The Rockaway Advocate went out and investigated unconventional small business practices in Rockaway — people who don’t need a storefront or a standard working environment to build and sustain a successful business. These are Rockaway’s underground entrepreneurs: business owners with the skills and vision to adapt an idea to uncommon challenges, and create a product or service that resonates with people in Rockaway.
Here are three that we think everyone in the community should know about.
FAR ROCK SHOP
Far Rock Shop, with the iconic A train “A” logo, creates apparel to build community. It’s a family business founded by Rockaway native Phil Groves and his brother. The goal for Groves was to help create and help bring out the culture of Far Rockaway — he wanted to build an iconic image for people to come together under, the way Brooklyn’s orange and blue has become symbolic. Groves says that the name “Far Rock” comes from listening to people in the area: “we’ve heard ‘sixth borough’, ‘Far Rock, America’…people out here look at Rockaway as bigger than it might be, and we want to magnify that perspective”.
The business launched in 2016 out of Phil’s basement, with the goal that it would spread organically and foster a community — that people would “have to do some research to find out about us” or hear by word of mouth. After envisioning the brand, Groves connected with Brooklyn apparel company Twnty Two, and later on with Bronx-based Final Piece Productions to bring the designs to life. In 2017, they launched an Instagram account, and the demand for the product just keeps growing. Far Rock Shop recently joined the Rockaway Business Alliance, and frequently appears at pop-up markets around the area.
Not enough hours in the day: enjoying the process of developing a community base, but wanting to be at that goal already.
It’s important to Groves that the mottos on Far Rock Shop gear are inspired by local dynamics. One of their first designs was “Iron Horse Grind”, drawing on what the A train symbolizes in Rockaway, and what Groves sees as a “certain energy” or “certain toughness” that comes from only having “one way in and one way out”. Another design, “Rockaway’s No Playland”, calls back to the history of the area with a sense of humor and sparks a serious conversation in a positive way. For Groves, the design says that “we’re overlooked a lot [here], I would say marginalized” and “it kinda built tough skin” but also that “there’s a lot to pay attention to here”. The apparel is “for others to see, for us to be proud of”.
The work is responsive to the community in the product, and in the business model. Groves’ philosophy is this: “In a small community, if you lead with integrity, and your product is good, you will find success.” For the Far Rock Shop team, it’s not about the profit. Groves told us that the business is just a vehicle for building a base and using it for community development. “I want use to be the hands and feet of the community. If there’s a beach cleanup, I want to see people out there in Far Rock gear” said Groves, adding “Far Rock is Far Rock, and I don’t own that. We’re just adding to what is…representing as many people as possible.”
ROCKAWAY ICE LADY
The iconic Rockaway Ice Lady cart is hard to miss — the bike is vivid green, always blasting disco music, and powered by the Lady herself, with her trademark brightly colored afro (electric blue, when the Advocate spoke to her). Nae Dailey has been selling her original ice flavors during the summer for 2 years, and now owns two bike carts and a pushcart (her son and his friend operate the other ones). During the school year, Dailey is performing arts and sign language teacher in schools around Rockaway. She got started selling ice at her schools, for her students. A sorority sister sold her an ice cart, and Dailey custom built her bike cart out of it. “I’m riding all the time, I love it,” said Dailey. She told us that sometimes she actually bikes past potential customers because she’s jamming out on the music and the rhythm of pedaling.
The branding came naturally for Dailey. Most of what makes her recognizable is just her being herself — according to Dailey, her disco music, the energy she rides with and even her hair all contribute to her customers’ experience of the business. “The vibe is so good,” says Dailey, that people are pulled in before they even taste the product. The name, too, comes from her interactions with customers — for the first year, she was ‘Nae’s Italian Ice’, but Dailey told us “everyone kept asking where’s that Rockaway ice lady? So I just changed it.”
The original ice flavors, which change every 2 days, are all Dailey’s own design. She currently works with Brooklyn-based business partner to create small-batch, all-vegan flavors out of a single machine. Flavors like sour patch kids, Swedish Fish, cookie monster, spongebob and others are all products of Dailey’s imagination and her partner’s flavoring skills. “I try to do weird stuff,” Dailey said, “so let’s try mixing this with that” and arrive at new tastes by trial-and-error.
LAST DRAGON PIZZA
Since 2013, pizza aficionado Nicole Russell has served Rockaway’s best pizza out of her own home. Russell’s Last Dragon Pizza has won major attention from serious food reviewers and a nation-wide audience along the way, but the origins will always be firmly Rockaway. When Hurricane Sandy hit, Russell was already in the midst in a series of personal catastrophes and family losses. She lost everything in the storm, and entered a low point in her life. “I was so lost, I didn’t know what was next for me,” Russell remembered. She started cooking out of a desire to create a regular reason to gather with family and spend time together. “I started making pizza, experimenting with dough,” she said, “Pizza became a distraction, working the dough became a meditative practice for me.” The name “Last Dragon Pizza” comes from the classic kung fu movie The Last Dragon — when they were young, Russell’s sister took her to see it at the Surfside Cinema, which used to be on B 104th Street. “It’s our favorite movie and very sentimental to us and what Rockaway used to be.”
Russell made her first sale organically — thought still as a result her serious entrepreneurial instincts. During the post-Sandy rebuild, Russell offered some of her pizza to a construction worker. “He told me it was the best pizza he’d ever had, that he was coming back the next day, that he wanted more,” said Russell. The next day, she sold him a pizza on the spot for $15 — a recipe that became her ‘Daddy Greens’ pie, inspired by the name of the black-owned pizza shop in The Last Dragon movie.
Since then, every element of her business model has been developed strategically. “I never wanted to be a brick and mortar,” said Russell, explaining that she’s seen the challenges of the restaurant business firsthand. So she created her own business model: customers order online, then receive a text with a pickup location, and trust that Last Dragon will deliver. “I realized that I wanted people to pay in advance, so I don’t waste my time or inventory,” she said, summarizing the exchange as, “They take a chance on me, I take a chance on them. I have more to lost than they do.” The model allows Russell to minimize risk, limit the number of ingredients she needs to buy, waste less food, and save money — all while operating out of her own home. “In a world where no one trusts anyone, I’m over the moon that people are willing to try something like this,” said Russell.
Russell connects with new customers almost exclusively by word-of-mouth — at first, just in Rockaway, but since the business went live on Instagram, Russell says “now I’m word-of-mouth nationally”. Last Dragon Pizza expanded into frozen products in 2015, and began shipping nationally in 2016. When the Advocate spoke to her, Russell had just received orders from as far away as Chicago, Dallas, and San Francisco. Even for pickup orders, Russell serves customers driving in from the outer boroughs and upstate NY for her pizzas. But despite the national profile, Russell’s focus remains rooted in the Rockaways. She’s particularly working on increasing her customer base of the east side of the peninsula — to provide another food option to people, to inspire the community to look out for what’s already here, and of course, to profit. “Yes, you have to do a little more work, but it feels like the whole market is mine,” said Russell. “Far Rockaway is the most populated, so I always look there to expand my base.”
Despite her success up to this point, Russell’s vision for Last Dragon remains ambitious. “I wanna be a pizza professional…I wanna be known as that woman who does pizza, a world-renowned pizza maker,” she explained. She also wants to become a major food supplier with a distribution deal, establish herself as the face of a well-known brand, and eventually, even open a flagship location.
~by GABBY PRESTON