Williamsburg Savings Bank
Flea markets were once the place people went to buy trinkets, clothing and cheap toys. As customers shopped they ate quick hot dogs or chicken tenders from a stand. If they were lucky, they’d get fresh zeppoles, soaking a paper plate with fried oil and topped with a sprinkle of powdered sugar.
The point is, the food wasn’t exactly healthy but that’s because flea markets didn’t have the Brooklyn Bean Co. to thrust bags of beans into the hands of wandering customers.
Thankfully, the Brooklyn Flea does.
Sign for the Brooklyn Flea.
On winter Saturdays, inside the old Williamsburg Savings bank, in Fort Greene, is the Brooklyn Bean Co., the place to eat whether you’re vegetarian, vegan or even a meat eater.
The vault at the Williamsburg Savings Bank.
It’s at first eerie to find out the food is sequestered at the bottom of the bank, all the way inside the vault, as if it is the flea markets metaphorical way of saying, “This is what really matters and what needs protecting.”
Or maybe it makes for a good conversational piece when customers enjoy their lunch from the different food vendors. Whatever the case, if new customers are expecting to be overwhelmed by hordes of people and are warming up their arm muscles to get ready to push people out of their way to reach their destination, well, they’re mistaken.
There was no pushing, no shoving but there was a new air of excitement as people walked through the vault door in search of a food vendor.
Co-owners of the Brooklyn Bean Co., Erica Pratico and William DeFillips.
As they walk in, customers are met with the smiling faces of co-owners Erica Pratico, food writer of Nona Brooklyn and William DeFillips, chef and teacher at the Culinary Institute for twenty years. The two are young and eager new food vendors that glowed underneath the dim lighting of the bank vault. Their stand was modest, made just of wood and a large sign, the stand was large enough to spread out their chili, bean banana bread and sacks of beans, sans gimmicks.
Buy fresh beans to take home for later.
Launched last March, the main ingredient in all the dishes in the Brooklyn Bean Co.’s food is, you guessed it, beans. Of course it’s not just black beans or kidney beans. It’s a variety of over forty different beans. Pratico and DeFillips favor lima beans, giant Peruvian limas, the scarlet runner, kidney beans and…well, they couldn’t actually decide which one they favored the most. Pratico says there are so many “variables and they all have their advantages.”
The Brooklyn Bean Co. spends the winter in the Bank and the summer at Fort Greene (opening April 7) and the Smorgasburg.
Customers inside the vault.
Right now, the Williamsburg Brooklyn Flea market is more of a food court for them. There’s a decrease in bean sales inside the vault but that changes when they are outside at the Smorgasburg, where there are more vendors, a green market and recurring customers. However, since beans are cheap, compared to other vendors they’re still making a tidy profit. DeFillips says, beans are, “low cost, wider margin,” so they don’t have anything to worry about just yet, compared to others whose main staples might include something costly like fish or poultry.
Brooklyn Bean Co. Stand
Pratico says the idea behind the Brooklyn Bean Co. came because the two wanted “ownership of something.” They researched different ideas and tried to figure out what wasn’t out there already. In a city where varieties of food trucks run the streets, they reached out to local farms, bought fresh beans on wholesale and the ideas sprung from there.
Pratico and DeFillips wanted a “healthy option” menu that was “all bean based” that could cater to “vegetarian and people who eat meat.” A truck is the next step, an idea they’ve been discussing between themselves but for now Pratico says they’re trying to “ease in, start small,” and then they plan to “graduate to a food truck.”
The beans come from local farmers, from states such as Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont and even New York. The two contact the farmers directly, who are excited to work with them. Direct contact allows for the company to know how the beans are sorted and packaged, and how fresh they really are.
DeFillips serving vegetarian chilli with all the fixings.
DeFillips says the company has “rejuvenated” his love for cooking.
Brooklyn Bean Co. menu during the winter.
“Dried beans in general are a commodity,” says Pratico, who also mentioned with a grin that beans were the first documented food in ancient Greece.
They offer the two a lot of versatility because they can be incorporated into many different dishes, if done the right way.
“It’s not just something that should be a side dish,” Pratico argued strongly for her beans, “because there are so many different sizes and shapes. They’re a huge deal.”
She calls beans an “ethnic food,” because she didn’t grow up with them but they were staples in her friends’ foods. In the Spanish community beans are a big deal, you can’t have arroz without your frijoles, right?
Pratico believes that people are “afraid to work with dry beans.” They do take a lot more work to cook compared to canned beans but the end result is worth it.
At the mention of canned beans, a look of horror and repulsion passes on Pratico’s face. According to her, supermarket beans are old and can be up on the shelves for “five years or more,” eventually turning “to dust,” or a congealed high sodium mess. The beans they sell themselves are as close to three to six months old, at the most.
Vegetarian Chilli with all the ‘fixings.’
Their menu changes seasonally. During the winter they sell bean soup, chilies ($5 – $7)—one with beef and one without —and even pastries. The chili contains simple but effective ingredients, beans, their own chili paste, spices and vegetables. They also roast onion and garlic to extract as much flavor as possible. Their cooking technique make the spices stand out.
Pratico says they try not to make it “spicy,” because they want to appeal to the “masses.”
I recommend the chili with the “fixings,” a dollop of sour cream, a sprinkle of shredded cheese and colorful green chives. You can also get a small dessert, a fresh red bean banana bread ($3). Fresh beans are also on sale to buy and cook later.
Banana Bean Bread from the Brooklyn Bean Co.
“It’s more about technique,” says DeFillips. The technique seems to be working because customers who at first contort their faces with disgust at the mention of beans become, “Surprised at how it taste really good,” says Pratico.
The surprise is evident. One customer, Sonia Baptise, from Brooklyn, said, after trying the vegetarian chili-sans fixings, “Listen, I’m a vegetarian. There’s only so much I will eat, there’s a lot I won’t eat and there’s a small fraction of food I can eat. This? I’ll eat this, it’s made of beans. Not many people can pull off bean dishes.”
Another customer, Eva Marco, said about the company, “Beans are easy, what a simple idea and yet it works. They have a business out of beans. Beans!” she exclaimed with a hint of envy. “They make you think, don’t they? What could I have? What could I make? What could I sell that tastes just as good and is simple? Of course I can’t cook, so that might be a problem.”
Truthfully, they surprised me as well. I was sure I had finally found a fault with DeFillips and Pratico. Banana bean bread? I was certain it was going to taste awful and that I would have to find the nearest hot dog vendor and scarf a dirty water dog down to get rid of the taste. Staring down at the piece of bread, cut in a square that resembled a gooey brownie, I hesitated as I bit into the dessert.
A moment later I had quickly shoved the bread in my mouth, chewing and swallowing it whole, instead of savoring every bite. The bread was delicious, the mix of the banana and the red kidney bean gave it this out of worldly taste that forced me to pause once I was done and close my eyes as if I was in a dream.
My taste buds danced as if I had jumping beans inside my mouth. I could see different colored beans growing on a farm, men and women harvesting them and then Pratico and DeFillips staring down at the beans, the gears in their heads turning as they contemplate what to do next.
Next just so happens to be bean balls.
In the summer, during the Smorgasburg, they plan to sell bean balls, their take on a traditional meatball, with smashed black beans and Parmigianino cheese along with black bean burgers. For spring, get ready for a Moroccan lamb chili that’s sure to get your taste buds tingling.
You can follow The Brooklyn Bean Co. on Twitter: @BrooklynBeanCo.