A continually gentrifying maker's capital, the sprawl of industrial spaces that make up Bushwick, Brooklyn are host to a wide variety of creative businesses and hypnotic street art. It's the perfect hub for a craft business, and the sun lit mixology kitchen and offices of Kari Morris' Morris Kitchen, are no exception to the rule. It was a welcoming open space, when I sat down with Kari at the long rustic table in the center of her office; and it became clear as we chatted that community and sharing are a big party of what makes Morris Kitchen so special... Plus, take a look at the bottom of this interview to check out one of the songs that keep her creative juices flowing.
Nativen: Where are you from?
Kari: California. But I've been in New York for ten years now.
Nativen: So, it's official. You’re an official New Yorker now.
Kari: Yeah. I think so. Feels like I jumped the gun. I grew up in Sonoma. I also lived in Washington State. I was born up there.
Nativen: Very cool.
Kari: Yeah. Wine country.
Nativen: Do you think growing up in Northern California affected your decision to go into syrup making, specifically?
Kari: No, it was an accident.
Kari: I went to CCAC. Growing up in Sonoma, my parents had an art supply store. My dad was a painter. I was always drawing and creating . There was always an arts and crafts project. So, going into Art school was sort of a natural transition.
I think that had a big influence on where I am now.
I graduated from Art school and had a job in New York. I was working in The Art World, in the gallery setting, and so I felt pretty disconnected from art and creating, but I didn't want to be a fine artist. I got really into cooking when I was in school. I was working in a fine dining restaurant. I think, for me, cooking was a way for me to stay creative and make things that I felt I could put out into the world that had value, that could also function as a business.… In order to pay my student loans back. [laughs]
Nativen: Right. The nice thing about cooking is that it can be such an independent journey, too, in a creative sense. It doesn't necessarily require huge investments of materials and things like that. You still have the opportunity to get creative with portions, presentation, flavors. It's such a full sensory experience.
Kari: Right. Instant gratification. You see the feedback immediately when you're done. There was a lot of things that were very intriguing about it, and so I sort of shifted from art to food and one thing led to another.
And here I am making syrup.
Nativen: Yeah. Was there an event or a moment or something that happened that made you realize "Syrups are the thing that I want to pursue?"
Kari: One of my brothers is a chef and he and I ended up living together in Williamsburg. We reunited and tryed to figure out what we were doing with our lives , so I put him to work. I said "Tyler, you know how to cook. Let's get a group of people together and we'll do a dinner party at our house," and it turned into a supper club. I think we did one every other month. We met a ton of people and we really liked working together.
I had been in the South of France. I was there for work. One of the things that I picked up was syrups. Ginger syrup, as like a utilitarian product there. It was this very concentrated liquid gold where you could make salad dressing with it, sodas, cocktails. I posed to my brother that we'd bottle and make ginger syrup, to which he said "why would anyone ever buy ginger syrup? It's so easy to make." Which I love and I still tease him about because he's a chef, so of course it's easy.
Nativen: Haha… Right.
Kari: I was like "but we're going to put it in a beautiful bottle and the packaging is very important." Everything was letter pressed. I studied print making in school.
That's how it all kind of started. So, together we produced this product. Sold forty of them at a flea market in a church basement and found ourselves in a room with a bunch of other people who were also starting food businesses and/or wanted to dress up in elaborate costumes and make deviled eggs. There was a real mix, there was all this energy around it.
The ginger syrup was a hit. A year later I quit my job and that's when we started turning it into a syrup company. We grew the line. We now have five syrups and three cocktail mixers.
Kari: I like to say that I sort of fell into it.
Nativen: Yeah, but that's such a great evolution. It’s interesting that you were sort of talking about the inspiration of the journey starting in The South of France. Obviously France is famous for perfumes and fragrance in general, and things like that, and syrups are sort of one of those base essences of a food experience.
It's such a refined, but at the same time, simple version of what a culinary experience is. There's so many applications that can totally transform a beverage or a meal with just a simple ingredient.
Kari: Exactly. Yeah. I mean you see it so much ... Jams, jellies, pickles. Preserving is such a huge staple.
Taking great ingredients and preserving them and syrup is the same thing if you're using good ingredients and processing them.
Nativen: Yeah. What do you love most about living in Brooklyn and do you think that's integral to your work in any way?
Kari: I do, yeah. Like I said, there are so many people that were starting this journey at the same time as us. I feel like we really helped each other, we boosted each other, and we sort of created this ... There’s a lot of energy and buzz around the food movement, and we still get together and talk.
Nativen: Right. A support network, and all that.
Nativen: In Brooklyn, what's your favorite restaurant?
Kari: I think Roman's. It's a go-to.
Nativen: Yeah. It's a good staple. They have a very delicious menu.
Do you have a favorite home goods store or clothing store?
Kari: I often wander into Bird, and I think Kaufmann Mercantile, even though they're not a brick and mortat. Their offices are down the street from here and I think they always do such a great job.
Nativen: Do you have a favorite park or outdoor space?
Kari: I live right next to Prospect Lefferts. I actually think that's the most beautiful piece of the park. So, I feel a little lucky to have that.
Nativen: Yeah, you go in and you're like "I can't see city anywhere." You're just completely surrounded by trees.
What do you think is the greatest resource to your work in New York?
Kari: I would say the Green Markets are amazing, I mean Union Square. Such a great opportunity to get inspired. The C-S-A's in Brooklyn are a great way to just get faced with a huge bounty of berries or lemongrass or ingredients that you're like "I would never buy this. What am I going to do with all these berries?" And then you have to make something.
Nativen: Yeah. It forces you to get creative.
Is there a favorite syrup or mixer that you've made so far that sort of.
Kari: Ginger syrup is the most popular.
Nativen: Is it your favorite?
Kari: I would say probably overall, yes, but right now I'm excited about the mixers, the Grapefruit Hibiscus... How versatile it is and how easy it is to use. It's exciting for me because I'm often the one that people say "Make me a drink, make me a drink," so this is like, "Here. Make it yourself. I've already made it for you. It's in this bottle."
Nativen: What part of the process brings you the most joy?
Kari: I really like the production. I like being on the line and watching the bottles come in, get filled, the label goes on, it goes in the box. It's kind of like Mister Rogers. I'm going to take you on a field trip to see the Crayon Factory and you get to see how it's all made.
Nativen: What part of the process is the greatest struggle for you?
Kari: The actual act of running the business and planning for the future and knowing where we should be investing our time and money and how to get more time and money.
Nativen: Right. This is the nature of life, right?
What's one thing you've always wanted to do but haven't done yet?
Kari: There's been a handful of products that I've wanted to make along the line.
Pastes. Which is kind of weird.
Nativen: Ooooh, interesting.
Kari: I've always wanted to ... And that started early on when we were preserving our own lemons and then pureeing them to make the lemon syrup. We were sort of, by default, making this lemon paste, like a really thick puree, which I wanted to package and sell. Something that you would find in like a quince paste, but with apples and lemon and ginger.
Nativen: That would be amazing.
Kari: Like a paint tube style.
Nativen: Mmmmm. I could totally eat that with some cheese. That sounds fantastic.
If you weren't making syrups what do you think you would be doing?
Kari: I have a confession to make.
Kari: No. I love real estate. I love home renovation projects and I would love to create beautiful spaces and/or ... Make it a business somehow to make beautiful spaces.
Nativen: Maybe there's a furniture staging business in your future.
What destination do you want to travel to next and do you think that's something that might inspire or alter your work in any way?
Kari: I would like to go to Italy, again. I think that there are some things for me to see there, as far as packaging, too.
Nativen: Definitely. What are three words that sum up your work to you?
Kari: I was going to say labor of love or blood, sweat, and tears.
Nativen: I like blood, sweat, and tears. That's great. It's the title of your rock album and the summation of your work.
Is there anything with your work that you do to specifically connect with you community?
Kari: Yeah. We have been for quite some time now, bringing in students that are part of an organization called Exalt Youth. They’re teenagers that have been through the court system and/or are having a hard time at school. The program helps give them basic job skills and then puts them into an environment where they're working. We've had quite a few come through here and they do everything from running into the city to do deliveries, which they love. To helping with recipe testing, shipping and computer work.
Nativen: That's a really interesting way to relate back to the city and what's actually going on with people in your community.
Kari: It's amazing what their take-away is. When they see us in this office and we're running a business, but then they go into the city and they go to Whole Foods and they see the product that they helped make in some way, sitting on the shelf in there. I think it really helps them sort of connect the idea of what can happen in an office, in a business, and how they're helping. How their job is important.
Nativen: To make something physical. Absolutely. I think with the evolution of technology, it's really rewarding for young people to be able to see physical manifestation, as well.
Kari: Hands on, yeah.
Nativen: That's great. What's the most helpful advice that you've received? Or what's advice that you would give to young creatives who are looking to develop their own work?
Kari: Keep it as simple as you can in the beginning, and let it evolve organically within some sort of structure.
Because the product and the response that you get from it will sort of dictate the direction that it goes. It's a business at the end of the day. Even though it's something that you love it still needs to make sense financially.
Nativen: Right. Do you have a hero or maybe someone who's really helped kind of influence or inspire your work in a big way?
Kari: Well, my brothers. Both of them. They've been great and inspiring me and keeping me on track.
Nativen: That's good, it's important to have a support network.
What are three objects that you can't live without?
Kari: I'd say ... Beautiful home objects. Chatski's.
Nativen: Chatski's. That's good. [laughs]
Kari: My perfume. That's a good one… and I'm going to say chips.
Nativen: Yeah, that's crucial to survival.
Interview and Photos By: Lily Hetzler
This interview has been condensed & edited
all images copyright of Nativen