For Aaron Foster, opening his specialty grocery and cafe Foster Sundry in Bushwick, Brooklyn, was a natural career progression after spending two decades working in the food service industry—one initially fueled by a love and passion for one particular item: cheese.
“Cheese was kind of my first love," says Aaron, as he recounts how, while working at Whole Foods, he developed an interest in the story behind the cheese. From there, Aaron studied at Slow Food University in Pollenzo, Italy for their inaugural year of the University of Gastronomic Sciences. Upon returning to New York City, he became the head cheese buyer at Murray’s Cheese, and later at Broken Kitchen in Brooklyn.
But there is nothing like using your experiences to create something of your own. So he left his job at Broken Kitchen to open his own store. Nine months of planning and building later, he sold his first item at Foster Sundry in 2015.
Foster Sundry offers artisanal products like cut-to-order cheese, coffee, spices, local produce, whole-animal butchery, and other dry goods. In addition, they offer an impressive sandwich menu along with a curated selection of cider and beer. As a seasoned buyer, Aaron focuses on procuring items from producers who are small and local.
"We try to be an inclusive environment for all people. Bushwick is a diverse neighborhood, both racially diverse, but also diverse sexualities."
Nearly six years after opening, Aaron, along with store managers (and married couple) Lila Dobbs and Gizella Otterson, continue building the store's reputation as the go-to place for high-quality ingredients, friendly service, and overall good vibes. They're like the Cheers of Brooklyn—it’s a place where everyone knows your name, or at the very least wants to, which is rare in New York City.
We chatted with Aaron Foster to learn more about Foster Sundry—how it started and what the future holds.
Running a successful food business in New York City is no easy feat. What was it like starting your own company after working so long for others?
The pressures are very real for young businesses. You're never quite prepared for what happens once you open. And we struggled. The first year we learned a ton, I learned a ton. It was dark and depressing, but also gratifying. I slept there some nights when things broke, or we had a break-in, or any number of things. We didn't go on vacation and I even sometimes brought the dog to work to just hang out in the basement. I was always there.
When you own a business, you imbue it with a sense of personal success or failure, and whether the business succeeds or not becomes a measure of whether you succeed or fail. It's very easy to lose sight of the fact that it's just a business, but of course, it’s important to care about something deeply.
So fast forward to 2020. What are some of the challenges you faced during the pandemic as a specialty grocer?
We faced all the challenges that you read about in the news, serious sourcing and supply chain issues—just like how no one could buy pasta, canned tomatoes, or flour, we struggled to find those items for our customers.
But I was able to source equipment to repack bulk, locally-produced flour into sizes that were more usable for customers. Same with pasta. We started buying bulk and repacked it. We just had to change things up a bit. Thankfully, customers were very flexible and open to trying new things.
Being a grocer that stayed open throughout the pandemic, was safety a concern?
We went from 20 employees to 10 almost overnight, and it was awful. Some people were scared, while other people were sick. There were a lot of tearful conversations about whether we should close. There were several times when I came into work thinking that it would be better to close and not risk our staff's lives than to stay open, even though it would put them in a terrible financial position. We had several intense storewide conversations, and at the end of it, we all felt we wanted to make a go of it. And, we could do so in a safe way. So we stayed open.
I have a bunch of doctor friends that described this Team A and Team B scenario which we based our work structure off of. We divided the remaining staff so that Team A worked Monday through Wednesday and Team B worked Friday through Sunday—they would never overlap. These groups weren't allowed to see each other outside of work because if somebody became sick on one team, at least we would be firewalled. I believe it was one of the key things that kept us safe. It certainly created logistical challenges as well as emotional challenges. Not being able to see half of your co-workers and being stuck with the same team over and over again all day long, week after week. But, we managed and I never asked my employees to do anything I didn’t do.
Foster Sundry is known for supporting the LGBTQ+ community, being queer run and employed. What impact does this have on your business and the community?
We try to be an inclusive environment for all people. Bushwick is a diverse neighborhood, both racially diverse, but also diverse sexualities. And we love that. Initially, it wasn't necessarily something that we consciously paid attention to, but we've grown to prioritize it. We’ve spent at least the last three, if not four, Pride months, raising fairly significant sums of money for different projects. We do a tip matching program where employees can donate a certain percentage of their tips to a cause or organization that we all agree is cool, then we match or double match it.
I'd love to say that there's some kind of strategy behind it, but it's very much an organic process. I would honestly say it's spearheaded by Lila and Gizella, our managers, and supported very enthusiastically by me. I don't know what the percentage is, but we have a lot of queer people on staff. And we love the fact that we're a welcoming place for the LGBTQ+ community.
Why do you think it's important to support LGBTQ+-owned and run businesses?
I feel like it's a no-brainer! We're all people. As a Jewish person who has experienced anti-semitism—though I don't think you need to experience discrimination to empathize or want to support groups that have been discriminated against—it certainly gives you perspective. You know, I think queer people bring a huge amount to our community and our culture. I love that we're some small part of fostering that.
I think it reflects the community that we're in and there's a positive force feedback loop that happens. It’s just authentic, a result of where we are and who we are. We, fortunately, haven't bumped into too many haters. I think that shows that we're making some progress as a society, at least on the East Coast.
Do you think 2020 has changed the way people cook, eat, and shop?
If I were to boil my impressions down, I think out of necessity, New Yorkers cooked instead of going out or ordering in. It always surprises me how few New Yorkers cook. We noticed two things:
- One, I think people want to experiment. Everyone is familiar with the now-cliched sourdough trend. We certainly saw that kind of experimentation across the board.
- Two, we saw people leveling up on ingredients and cooking projects, making more elaborate meals with nicer spices or proteins than they normally would have.
Perhaps people had a little bit of stimmy money or they had money they weren't spending on restaurants and bars? People put this extra cash towards buying more niche spices or sauces. For us, it was fun to talk to people about that!
How do you see Foster Sundry evolving and growing over the next few years?
The answer is, I don't know. We certainly want to grow organically, if we grow at all. I think there's always room for improvement. I hope that Lila and I can step away from day-to-day work this summer to see if we can take some of the wind at our backs from the last few years and try to turn that energy into opening another store. But there are a lot of ifs.
I also don't want to grow just because it's what's expected. I'm certainly not going to take out a bunch of loans and artificially hit the gas. It will need to come organically from our current business.
Is cheese still your greatest food love?
I do love cheese. It's an area where I still feel comfortable and I think my skills are still really sharp. Like anything you spend a great deal of time with, whether it's a person or an interest, it doesn't stay the same. It's not going to be as exciting or compelling 20 years on.
There's a lot of joys and different kinds of love that form when you become more comfortable, more knowledgeable, and more experienced. I'm certainly not bored by it but I love connoisseurship. I love getting to know a particular thing, whether it's wine or beer, or learning how to make knives, it doesn't matter. The idea of learning something new from the beginning and becoming knowledgeable, an expert, is extremely appealing.
Visit Foster Sundry Monday-Sunday 9 am to 7 pm, 215 Knickerbocker Ave, Brooklyn, NY. Follow @FosterSundry on instagram for updates and more.