Rising Rents and Crippling Property Taxes: A NYC Small Business Owner Weighs In (and Moves Out)Why Whisk, a beloved kitchenware boutique founded in Brooklyn, closed two storefronts in two months. Published: August 27, 2019
Back in 2007, Natasha Amott thought Williamsburg was the perfect place to open a small business. Her husband had recently bought a wine shop in the neighborhood, and through that venture she witnessed a diverse community with a burgeoning foodie culture. “We loved the feel of the neighborhood,” she recalls. “It had a lot of quirkiness, a charm.”
A year later, she opened Whisk, a boutique for kitchenware essentials and splurges, on the corner of North 4th Street and Bedford Avenue. The block housed a melting pot of local businesses—a bagel shop, a pet store, a health food market, and a pizza joint—and, right across the street from Whisk, an abandoned factory. “It was a little rough around the edges,” Amott says of the area. At $8,625/month, her rent was high, but not prohibitively so.
The Whisk storefront on Bedford Avenue / Photography via Whisk
The locals embraced Whisk from day one. “It was a place for food enthusiasts to come and discover something new and exciting to make their cooking experience even more pleasurable,” Amott says. The shop quickly became a community gathering spot: “People would run into their friends, and next thing you know they’re having a conversation for an hour in the store.” Sales were so robust (“People like to buy a $4 spoon, a $20 pepper mill”) that Amott opened a second location in Manhattan’s Flatiron District in 2012, and a third one in Brooklyn Heights in 2018.
Despite the new locations, the Williamsburg shop remained Amott’s baby. As the brand’s launching pad, it drew a fiercely loyal customer base of locals who’d been coming since the start. This allegiance intensified as the neighborhood underwent major structural shifts in the late aughts and early 2010s, changing the look and feel of the area. Amott cites a number of shake ups for the change: the rezoning of large swaths of Williamsburg; the influx of multinational, private equity-backed brands; the proliferation of high rises along the waterfront. That old factory that was across the street? It’s now a Whole Foods. “For so many people, Whisk [on Bedford Avenue] was hanging on as a sign of something good about the neighborhood,” she says.
Her rent in Williamsburg was steadily increasing, but she could keep up. That is, until she couldn’t. At the end of 2018, when Amott went to renew the lease, her landlord raised the rent 44%, to $26,500 a month. She spent a long time pondering whether or not to renew, and what it would take to keep the doors open. In order to make rent, she’d have to increase prices and decrease wages—something she refused to do. So she decided to close the store.
On April 21, 2019, she posted an announcement of the impending close in the store and on Facebook and Instagram. Titled “My love letter to you,” it details “a story of greed, commercial banking, and the distortion of ‘fair’ market rents.” She asks readers to advocate for small business policy, shop locally and thoughtfully, and email her with ideas for change. The community’s response was overwhelming: a groundswell of sadness, outrage, and calls for legislative action. “Build businesses that the community actually wants! Williamsburg shopping is turning so vanilla,” says one Facebook commenter. Another customer, a regular since day one, told Amott that for him, Whisk had been a place to “de-stress.” It was much more than a place to buy kitchen tools. “It broke my heart,” she recalls.
As Amott packed up shop in Williamsburg, uncertainty loomed over the Manhattan location. The situation there was different—exorbitant property taxes, not exorbitant rent—but she was similarly defenseless as a small business owner. “Property taxes are everywhere, but the dramatic rate of increase has been something particular to Manhattan,” she explains, adding that hers had quintupled over seven years in the Flatiron District. So, just over a month after the Bedford Avenue closure, she announced that the Flatiron shop would be closing, too.
The Whisk storefront in Manhattan / Photography via Whisk
Despite the strain of back-to-back closures, the turn of events galvanized Amott to direct her energy towards small business advocacy. “I want to be involved in setting a better agenda,” she says. Her plan is threefold: to learn from cities where small businesses are thriving, like San Francisco and Paris; to write op-eds and garner press support; and to speak directly with city council members on instituting new initiatives. “There is so much ahead of me in my advocacy work,” she says. “I need to keep meeting, keep pressing.”
As for the sole remaining Whisk in downtown Brooklyn, Amott is confident it’s not going anywhere: “We have a good rent situation there, and no unforeseen costs that we can imagine at this point.” She plans to bolster the brick-and-mortar experience with a roster of workshops and demonstrations, while also streamlining the brand’s website for e-commerce. “People love our in-store pickup [option], so as much as we can do to make that process more seamless would be terrific.”
Though intent on growing Whisk’s digital presence, Amott’s chief objective is to nurture the remaining storefront. “I love Whisk with all of my heart,” she says. “I’m really going to focus now on the Atlantic store. We've got several years ahead of us, and that feels very, very good.”