meaning they’re actually made by hand on the dairy farm, so supply is always limited. Tom loved it so much he kept selling it even when we were out of it! He was telling everyone to come back and try it. I said, can you pleeeeeeease tell people about the wonderful cheeses that we do have in stock!
Tom: I can’t help it! It’s sooo good. It’s a gruyere or compte-style alpine cheese from a small producer called Cobb Hill Cheese in Vermont. It’s really special. Great for fondue too.
Nona: I like the helpful tasting notes you’ve posted for the cheeses. Did you write those up yourself?
Tom: Yes – I just try to give some helpful tips. I’m not from a big cheese background but I’ve learned a good bit about it over the past few years. I’m allergic to food snobs. If you like it and enjoy it, eat it! I try to make the cheese buying experience here light and approachable so people aren’t intimidated. With cheese and wine, lots of people feel awkward if they don’t know a lot about it. I just want to make it easy for them to get a sense of what each of the cheeses is all about and to encourage them to taste and ask questions.
Tess noticed a customer holding an African mask browsing the meats and said, “Oh, see that mask? That’s the sort of thing I used to import!”
The customer replied in a French accent, “Actually, no, it’s not just a mask…it’s a very very special mask from a very prominent private collection. I should not be carrying it around like this.”
Tom said, “Shhhh…we won’t tell anyone.”
Nona: So tell us more about the local/regional angle. How did you decide to focus specifically on products made around here?
Tess: At first I was mostly concerned with great tasting, sustainably produced foods more than with local or regional concerns, but as we were planning which products to stock, Tom said at some point, ‘why not go totally regional?’
At first I didn’t like the idea – I thought we’d be limiting ourselves too much, but the idea kept spinning in my mind, and I started to realize that there are so many people in the region growing and making such a variety of really great foods that we could easily fill a shop twice this size.
Not everything we stock is purely locally sourced – we like to support local entrepreneurs and artisans who work with non-local ingredients too. For example, the Salvatore Brooklyn ladies, who make that great Ricotta, have an olive oil that we carry. They source the oil from wonderful producers in Sicily, and create their own blends and bottle it here. We’re happy to carry those sorts of things.
Nona: How do you decide what to stock, and how do you source your products?
Tess: One of the biggest challenges in keeping up with such a new shop, and particularly in a neighborhood that hasn’t had this sort of shop in a long time, is finding the right balance for your customers. It’s tricky. It’ll take some time to get a good sense of what our customers want and what they don’t want, and as we start to get a sense of what the right product mix is, we’ll keep working with our suppliers to ensure we can get a reliable supply of the products people keep coming back for regularly.
We’re absolutely in the midst of figuring out what the neighborhood wants. We know we can provide all these products that are delicious and of the highest quality – it’ll just take a little time and a lot of listening to our customers, watching what sells and what doesn’t, to get to understand exactly what the right mix is for this neighborhood. That really goes for any business, not just our shop.
Right now we just look for a good mix of great local and sustainably produced foods. We source about half of our products directly from the producers. I know the guys from Brooklyn Salsa, and Anna from My Friend’s Mustard, and Scott of Brooklyn Cured. They all live in Brooklyn and just show up once a week themselves and drop off whatever we need.
For other things, we work with some great distributors. It’s really convenient as a small business owner to work with distributors, and there are some great small-scale distributors out there who share our ethics and philosophy, focusing only on finding and supplying great locally and sustainably produced products. When you have a distributor that you can really trust and that can supply a whole range of products in a single order, it helps to streamline the business side of things a lot.
Keeping a consistent supply is always a challenge with the type of artisanal, sustainably produced products we carry. Supply and demand is wonky – you often place an order and can’t be sure what will show up. Working with suppliers who understand what you’re all about can really help with that.
For example, Jasper Hill, from Greensboro Vermont, is an amazing cheesemaker. But as a small-scale artisanal producer they can’t manage hundreds of small individual orders from shops like ours. They deal with suppliers so they can work with a few larger orders rather than loads of small orders from individual shops like ours. The same goes for Bobo Chicken and many of the other smaller farmers and producers.
We’ve got great relationships with some great distributors who share our values and who understand the type of food we want. We’re still working with our customers to figure out what they want, and with our suppliers and distributors to figure out how to keep the items we need really consistently stocked. It’s hard with many of the small farms – they don’t have a lot of production, so they can’t always deliver everything you want when you want it. Distributors can really help to ensure that you’ll get a consistent supply of everything you need.
Nona: How’s the response from the neighborhood been in your first few weeks?
Tom: People seem to be really happy that we’re here. There isn’t anywhere else in the neighborhood to get the type of food we carry. You always had to walk over to Fort Greene or take the subway somewhere.
Tess: We’ve had a lot of people wander in and just kind of look around in awe, like “What in the world is this place doing here?” One guy came in and was like, “THANK YOU for opening on Fulton St.” Another guy made a comment about how refreshing it was to walk into a place that doesn’t have bulletproof glass (laughs).
Tom: This was funny – a woman came in earlier tonight. She had just gotten off the subway from Manhattan and was in the neighborhood for a class of some sort. She came back in after the class and spent a while just looking around and asked about all the meats, the cheeses, the music we were playing…she said, “Wow, I really like Brooklyn. I’m surprised. I never come here. I need to come more often!” Then she got back on the subway and went home to Manhattan. It was pretty funny.
Tess: Ha ha. Just wait until she has to wait 40 minutes for that subway to come. Then let’s see what she thinks!
Nona: So what are some of your favorite Brooklyn food spots?
Tom: Ugh, that’s a sad question because we’ve been so busy with the store that we rarely get to venture very far for food.
Tess: Ortine is wonderful. It’s a simple, unassuming café. They source just about all their ingredients locally, and have all pastured meats which I obviously love. Their pizzas are amazing too. That’s one of our favorite haunts.
Tom: Jolof, right down the block, is great for Senegalese food too.
We’ve known a lot of people in the neighborhood as their customers for a long time, and now we know them as business neighbors. It’s been a fun twist for us. Pape, the owner of Jolof, has been a huge help with little things like helping us find our trash guy. His son Amadou has worked here a few times too.
Tess: I do love how the food scene has just exploded in Brooklyn. I had the Today show on at some point and Matt Lauer was asking Anthony Bourdain about what’s happening in New York. He said something like, “It’s in Brooklyn where things are really happening right now!”
Tom: A gentleman came in during our first week and was really interested in the meats. He mentioned that he’d seen Dr. Oz talking about how grass-fed beef is good for health and longevity because it’s lower in cholesterol and has lots of other advantages from a health standpoint. It was great to see that people are hearing about this sort of thing through mass media. This whole interest in good, sustainably produced food isn’t just for hipsters, or rich people or elitists. It really is for everyone. We hope the interest in this sort of food becomes the norm for everyone because it’s good for everyone.
Stop by and say hello to Tom & Tess at Brooklyn Victory Garden – 920 Fulton Street, between Washington and St. James, in Clinton Hill.