Five years ago, Saleena Subaiya and Lawrence Purpura, two Bushwick residents and healthcare workers, were brewing kombucha in five-gallon buckets in their apartment. Now, the power duo’s kombucha, named BKE Kombucha, is sold in more than 200 stores and restaurants in Bushwick and the New York area.
For BKE, the path to success has not been an easy one. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the company lost all of its customers. Subaiya and Purpura, who are also trained infectious disease experts, stepped away from BKE to help with the new crisis. The company was on the brink of closing its doors for good. Without the help of some loyal friends and neighbors who volunteered their time to keep the company afloat, BKE Kombucha would likely no longer be operating.
“We moved in together after knowing each other for only five days,” Subaiya said.
BKE’s origin story started in 2015, when Subaiya and Purpura met at a Center for Disease Control (CDC) conference in Atlanta. They were interviewing for international public health jobs. New to Atlanta and trying to budget, they agreed to live together, despite only just meeting each other.
On the very first day together, Subaiya, who had just finished some kombucha on her drive to the new apartment, asked Purpura if he knew how to brew the beverage. Smiling, Purpura pointed to the fermenting jars sitting on the counter behind him. Over the course of the next year living together, Subaiya and Purpura fell in love and eventually married. As their personal relationship grew, so grew their passion for brewing kombucha.
A year later, the couple moved to Bushwick. Purpura was wrapping up his infectious disease fellowship at Columbia and Subaiya, who grew up in the city, had the itch to move back.
In Bushwick, operations grew gradually. At first, Subaiya and Purpura were brewing kombucha in their loft and sharing it with local friends and community members. They held wellness events in their home and invite neighbors over to sample their new brews. After a few months, word spread and the couple moved operations into an incubator kitchen in the Pfizer building on Flushing Avenue.
“When we were making kombucha for our community, we had maybe seven five-gallon buckets in our apartment,” said Purpura. “When we moved to the Pfizer building, we thought it was a very large scale-up. I think we had five 20-gallon brewing containers. That felt like a lot.”
At that point, Subaiya and Purpura were still working as full-time physicians. When they weren’t at work, they spent nearly every free moment with their kombucha.
“I would go to the Pfizer building after my hospital shift and stay there until midnight every night brewing kombucha,” said Purpura.
“I would work all day brewing Kombucha and then go into an overnight shift in the emergency department,” Subaiya added. “It was a wild time.”
After six months in the Pfizer building, the incubator kitchen went under and BKE was forced to pack up and leave. Within a matter of days, Subaiya and Purpura moved into their current space on Porter Avenue and Harrison Place in Bushwick.
“This is where the company has matured,” said Purpura. “We always had the vision of making it not just a production facility, but also a community event space centered around the things that we love, which are wellness, mediation, music and art. And we did that for about a year and a half before COVID. While we were doing all of these events, I would say that we really crafted our product. We really developed our production style and our brewing techniques.”
Subaiya describes their kombucha as being more “delicate” than some of the kombucha that has dominated the U.S. market over recent years.
“We try to carbonate in the style of a Pellegrino versus a Coca-Cola,” said Subaiya. “We try to go light on the carbonation and allow you to taste all of the complex acids that are produced.”
In January of 2020, BKE had hit its stride. Subaiya and Purpura cut down on their hours at the hospital to spend more time with the company. They were brewing about 500 gallons of kombucha per month and distributing it to 70 stores, including many in Bushwick. BKE’s kombucha had even made it on the tasting menu at Momofuku Ko, the Michelin-starred restaurant in the East Village. In preparation for an upcoming deal with a distributor, which was estimated to expand BKE’s clientele by 300 percent, Subaiya and Purpura were scaling up production. But at the start of the pandemic, everything changed.
“We filled our walk-in cold room with cases,” said Purpura. “It was supposed to go out within a week or two. Then COVID hit, and everything got pulled away. Not only did we lose the distribution deal, but we also went from having 70 clients to having zero.”
To top it off, Momofuku Ko had closed, BKE’s head brewer decided to move away from the city for safety reasons and the couple couldn’t hold events in the space that they worked so hard to create, and a global pandemic meant that Subaiya and Purpura had to step in to help with the crisis.
“We basically had to abandon our business for several months,” said Subaiya. “It was a really really hard time. But, we both knew that we had to choose to fight for our city over BKE.”
“What was beautiful was that our friends stepped forward,” she continued. “Two of our closest friends stayed in the city, even though they had the option to leave during COVID, to support us. They came in several days a week in the beginning.”
In preparation for the distribution deal, Subaiya and Purpura filled hundreds of cases full of kombucha, a major expense. When the deal fell through, the kombucha had nowhere to go. To keep it from expiring, one of the couple’s friends set up a home delivery service on the company’s website, which was how BKE survived for months.
“We got rid of every single case doing almost entirely home delivery,” said Purpura.
Yet, the company’s future was uncertain, and the pandemic was beginning to take a mental and physical toll on Subaiya in particular, who was working in an emergency department.
“There were moments when I wanted to step away,” said Subaiya. “We were both working way, way overtime in the hospital. The company was crashing.”
Things began to turn around for BKE when Subaiya and Purpura received a message from an old collaborator, Lamarr Hawkins, who used to work at Brooklyn Cider House. Brooklyn Cider House was BKE’s first commercial client and Hawkins was the first person to buy BKE’s Kombucha.
As a friend, Hawkins reached out to the couple to see if they needed help during a trying time.
“This was a moment when I knew that Lamarr was more than just a friend and was becoming family,” said Subaiya. “I remember that tears were pouring down my face, and I was reflecting on what I had seen in the ED and how scared I was and how much I was losing faith in myself. And Lamarr just listened to me.”
Originally there to help out during a low point, Hawkins stuck around and learned the art of fermentation. He is now BKE’s head brewer.
“He believed in us when it was a really dark period,” said Subaiya.
With Hawkins’ help, BKE has expanded greatly in the past several months. They signed with a new distributor, are currently in more than 200 stores, and are expanding into New Jersey and Long Island.
“I have my faith back, and I have myself back,” said Subaiya.
To find the closest store or restaurant that serves BKE Kombucha, check the company’s list of retail locations. BKE now also offers tiny-batch kombucha, which is sold in 64oz growlers and are available for home delivery.
Images from BKE’s Instagram.
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