I was on a walk on Henry St. on Sunday when I noticed a shiny new awning and light coming out of the storefront that once housed Heights Car & Limo. The space had been dark and vacant for four years, and even before that, it was quite an eyesore with a drab brown façade and the outlines of an old sign that had been removed. Without the burly livery drivers sitting outside, the spot looked even more sad and lonely the last four years.
As I walked toward the bright newness, Jamel Othman, the owner of Heights Falafel next door, came out and said, “We need your support!” I looked at him puzzled, and Jamel said, “That’s my son’s new business.” I looked again and noticed that Heights Falafel also had a shiny new awning. I marveled at the beauty of the matching side-by-side awnings over small businesses owned by father and son, side-by-side. These stories are so hard to come by in New York City these days and this one I had to tell.
The awning over 78 Henry St. reads “Brooklyn Only Foods.” I walked in and saw Jamel’s son Karim Othman at the counter. “You look so much like your mother,” I said. “Yeah, everyone says that. I got lucky,” Karim replied. If you patronize Heights Falafel, you’ve surely seen his beautiful mother, Lisa Rosettie, working behind the counter. She was also there on Sunday helping her son at the new shop and she’ll continue to help with developing ideas for prepared foods.
Karim was raised in Park Slope and went to Packer. “So with Packer and my dad’s business being here since 2001, I feel like I grew up in Brooklyn Heights,” he said. Asked about his new business, Karim said,
“I was doing an internship at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, where I worked at the farm one day a week and at the restaurant five days a week. I was commuting to Westchester from Brooklyn every day. Blue Hill’s concept is sustainability, locality, and accountability for the food it serves, and knowing who’s producing your food and creating that connection. So if we were getting pheasants from a farmer, that farmer would come and explain his whole practice to us about raising pheasants in a healthy and sustainable way. It’s all about being accountable to your customers and the environment.
After that internship, I decided that I wanted to start a food-related business. I wanted to continue with the accountability and locality that I learned at Stone Barns, in that I would know all the vendors, speak to them, and see their operations. So I opened this shop. Most of the products here, I personally went to the suppliers, met with them, and picked up the goods. Everything here is either produced in Brooklyn or the business started in Brooklyn and they’re all businesses that I want to support. For example, the Gold’s horseradish started in the 1930’s in Brooklyn and now it’s a major national company. Or the Fox’s U-Bet chocolate syrup, every old-school Brooklynite knows that you can’t make an egg cream without it.”
I asked Karim, “Did your parents influence your decision to start a food-related retail business?” He responded,
“Yes, it was a combination of Stone Barns teaching me the narrative, the ideas, and then there’s my dad who sometimes worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week, day in and day out. Ideas are great, but to fulfill the idea, it takes a lot of hard work. So my dad showed me the work ethic. I think it’s something lost on a lot of young people these days.”
In addition to the snacks, sauces, chocolates and more displayed on the shelves, there’s a refrigerated case stocked with drinks, cheeses, and smoked meats. Behind the counter, sandwiches are offered, using bread from Caputo’s in Cobble Hill and all local ingredients, including one made with roast beef from Marlow & Daughters in Williamsburg and another with smoked white fish from Acme, a smokehouse in Greenpoint. Karim is working on adding more ready-made sandwiches.
After I visited Brooklyn Only Foods, I dropped into Heights Falafel, where Jamel was beaming with pride and said, “I’m very proud of Karim. He got an idea and I believed in him to execute it. As parents, we did everything to support him and I’m happy that he’s making his dreams come true.” Karim’s mom Lisa echoed the same sentiment and added, “The internship with Dan Barber at Stone Barns changed Karim and gave him a lot of motivation. It’s been great to see his ideas fill these shelves little by little, day by day.”
But wait. That’s not the end of this story. If you go behind the counter and walk down a short flight of stairs, there is an art gallery called As of Now Gallery. That’s right, a speakeasy entrance to an art gallery, run by Karim’s longtime friend Austin Siegert, who worked as an art handler at Gagosian Gallery in Manhattan and is an oil painter. This unique arrangement came about when Austin mentioned to Karim that he wanted to look into renting spaces and doing pop-up openings to showcase artists that he believed in. Karim suggested the basement of the shop as a permanent home for the openings. “I thought it was a great idea because the people who would want local sustainable foods from Brooklyn might also be the type of people interested in local artists,” said Austin. “So we got to work gut renovating the basement space that still very much had the old Russian cab stand vibe.”
For more info on Brooklyn Only Foods, check out www.brooklynonlyfoods.com and follow on Instagram @brooklyn_only_foods. Current hours are 7 am – 6 pm daily.
As of Now Gallery is also on Instagram @asofnowgallery, where Austin can be direct-messaged for an appointment to view the gallery, or email email@example.com.
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