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How can American manufacturing be reinvented to thrive in an era of globalization?


Industrial Devolution

Could a bunch of Brooklyn hipsters really represent the new face of American manufacturing?

A San Francisco farmers market

A San Francisco farmers market

Photograph by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

This month, Slate is exploring how to reinvent American manufacturing. We'd like to hear your best ideas for that. Please submit them here.

Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, a grim portrait of pestilence and inhumanity at a fictionalized Chicago meatpacking factory, lent new meaning to Otto von Bismarck’s famous remark that it’s better not to see how sausage is made. But these days, there are new manufacturers—retro-entrepreneurs who craft things by hand—who just can’t wait to tell you how their sausage is made.

“The pork comes from Mosefund Farm in New Jersey. The beef is from the Pastures in New York state. The duck is from Hudson Valley Duck, up in Sullivan County. And the rabbits are from KNK Poultry in Edmeston, New York,” recites Scott Bridi, the 36-year-old founder and owner of Brooklyn Cured, a two-year-old sausage-making startup. “We’re all about utilizing all parts of the animal, not just the pork chops and the prime steak. So we’re using shoulder meat, we’re using trim, and we’re transforming it into something awesome.”

Bridi didn’t set out to be a businessman. A theater major who left a career in publishing in search of something more psychically satisfying, he was drawn to the food industry by his creative impulses, not the profit motive. But he is in some ways the new face of American manufacturing.

Try as the Obama administration might, the bulk of the blue-collar factory jobs that have been migrating overseas for decades aren’t coming back. Those companies that do relocate their production lines stateside in the years to come are more likely to staff them with robots than with humans. To the extent that there will still be people producing things in the United States in 2020 or 2030, many of their businesses are likely to look something like Bridi’s—small, personal, and devoted to a niche market that will pay a premium for uniqueness and authenticity.

The question is whether these shaggy liberal-arts entrepreneurs will usher in a new era of middle-class prosperity or remain bit players in the nation’s economy, cloistered in urban hipster havens like Brooklyn, San Francisco, and Portland. That depends on two factors. One is whether those enclaves’ obsession with locally sourced, sustainably produced goods—caricatured hilariously on the TV show Portlandia—catches on and sticks in Middle America. The second is whether the masses will be able to afford it.

Brooklyn’s example offers reasons for both hope and tempered expectations. The borough, once home to sprawling factories like the Domino sugar refinery in Williamsburg and the Eberhard Faber pencil plant in Greenpoint, has been reshaped in the past two decades by an influx of artists and yuppies fleeing Manhattan’s stratospheric property prices. Many still commute to jobs in the city, but others have seceded from the professional ranks to start their own small, local enterprises—making jewelry, crafting furniture or props for TV sets, roasting coffee. Their products have both fed wealthy New Yorkers’ demand for custom-made, non-mass-producible goods and created new demand for those items among the middle class.

Take Bridi’s sausage business. He grew up in a food-loving Italian family. But had he not lived in today’s Brooklyn, where “artisan” has become an honorific, it’s unlikely it would have occurred to him to leave a stable office job to become a cook. And to make the leap from cook to entrepreneur required a support system and distribution network that didn’t exist in the city a decade ago.

Startups like Bridi’s usually can’t afford their own factory or retail space, and unlike Silicon Valley tech ventures, they’re unlikely to attract big investors. Instead, they do as starving artists do, sharing space in converted factories and warehouses and banding together to sell their wares at farmers markets and street fairs. Bridi produces his sausages at a shared commercial kitchen space in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood and sells them at weekly events like the New Amsterdam Market in Lower Manhattan and Smorgasburg, a “flea food market” in Brooklyn.

In relatively short order, Brooklyn Cured has built up a local following and earned favorable press in local food blogs (another part of Brooklyn’s artisan ecosystem). Bridi now has one full-time and three part-time employees, and says his business continues to grow. His meats are sold at specialty food stores and restaurants around the city, plus five farmers markets.

Brooklyn Cured is hardly a unique example. Stories of similar successes abound, to such a degree that “artisanal-pickle makers” have become a jokey stereotype for the new Brooklyn economy.

That’s well and good for Brooklyn, but what about the rest of the country? Not every city, after all, has such a concentration of wealth and expensive taste as New York. There are artisan entrepreneurs in former Rust Belt hubs like Detroit and St. Louis, sure, but it’s unclear whether they’ll be able to build up the critical mass needed to form a Brooklyn-like local ecosystem. And people in Atlanta and Phoenix whose mortgages are underwater are probably going to be sticking to Oscar Mayer sausages for the foreseeable future.

On the other hand, there are a few big businesses whose success points to a broader, national trend toward locally sourced foods and crafts. One is Austin, Tex.-based Whole Foods, whose growth into a major national grocery chain has created mainstream demand for locally grown, organic foods. Another is Kickstarter, the crowdfunding site that allows startups to raise money online from donors. Similar sites will allow supporters to actually buy shares in small private companies once the JOBS Act kicks in next year.* (As I explained in April, local businesses along the lines of Brooklyn Cured are likely to be among the main beneficiaries.) And a third is Etsy, the Brooklyn-based online marketplace for handcrafted goods—a sort of eBay for artisans.

Etsy’s economic potential would seem to be constrained by its rules, which prohibit commercial vendors from selling their wares on the site. Still, vice president Matt Stinchcomb tells me that more than half a billion dollars changed hands on Etsy last year, a figure the company has already matched in 2012. And its online community has spread far and wide from its Brooklyn roots, helping to fuel the success of people like clothing designer Natalie “Alabama” Chanin. In a throwback to the garment business’s pre-industrial roots as a cottage industry, Chanin crowdsources her production by hiring laid-off seamstresses from her Alabama hometown. Each garment is numbered and signed by the woman who made it.

Of course, any given artisanal manufacturer can only grow so much before it ceases to be artisanal. Etsy is already grappling with how to accommodate sellers who have become so successful on the site that they’ve incorporated and hired full-time workers. And Brooklyn Cured may make some of the tastiest meats in town, but if a business like Bridi’s expands too rapidly it will lose the homespun appeal that made it successful in the first place.

He’s aware of the conundrum. Asked how big Brooklyn Cured would be in his wildest dreams, Bridi says, “I’ll be honest, I don’t know. … We’ve been contacted by Whole Foods, and that could be a good thing. But I don’t know yet if that’s a good thing. I do know I don’t want to have a factory of nameless, faceless employees. I’m not going to wake up in the morning excited by that.”

From a purely economic perspective, Bridi’s attitude might be inefficient, as my colleague Matt Yglesias has pointed out. For artisan manufacturing to drive a real economic recovery, it would require a lot of local companies like Brooklyn Cured to turn into national producers like the Tillamook County Creamery Association, or even multinationals like Starbucks. That’s possible, of course. But if that doesn’t happen—if the main effect of the artisan trend is simply that more people end up making things they’re proud of and selling them online or at the local market—at least we’ll be better off than we were in the time of Upton Sinclair.

This month, Slate is exploring how to reinvent American manufacturing. We'd like to hear your best ideas for that. Please submit them here.

Correction, Sept. 27, 2012: This article originally stated that Kickstarter would allow for small-scale investments in startups once the JOBS Act goes into effect. In fact, Kickstarter has said that it will not change its policies, which allow for donations but not equity investments.

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