Catalyzing Kingston

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After a whirlwind career in apparel, an activist gets back to his passion: the intersection of community and food. Benjamin Giardullo, 36, has a hand in not one but three up-and-coming projects. He’s chair of the board of Common Ground Farm, focused on food access and education in Dutchess County. He’s on the sales team of Hudson Valley Harvest, which works with over 100 local farms to supply big orders. And his baby is a $10 million food hub under construction on the hottest corner in Kingston.

What got you into food?

Food and ag was my passion in college. During college I’d given up playing college basketball to work on a farm.

Were you a power forward?

I was a shooting guard or a small forward.

Oh you’re little.

Yeah, on a basketball court 6’5” is not actually big. So, yeah, I ended up being the leader of a project to build a student organic farm at UNH [University of New Hampshire].

Had you farmed before?

My parents were founding members of the High Falls Food Coop, the longest standing food coop in the Hudson Valley, something like 40 years. I grew up shopping there; I worked at Davenport farm stand as a teenager in Stone Ridge. None of this really came back into my head until I started farming in New Hampshire.

My intention was to get into business one way or another, even though I was a math and physics student. From a young age, I just always thought that I could apply myself and my ideas to help people or help the world, apply my activist nature through business. It’s a long story in itself, but I think in general I felt that I was either going to work for groundbreaking exciting companies that were challenging existing systems or paradigms, or create them.

As an activist, I was participating in direct action protests against genetically modified food, calling for labelling, and missing school and going to large protests against free trade agreements, and I think what really set me off was just thinking a lot about the statistics of how many people in the world don’t have food and water, and access to education as well. That seems to me to be one of the greatest injustices in the world. Somehow I needed to work on those issues, one way or another, to really feel like I was doing anything worthwhile.

So I was looking for opportunities coming out of college – and ended up on a seven-year journey into the clothing and fashion industry.

Huh, that’s not what I expected. What did you do in fashion?

I was one of the main people who built American Apparel retail. I had a connection to the founder. When I was 26 I was responsible for an $80 million company and had a team of 750 employees.

While I was there, I spent a lot of time studying what was happening around the country with food and agriculture systems. Specifically, being in retail, I started spending a lot of time studying what was happening in the supermarket industry: how stores are being built, where they’re being built, and how demographic shifts are happening. I particularly liked visiting Whole Foods all around the country as they were opening up, and just paying attention to how they were shifting each buildout, what was different from one place to the next.

What’d you notice about Whole Foods?

Whole Foods, notably a public company, was focused on opening stores in suburb areas where the market was very ripe, but I was also noticing that it was out of line with where the next generation of families was beginning to move and look to live. So it meant that these stores were positioned to make good money in a short timeframe, but if you’re looking at what’s happening in the next 20, 30, 40 years, they weren’t actually being positioned in the best places.

Some of that’s natural incentives. If you’re a publicly traded company, it’s a rare occasion that you’re going to be thinking 40 years down the road. There’s more of an obligation to build where the market’s ripe and get the best return on your money in the shorter time frame.

My interest was how brick and mortar businesses can help neighborhoods develop. Some of that came from opening up an American Apparel store in a neighborhood that was kind of being ignored by other retailers. Neighboring businesses and residents in the neighborhood came into the store while we were setting up and would thank us for being there.

What I started to think a lot about was that we were helping an area improve, and therefore in a sense we were going to help raise real estate values, but we were just signing a lease, we didn’t own any of the real estate. I saw that as a missed business opportunity. And I also thought that in the long run, what was happening was we might be helping to revitalize it, but there’s no local ownership, right? Even though we were all about paying our manufacturing workers better and we were manufacturing in the United States, challenging a global paradigm, we were still a centralized retailer that’s pulling its profits back to one location.

So your Kingston food hub is an answer to some of the problems you saw in big retail. What is it going to be like?

This is a market and a food hall, but the focal point without a doubt is the market. We need a fresh foods market in center city areas for truly walkable communities. When people ask, ‘What is it going to be like?’ I say, ‘It’s a mix between a Whole Foods and an Eataly, located on a main street in a revitalizing city.’

The market is dominantly what’s needed. The food hall is the nuance of it, expanding on the prepared foods area you’d see in any grocery store. Broaden that out to a place where the community can gather and do events, also where the business can sell and feature New York ciders and beers and wines and distilleries and so on, because prepared foods and alcohol obviously have better markups than groceries do. The combo is good from a business sense, but really what we’re trying to do is be the center of regional agriculture.

How do you use a central food market as a major node of social impact in a community? You could leverage the volume and resources of the market for a food subsidization program; certainly develop a zero waste inventory system where we’re really making sure we use all of our food throughout the community; support food pantries and soup kitchens.

How far along is the project?

In 2015 we bought the building. We applied for a grant with the state and got a $1 million grant. We replaced the roof, did all the asbestos removal. We did all the planning, gutted the interior.

The building was once a Woolworth department store. I think for most of the last 15 years, there was briefly an attempt at a couple businesses, one being a billiard hall, but that didn’t last very long. It was essentially an eyesore that was holding back uptown Kingston to some degree. There were back taxes owed on it.

How much did you pay for it?

$479,000. The 55-car parking lot is worth that. It’s almost like we paid for the parking lot and got the building free.

Once we announced our project in Kingston, real estate prices started to skyrocket around us. Our building, we bought it and we were being offered six times what we paid in 10 months. Because there are a lot of people that are interested in doing work here now and buying real estate, but I knew when we announced the project, we were really going to catalyze it.

What’s the timeline?

We’re raising $10 million total for the Kingston project. It’s not signed but we think we’re getting close to the $8 million mark. We are attempting to close our funding by the end of the year, and then be open ideally by the end of next summer.

Why Kingston as opposed to Hudson or Beacon or Newburgh?

Hudson and Beacon were already happening as far as the tide really shifting. The shift in the real estate in the neighborhood had already happened there, same in Beacon. We’re more interested in identifying cities that are almost ready to turn that corner and start using vacant spaces and buildings that have been undeveloped for decades. That are almost ready to come online but haven’t yet. That is, we think, the best timing both for the business model and for the social impact.

Kingston – yeah. Kingston was better timing. It’s also larger; Beacon and Hudson are pretty small, and it draws people from a wider radius.

I was in a room for a small agricultural talk in 2011, somebody in the room said, when they analyzed food distribution and farmland in the northeast U.S., Kingston is pretty much the center of the universe. The room laughed, but everyone understood the point at the same time. I laughed, because who from the area ever thought they’d hear anyone say Kingston was the center of the universe?

I was paying attention to Kingston, but I was not set on that being our first location. You need to identify many places you’re ready to go and then be able to get the real estate you want. You might say a town is great but you might not even find a retail space that’s even viable. Location is everything in retail.

Interview by Becca Tucker

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