From a dying industry, the sweet smell of food start-ups

Tegan Hagy grinds cacao beans to make PhillyLoveBars in her space at the old Globe Dye Works building in Frankford.
Tegan Hagy grinds cacao beans to make PhillyLoveBars in her space at the old Globe Dye Works building in Frankford. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 20, 2012

Her apron smudged, Tegan Hagy could be found one day last week in her usual, if rather unlikely, haunt — a second-floor kitchen space she shares with a cupcake baker in the echoing vastness of the old Globe Dye Works at the edge of Frankford's postindustrial boneyard.

She is the city's only — though far from its first — maker of bean-to-bar chocolate bars (hers are PhillyLoveBars), sourcing and roasting her own cocoa beans, one 145-pound bag at a time.

She has bigger plans, of course. It seems everyone does in the ghost of Globe Dye. Maybe she could do more custom work, molded wedding favors, buy beans in bulk: "I really need to buy a ton," she says: "Then they could come by ship."

(Once she had to resort to using FedEx.)

In recent months, artist studios have been carved from spaces where Globe once dyed its prized mercerized cotton thread. (Indigo was big.) A wooden boat workshop has surfaced. For 45 days, directors captivated by Globe's skylit moodiness and industrial patina shot scenes for the Colin Farrell-Terrence Howard thriller, Dead Man Down.

But since renovations began in earnest in 2008, the steadiest drumbeat has been the advance of brave, new food start-ups on the order of Hagy's.

Some are motivated by issues of social justice, and visions of greener-pastured beef. Others were wooed by decent rents (averaging $8 a square foot a year), tidily customized spaces, and what one of the developers, Matt Pappajohn — a master woodworker himself — calls the benefit of having a "benevolent landlord."

So far, a seasonal guacamole maker (Anita's) has set up shop, mashing product for weekly farm markets. A hard-cider bottler called Revolution is giving it a whirl. There's Hagy's neighbor, Cupcake Wonderland, fresh from a winning turn on the Food Network's Cupcake Wars.

And last week the ceiling was being finished for Birchtree Catering, moving in this fall, specializing in local-seasonal wedding menus; it already has 20 weddings on the books. (Like a Russian nesting doll, an even smaller business is subletting space from Birchtree. That would be Yumtown, the comfort-food truck that shuttles between Temple's campus and Clark Park farmer's market.)

You can find similar repurposings going on in other once-industrial neighborhoods — in a retrofitted supermarket in West Philadelphia, in factories being dusted off in North Philadelphia, Northern Liberties, and Kensington, some for craft breweries, or artisan kitchen incubators.

But there's an almost harmonic convergence here in down-on-its-heels Frankford, where in the 1860s Globe first rose along Little Tacony Creek, siphoning its waters for thirsty dying vats.

In a city known for its candy-making tradition (Shane, Lore's, Goldenberg, Zitner) and chocolate muscle (Whitman, Wilbur, Blasius), two landmark chocolate factories still loom decommissioned near the 150,000-square-foot Globe.

On James Street there's towering Blumenthal Bros., which began turning out Goobers, Raisinets, and Sno-Caps — movie-theater staples — nearly a century ago. (That business was bought up by Nestle in the 1980s in the same fever of consolidation that swallowed up regional beer, bread, candy, and ice cream makers.)

The other is Frankford Candy, now relocated to 9300 Ashton Rd., which has been said to manufacture more milk-chocolate Easter bunnies than any other enterprise in the world.

So you feel the wheel of history turning here on humble rowhouse Worth Street, minutes off I-95 North, as tiny PhillyLoveBar (staffed by Hagy and a summer intern named Shyeida Duncan), digs a toe in the ruins — a plucky acorn trying its luck in the fallow grove where oaks once soared.

The Globe has a mystical feeling, the spaces still but not forbidding. Fishing-reel-sized spools of dyed thread sprout here and there like patches of wildflowers left behind when the fifth generation of the Greenwood family closed the shrinking operation just seven years ago.

In broad concourses, brawny wood trusses stretch below skylights that wash walls in tones of sepia and yellowed parchment, cedar and pale cinnamon.

The towering boiler room, as laddered as the hold of a seafaring freighter, is staked out as an event space (if financing comes through). An ambitious, international sculpture installation called Catagenesis, meaning endings that bequeath fresh beginnings, is set to open Sept. 9. (See www.philasculptors.org.)

For every tenant at Globe, there's a reason: more space, less space, better rent, higher ceilings — especially for sculptors.

Some such as Hagy were funneled through Frankford Community Development Corp. (She, in turn, referred Birchtree.)

She'd been to an art show in the space, met the obliging building manager Charlie Adbo, checked out Mast Brothers, her bean-to-bar, "American Craft Chocolate" inspiration in Brooklyn.

But it was conversations she had in Turin, Italy, at a Slow Food event with cacao growers from the state of Tabasco in Mexico that propelled her. She'd worked on food issues for the Food Trust for years, but suddenly wanted to make her own statement: Cocoa beans were cheaper from West Africa because labor was underpaid. It wasn't right that in the New World home of cacao (and in a Philadelphia where close to 80 percent of all the country's cocoa beans are landed), ancient, distinctive beans were being overshadowed by cheap upstarts.

Prudently, she didn't quit her evening job, waiting tables at Meme, the popular cafe. (Also daunting is the sheer number of artisan, ethical chocolate bars on the market.) But she got away to Mexican co-ops, to Guatemala and the Dominican Republic, making contacts with growers. It was a matter of social justice for her — fairer prices for fairer production.

She shares her roaster oven with Lily Fischer, the cupcake baker, grinds her beans with stone rollers (the better to preserve nutrients), winnows the nib shells with a jury-rigged Shop-Vac, saving a bag of them for mulch for a community garden in Strawberry Mansion.

In the end, her hefty, three-ounce Dominican bars have a dark, tropical fruitiness and slight granularity (they aren't conched, the process giving chocolate its velvety texture, because Hagy thinks it fries the antioxidants).

They go for $7 and up at Head House Market, Shane Candy, and elsewhere, a price she argues respects the real cost of growing, harvesting, and producing fairly traded chocolate.

In the end, though, her methods aren't all that far removed from those of Benjamin Jackson, who in 1757 sold his stone-ground mustards and handmade bars of baking chocolate in the lower end of the "Jersey Market," at Second and Market.

Jackson ground his cacao beans on the outskirts of the old city, in what is now Northern Liberties.

The name of his small start-up there?

It was called Globe Mill.

For more information go to www.globedyeworks.com.

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