“Coopetition” and the Spirit of Artisanal Food

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I shouldn’t have been surprised in the least when Michaela Hayes, owner of Crock and Jar, a Brooklyn-based company that specializes in making pickles and the teaching the art of pickling and canning, said that a main tenet of her business philosophy was a belief in “co-opetition.” After all, she was taking a few hours out of her day to sit with me, and less than twenty-four hours previously and barely a half-mile away, Shamus Jones, founder of Brooklyn Brine, was touting the same idea, on both the giving and receiving end. After all, my memories of both of my grandmothers’ canning efforts involved numerous family members, with as many jars given out as kept for the longest nights of winter. I’ve never met a home canner proprietary with their process or recipes – and have willingly shared my limited expertise with friends and strangers alike. Another friend was also recently sharing anecdotes from her childhood in Minnesota where she and her family lived on a small farm and would often bring their goods to a local coop, sharing and trading their bounty with neighbors. Small-scale farming, canning, and other traditional methods of artisanal food production and preservation were often born of this cooperative mentality – it made more sense to make twice as many pickles as one could use and trade them for a good one didn’t make. For, anyone who has canned can attest, whether the goal is five jars or fifty, the mess is about the same.

But I suppose what did take me back a bit, was that this idea of coopetition (an obvious hybrid of cooperation and competition that was coined by Hayes) was so alive and well in Brooklyn, of all places. Brooklyn (and its west coast sister hipster mecca Portland, Oregon) have been considered by many the birthplaces of the new artisanal food movement, so much so that articles have turned Brooklyn pickling into a meme and television shows have been created just to simultaneously celebrate and mock Portland’s handmade earnestness. While artisanal food – or food made by hand, with intention and attention to method and quality ingredients – was the norm across the country for centuries, once population shifted to urban centers, industrialization made mass production cheaper and easier, and sanitary and business regulations all but halted food sales from non-commercial kitchens, small batch canning, preserving, and otherwise making specialty goods dipped sharply. For as already noted, canning and other efforts can be mess-inducing and time-consuming and the more one can make at once, the better. If fifty jars of pickles weren’t going to be eaten, sold or traded, then maybe it made more sense to buy what one needed off the shelf, even if they weren’t as good as their homemade counterpart.

Yet the artisanal food scene has been rapidly growing, at first slowly, influenced by the counter-culture movement a few decades ago, and bolstered by the growing environmental movement in the 1980s and 1990s. But it wasn’t until the mid aughts, when the looming recession provided the tipping point for many urban mostly twenty- and thirty-somethings to turn their hobbyist artisanal food interests into a full-fledged business. So it makes sense that with all of these fledging businesses being born at once, coopetition would be born. For, as Jones put it, “It’s like being the first restaurant on the block.” You actually look forward to having someone else open up down the street – it brings more business for both of you. That’s how Bob McClure of McClure’s pickles must have felt when he answered Jones’s urgent calls for help with purchase orders when Brooklyn Brine started its exponential (yet responsible, Jones would note) growth, and how Jones feels when he willingly answers questions and gives advice to small businesses at the place he was just a few years prior. It’s coopetition that drives Hayes to keep teaching classes on canning, pickling – and even food business development – despite that, as she laughingly notes, “I’m basically training my competition.”

Because artisanal food production was always based upon the tenet that what one artisan was doing could not be exactly replicated. What they are creating is with intention, with particular attention to detail, and unique to their ingredients, process, recipe and method. Artisanal food production was born out of necessity, sharing and cooperation. And just because it is now a business – and with the advent of industrialization, not quite a necessity anymore – does not mean that the tenet of cooperation should also disappear. Of the food artisans with whom I have spoken within Brooklyn and across the country, most have noted that it was the support, advice, or general community of other like-minded artisans that helped them get their start; many would not be in business today without it. It is likely this sense of coopetition that fostered the greater artisanal communities in Brooklyn, Portland, and other growing scenes as well. And besides giving us delicious, thoughtful, even innovative products, we should let this ideal inspire other aspects of our lives – when we cooperate and share with other like-minded folks, there is only greater chance at success.

 

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