Better Your Business

A brand grows in Brooklyn: NYC's most happening borough

In the late 1990s, "Sex and the City's" Samantha wouldn't have been caught dead in Brooklyn.

How times have changed.

Lena Dunham's hit HBO television series "Girls" has reimagined Brooklyn, not just as a place where Uber-hailing millennial hipsters go clubbing in the gentrifying Bushwick neighborhood, but as a place to fall in and out of love, pay outlandish amounts for small walk-up apartments in up-and-coming areas—to worship at the altar of cool requires a trip to Brooklyn.

Brooklyn's star turn isn't just playing out on cable television. Off-screen and in the business world, Brooklyn's profile has steadily risen.

Welcome to Brooklyn sign
Source: Wikipedia Commons

While Brooklyn entrepreneurs don't point to a single cultural turning point––"Girls" notwithstanding––they suggest that the explosion of "Brooklyn"-branded products points to a mix of borough pride, a fervent "Brooklyn-made" locavore spirit and maybe, most importantly, increased national notoriety. New York's most populous borough is now a booming export economy, marketed across the globe by companies wise to the fact that the word "Brooklyn" possesses a rare form of capitalist magic: It can seduce people into spending.

Back in 1998, when artist Lexy Funk and her partner Vahap Avsar began crafting messenger bags, they christened their fledgling company Brooklyn Industries because the name sounded "big, bold and brave." The borough's growing popularity has taken the pair by surprise. Just within the last two years, "the 'Brooklyn is cool' ethos seems to have accelerated," Funk said.

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Brooklyn Industries has expanded from the original bags that debuted 16 years ago to a line of clothing and accessories that has gained plenty of fans beyond Brooklyn. As CEO, Funk now presides over 14 stores that span from Brooklyn to Manhattan, as well as outposts in Chicago and Portland.

"It's a little ironic," Funk said. "At first, it was just my husband and I in a factory in Williamsburg. We wanted it to sound like a steel plant. We didn't think or know that Brooklyn would come to be what it has become. In those days, [Brooklyn] was pretty 'street'––a little dangerous."

"Brooklyn was a nice way to retain that appreciation of New York without being associated with the evils of Wall Street. In some ways, Brooklyn is the anti-Wall Street. It's local; it's dirty; it's do-it-yourself." -Ben Hudson, Brooklyn Brewery's director of marketing

The popularity of HBO's "Girls" broadcast to the rest of the nation and the world what many New Yorkers—including "Sex in the City's" Carrie—had already suspected for the past decade: that Brooklyn has come to rival, if not surpass, the New York City brand. Two years before the debut of "Girls," Sarah Jessica Parker's character said, 'The outer boroughs are pretty sexy. It's a matter of time before they have their own TV shows."

And some other things to call their own, too.

In the morning, you—along with the Manhattanites, Parisians and Stockholmers—can kick off the day with a jolt of caffeine and a bagel at Brooklyn Bagel & Coffee Co. After lunch at Brooklyn Burger, you can treat yourself to ice cream at the Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory. Don't worry, you can burn it off later at Brooklyn Booty (in case you're wondering, it's an exercise class at Brooklyn's Studio Maya). Bon vivants can stock their bars with Brooklyn Gin, Brooklyn Rye and Brooklyn Republic Vodka. (For accuracy's sake, Brooklyn has never been a republic like Texas once was.) When it comes to whiskey, Breuckelen Distilling draws upon the Dutch etymology of the borough's name, echoing a sense of local history.

While Brooklyn-branded products may have been scarce in the 18th and 19th centuries, the original Dutch settlers might be surprised by just how lucrative their namesake has become. During this 20th century, the number of products sold under the Brooklyn moniker dramatically surged. The U.S. Patent and Trademark office lists 1,194 such trademarks registered in their database, although among that number only 594 remain active

In recent years, it has become increasingly possible to consume Brooklyn cool without ever crossing the Brooklyn Bridge. Case in point: Sure, you can buy a bottle of Brooklyn Gin at Greenpoint Wine and Liquors or imbibe it in a martini at Superfine in DUMBO, both in Brooklyn––but now you can also request it in your martini at Death & Co., the Four Seasons Hotel and the Michelin 3-star Le Bernardin, all in Manhattan.

While many Brooklyn businesses open up Manhattan outposts only after establishing flagship locations in their home borough, such as Brooklyn Industries, Brooklyn Taco's first brick-and-mortar store serves tacos out of the bustling Essex Street Market on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

Though he now lives in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, chef and co-founder Jesse Kramer grew up in a fairly affluent Jewish neighborhood in West Hartford, Connecticut: "The non-Mexican food capital of the world," he said. Kramer credits his co-founder, Brooklyn native Erica Molina, along with the borough's diverse food scene, with turning him on to Mexican food.

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"When I moved to Sunset Park, I had tacos for the first time—real ones—and they blew my mind," Kramer said. He had just finished culinary school, where his training had focused on classical French techniques. When he moved to Brooklyn, he began exploring local taquerias and bodegas to learn the craft of Mexican cooking.

Despite Kramer's perception that many residents feel the Brooklyn brand has been exploited, the borough's unique appeal won out when it came time for Kramer and Molina to name their business.

"Brooklyn has an edge that we wanted to hang on to," Kramer explained. "If you say 'Manhattan Taco,' it screams Times Square, the Statue of Liberty and Wall Street. If you say 'Brooklyn,'" he mused, "everyone gives you a different answer."

The Brooklyn Brewery
Getty Images
The Brooklyn Brewery

While Brooklyn may mean many different things to New Yorkers, for residents of Stockholm, it's likely to mean craft beer. Sweden has become Brooklyn Brewery's largest export market.

Why are Swedes saying skål (cheers) while raising pints of Brooklyn Lager? Ben Hudson, Brooklyn Brewery's director of marketing, suggested that while the 2008 financial crisis tarnished Manhattan's international reputation, it didn't necessarily sully the outer boroughs in the same way. "Brooklyn was a nice way to retain that appreciation of New York without being associated with the evils of Wall Street," Hudson said. "In some ways, Brooklyn is the anti-Wall Street. It's local; it's dirty; it's do-it-yourself."

While that sounds slick as a marketing mantra, in the past two decades, Brooklyn's housing prices have gone through the proverbial roof. A decade ago, millionaires were more likely to gaze at the lights of Williamsburg from a lower Manhattan apartment. These days, you'll find tech superstars like Upper West Side native David Karp, CEO of Tumblr—which was on the receiving end of $1 billion from Yahoo! in its 2013 acquisition—calling Brooklyn home.

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The median rental-price differential between Manhattan and north Brooklyn apartments narrowed to a historic low of just $210 earlier this year, according to real estate appraiser and consulting firm Miller Samuel. In what is arguably Brooklyn's trendiest neighborhood, Williamsburg, the average real estate price per square foot has increased 533 percent since 2000, with median home prices rising from $231,000 to a peak of $838,000. That brings the top of the Brooklyn market perilously close to listings in Manhattan's chic Soho. Some chalk up this astronomical rise to the influx of foreign buyers: More than a third of Williamsburg properties are now sold to overseas parties.

For signs of a Brooklyn bubble, look at what's happened with the borough's longstanding area code—it's become coveted and trademarked. In a contest for sheer prestige, 718 phone numbers were long considered runners-up to Manhattan's sexier 212 numbers. Now 718 has been translated into a brand used by Brooklyn businesses, including Salon 718, Bar 718 and 718 Cyclery. The area code even inspired the moniker for Hotel 718, a planned boutique Brooklyn property.

Brooklyn Industries' Funk acknowledged that popularity has its downsides and that the hipness of Brooklyn can reach a saturation point. "It's not always 100 percent positive to be indexed with something that's so cool," she said. "For us it's a dilemma: We've built this brand, and we know what it means to us. But the meaning twists and turns as the years go on."

While Funk may not worry that Brooklyn cool will fade anytime soon, she feels loyalty toward the local artists and entrepreneurs who shaped it—and maybe helped create a monster of capitalism. "What if artists can't afford to live here anymore?" she asked. "The concern with Brooklyn being too cool is that artists get priced out. Where do they go next?"

Not Hotel 718. It was scheduled to open in November 2011 but never got off the ground.