Fine food at the Underwear Factory

Christina Hughes of North River Roasters (photos by Dion Ogust)

The Hudson River Housing (HRH) revitalization project has turned a National Historic Register property into 22,000 square feet of work/live studios and apartments with a ground-floor commercial hub that currently houses two entrepreneurial businesses: the coffeehouse North River Roasters and a healthy-foods-at-affordable-prices café called Earth, Wind & Fuego. 

The Poughkeepsie Underwear Factory on North Cherry Street is a three-story brick structure, built in 1874. It once defined the social and economic fabric of the neighborhood, where various manufacturing enterprises employed  local residents. From William S. Patten’s Poughkeepsie Live Oak Leather Manufactory to William Paulding’s Cooperage, industry throve as the town grew, but the building was vacant from the 1980s until 2017.

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Occupied by the Queen Undermuslin Company in 1904, the building became known by its current assignation: the Poughkeepsie Underwear Factory. That business’ founders, Robert Stuart and J. C. MacLean, had progressive leanings: to create a sanitary, up-to-date physical plant for their employees, who, it’s said, “were involved in resolving business disputes.”

Earth, Wind & Fuego is the pop-up café that uses HRH’s Poughkeepsie Open Kitchen at the Factory five days a week to serve breakfast and lunch. This is a shared-use commercial kitchen with affordable dry and cold storage available for members like Jen Herman and Madeline Henriquez, the brains and energy behind Earth, Wind & Fuego. From Monday through Friday, they operate a for-profit business offering healthy foods at entirely affordable prices to the community. They also consult with people on how to shop for and cook foods that may not be familiar.

“Our services include catering, meal preparation and the pop-up restaurant that runs weekdays for breakfast and lunch,” Henriquez explains.  “All of our food is gluten-free and no-soy; all of the meats are free of hormones and antibiotics; and we source locally from farms and other businesses in the Valley. Our goal is to increase awareness of what healthy food is and to make sure it is accessible to people.”

They came to open the café after experiencing different health issues. “We had to cut a lot of things out of our diet, and it was a hard transition for us,” Herman says.  “It became easier, and we thought it would be great if we could help other people do this.”

Early on, they realized that eating well is not about “dieting,” but rather is a whole lifestyle change. “What would it look like if we were to incorporate a business and help people bring that to fruition for themselves?” Henriquez wondered. “Collectively, we have over 20 years in social services and have worked in nine counties. We put together everything we learned, from case management to advocacy to one-on-one support. We combined it with nutrition in a for-profit model. That’s when Earth Wind & Fuego was born.”

They found the Poughkeepsie Open Kitchen almost by accident. “At my last full-time job, I was going for a walk, and someone asked if I was going past the Underwear Factory,” says Herman. “We were looking for a kitchen, but didn’t have a lot of start-up capital. It was just meant to be that I found this commercial kitchen that was only $25 an hour. Now we’re hiring local residents and partnering with Hudson River Housing in their EATS [Employee Assistance and Training Station] program. People can get training experience in culinary work, and they’re paid a stipend by HRH.”

They decided to go the for-profit route to expand awareness. “It was about changing the way people think about healthy food, and combining our expertise and knowledge. We just feel very proud about our ability and capacity to start a company,” says Henriquez. “It was important for me. I’m a woman of color, a first-generation immigrant, and I have my own company. We wanted to step away from the not-for-profit sector, to change the way businesses around food operate: What does it mean to offer healthy food in the so-called poor community? So that’s what we did.

Jen Herman and Madeline Henriquez of Earth, Wind & Fuego

“We have recently been able to open our doors to youth from the City of Poughkeepsie for their first employment ever. It gives us the opportunity to shape what those expectations are, between employee and employer. Their first experience is from a company that’s owned and led by women; they’re learning what power looks like. We hope we’re empowering them to use their voice to speak up and create change.”

“We feel, if you treat people the way they should be treated, they will absolutely excel,” Herman says. 

Earth, Wind & Fuego also hosts a monthly event called Fiesta Friday, which will happen this Friday, September 7, from 7 to 10 p.m. It will feature an open mic hosted by Dutchess County poet laureate Poet Gold and music by deejay Ayo Nish.

North River Roasters & Coffeehouse – Poughkeepsie’s first coffee roaster – shares the space with Earth, Wind & Fuego. Christina Hughes talks about how the business fits into the paradigm created by HRH. “Feza Oktay started the coffee-roasting company as a CSCR [community-supported coffee roasting program], modeled after a farm CSA,” Hughes says. “The pickup location is the Poughkeepsie Farm Project, and then we started distributing at Adams Fairacre Farms and grew from there. I started volunteering in 2017, when the coffeehouse here opened. I’m a Poughkeepsie native and had recently graduated from NYU. Feza showed me a little bit about roasting, and I was hooked. We talked about our vision for Poughkeepsie and why he wanted to be here.

“This neighborhood – Middle Main, the area not on the riverfront, which has gotten a lot of love, restaurants and stuff going on down there, and not Main Street by Vassar College, which is heavily trafficked – this area has been neglected by businesses because the foot traffic is lacking and the stigma around the neighborhood was quite alive. Revitalizing is a huge part of what we are as a business, by bringing in people who might not come here for any other reason – to show them that opening a business here is viable.

North River Roasters sources only organic, ethically grown beans through importers who buy from farms that provide fair wages and use sustainable farming methods.

At NYU, Hughes was a classical flute performance major for two years. “I ended up switching to Nutrition and Public Health: something I’m really passionate about, especially in ‘food deserts.’ Walking around here, I tried to get a gallon of milk when we were out one time. The corner store had no milk, only fruity, sugared beverages. And we wonder why people have deficiencies.” 

“We want everyone to feel welcome here,” Hughes says.  “We keep our prices as low as possible. We want it to not be this posh, unreachable standard for people in the neighborhood. That’s what gentrification is: crowding people out of their neighborhood… Kids from local schools can come in and hang out here in a safe place with wi-fi and air conditioning. They can do their homework with their friends. We want to make sure everyone can come in and get something.”

The Poughkeepsie Underwear Factory is located at 8 North Cherry Street in Poughkeepsie. Earth Wind and Fuego is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.; call (845) 204-8945 or visit https://earthwindfuego.com/poughkeepsie-restaurant. North River Roasters is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sundays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.; call (845) 418-2739 or visit https://northriverroasters.com.

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