Why Mayonnaise Matters in the Gentrification Debate
Elizabeth Valleau’s artisanal mayo shop has become the poster child for urban change.
Illustration by Tom Eichacker
Earlier this year, Saturday Night Live aired a sketch dubbed “Corner Boys of Bushwick, Brooklyn,” depicting a seemingly stylized and magnified version of hipster-fueled gentrification. In it, Kevin Hart, Jay Pharoah, and Keenan Thompson play three apparent tough guys, presented as emblematic of the neighborhood’s hardscrabble and working class history, who intercut their gruff dialogue with descriptions of now-yuppified lives; endless brunches, gluten fears, and dog walking businesses. A somewhat wincing depiction of the identity crisis impacting a neighborhood flooded by comparatively affluent and outwardly twee newcomers, the piece struck a chord with those viewing similar trends worldwide.
But the great irony of the skit was the fact that what was ostensibly a stylized, over-the-top depiction was actually pretty close to reality for some. Case in point: one of the most seemingly egregious and laughable elements of the sketch, the inclusion of an artisanal mayonnaise shop called Martha’s Mayonnaise that sells extravagantly flavored jars of mayo for $8 a pop, was not an ad absurdum invention but a Brooklyn reality. There is an artisanal mayonnaise shop in the borough (a fact that blew many reporters’ minds) and the sketch even used its awning to mock up Martha’s Mayonnaise.
Known as Empire Mayonnaise, the storefront first opened in April 2012 in Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights neighborhood. Billing their condiments as the product of happy, cage-free, pasture-raised eggs, seasonal and local flavors and ingredients, and non-GMO oils, and utilizing a basically jerry-rigged cold-press oil infusion mechanism, they started selling four-ounce jars of flavored white goop for $5 to $8 a piece. Aside from classic mayo, their offerings over the past three years have included black garlic, ghost pepper, lime pickle, and even experimental batches of coffee-flavored mayo. The crowning achievement has been, in homage to the SNL sketch, a “garlic truffle mayo” limited run batch.
Predictably, as soon as they launched they attracted an unending stream of coverage ranging from “you must be joking” to “there goes the neighborhood.” Some defended the store’s struggle as a small business trying to do something new. Some saw it as just another milestone in the rewriting of a neighborhood’s story by privileged invaders. Others were just puzzled as to why the issue became a bone of contention for anyone:
“How are they even in business?” asked Alexandra, a Queens native who now lives in a rent-stabilized complex in neighboring Crown Heights, passing the shop recently. “That place is absurd. People have too much money.”
“Yes, there’s something ridiculously hipster about being able to walk into a store to purchase mayo in flavors like nori or yuzu chili,” Sam “Parowpyro,” a well-known blogger in neighboring Park Slope, wrote on F’d in Park Slope. “Is it really that bad though?”
“Holy Christ, what a shitstorm. You know how you can spot a native New Yorker?” wrote Clinton Hill-based Redditor RumbleintheGrundle during coverage of the SNL skit. “They're the one who's got better things to worry about than getting all worked up about a fucking mayonnaise shop.”
Despite the store’s role as shorthand for gratuitous gentrification, Empire Mayonnaise’s Chef Sam Mason and his business partner Elizabeth Valleau have long made the case that they’re not just some flash-in-the-pan creatures of excess, but instead a legitimate, well-paying small business run and staffed by local Brooklynites. While the duo embraces folks like Hart, Pharoah, and Thompson poking fun at them, as seen through their tribute to sketch, I wanted to know more about Empire Mayonnaise and how its proprietors feel about their gentrifier label. I got in touch with Elizabeth Valleau to chat about artisan crafts, gentrification, different types of neighborhood change, and the merits of owning a mayo business in the first place.
When you first decided to open a mayo shop, did you think you’d get labeled a gentrifier?
Not really! We didn’t expect how much press a mayonnaise storefront was going to get.
What was your gut reaction when you realized you were being described as, essentially, Brooklyn yuppie invaders?
We were actually trying to be a little provocative. We attribute a lot of our success to … getting people kind of freaked out.
It was a little bit of a gamble, but then [people] would come by and see [the shop] and realize that it was really just a store in name and that you could come into our kitchen and buy the mayonnaise while we were making it. And nobody ever said that the product was yucky. It was: ‘Wow, is this a joke? Oh, this place is tiny! And you make everything here, too? Can I try it? Oh my god, it’s great!’ That was usually a pretty positive encounter for us to have.
Why, of all the places out there, did you decide to set up shop in this neighborhood?
I’m in Bed-Stuy [Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, just north of the shop] and my partner is in Greenpoint [the northernmost neighborhood in Brooklyn]. I’ve lived in Brooklyn almost all my life. We sold just at Brooklyn Flea at first and then there was so much demand for wholesale that we needed a proper commercial kitchen. So we were looking for something we could afford that would reasonably fit everything we needed to make the product. It was super cheap and it was close by. We’re excited about keeping the business local, and where we live, and being able to hire friends and neighbors and family members.
The gentrification label hasn’t gone away. You’re still getting pegged with it by outsiders, exemplified by the SNL sketch. Do you still see that as beneficial business-wise or is it turning negative?
We got a whole bunch of new customers because of that skit, so we’re very happy about it.
People are trying to politicize us, but ultimately we’re just a couple folks from the neighborhood who have a condiment business and we’re making it in the neighborhood instead of in a big warehouse out in New Jersey or something like that. Which we’re proud of.
What is your take on the standard Brooklyn hipster [painfully hand-crafted] gentrification narrative then?
I think from growing up around here, gentrification used to mean something a bit different … The pre-recession gentrification was more about new families and small businesses that actually cared about growing a future with the neighborhoods they moved into.
[But now] we have these machine-style corporations eating up real estate and literally pushing people out of their homes and businesses the second a new community garden or cupcake shop appears These aren't families moving into a new neighborhood. It's faceless mega-companies setting up corporate theme parks and glorified dormitory housing. What it is, is depressing.
There is a cycle of gentrification in NYC that will always exist. But I think with stricter zoning laws things can change in ways that help support existing communities without these ugly after-effects. New small business—even specialty shops—should not have to be a harbinger of doom.
Photo courtesy of Empire Mayonnaise Co.
Are there some businesses that are so frivolous they must be harbingers of gentrification?
There’ve been frivolous businesses in every version of privileged culture. What happens to be popular right now tends to veer towards the twee—the handmade. The word artisan has become a bit ruined, but that will change. For sure in a decade all those things will not be as cool anymore and something else will be the popular way for people to spend.
What I do think is a little bit of a mistake is punishing people for trying to have small businesses. … I’m super proud of my little business. I know it’s a little funny. But it’s working and people like it.
Do you worry that gentrification will wind up making your business untenable as well?
Certainly. Our rent has been going up every year since we got into this space. And while our presence has been growing with it, it’s made it much harder for us.
I think that neighborhoods change. It’s hard to say what parts of a neighborhood should be protected and salvaged, and what parts should be open to change. When I grew up, I was not allowed to go to Times Square. Do I enjoy going to Times Square now? Absolutely not. But I appreciate the fact that I don’t have to worry about dying if I go there.
There are some aspects to what you could call gentrification that end up being for the greater good. But what’s wrong, and what really bothers me, is when folks who have lived their lives in a neighborhood can’t live there anymore, and when folks who are trying to run independent businesses in a neighborhood and be part of the community get pushed out.
So why, of all the businesses to start here, did you start a mayonnaise shop?
Oh, it’s a really good idea, if I do say so myself!
It’s the number-one condiment in America, and there’re only really two major brands out there. There’s sort of a high-low version of almost every kind of condiment out there, except for mayonnaise. You can get some novelty things, like baconnaise, which doesn’t have any actual bacon in it. There are vegan versions and healthier versions when you go to specialty stores. But nobody was doing [anything more].
So we were trying to think, ‘what’s the sexy, gourmet version of mayonnaise?’ And my mom’s French, so when we grew up we ate really simple food, but she made it from scratch. She would bake bread for us and make pickles and we had a garden box in the window that she would preserve. And she would make mayonnaise. So when I started thinking about trying to have a food business, we thought it would be a fun, unusual idea.
We’re just a small business manufacturing in Brooklyn ... That’s what people come to this city for—living the dream ... I feel like we’re part of the soul of our city, trying to do something special.