WFM Brooklyn

The Business Diaries, Part 4

Last week WFM opened our fourth location, at 219 Driggs Avenue, in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. I promised this blog would give you an insider’s glimpse at the nuts and bolts of running a medical practice, so here’s a brief timeline.

WFM Brooklyn had been a gleam in our eye for years, mainly due to the sizable number of our patients who live there and are always urging us to open up an eastern outpost. Covid threw a wrench into any such plans, as we focused all our energies on fighting the pandemic and keeping our heads above water.

As Covid receded and our volume surged, we hired new providers and soon found ourselves running short on space. Once again Brooklyn beckoned. In July 2022, after exploring different office spaces and neighborhoods online and by foot, we found the perfect place.

We negotiated, nailed down the financing, and signed on the dotted line. The space required a gut renovation – it came as a big, empty, concrete cave with exposed pipes and wires, that the owner was using for storage.

We found a contractor, sketched out a rough design, hired an architect to draw up formal plans, and in January 2023, started construction. Amazingly, the whole thing came together in less than four months – mainly thanks to the fact that we had an honest, reliable contractor, Peter Lelcaj, and a meticulous, hands-on project manager with a knack for balancing charm and cajole (that is, Rachel).

As with any construction project – especially in New York – there were a thousand little problems, hiccups, and hitches, but in this case no major hold-ups. Two weeks before opening we ordered medical supplies and equipment from Adam, our Henry Schein rep; a week before opening Steve, our IT guy, set up the Fios network, computers, phones, and printers; the weekend before opening, Rachel and I screwed together the chairs for the waiting room and stools for the exam rooms, and went on shopping runs for last-minute odds and ends like garbage cans and clipboards.

Monday, May 1st, I took the subway to work from the upper west side (45 minutes door-to-door), greeted our first Brooklyn patient, and we were up and running.

One of the best things about opening a new location is discovering a new neighborhood. At the risk of sounding too much like the provincial Manhattanite that I freely admit I am, I never knew how cool Greenpoint is.

Never mind the hipster beards, body pierces, tattoos, and vintage clothes – that’s par for the Brooklyn course. I’m talking about the unique little restaurants, bars, and cafes which, combined with the parks, farmer’s markets, shops, and street life make me wonder why any young person would ever want to live in Manhattan.

As I told my college-age kids, if after graduation they want to come back and live with us, we’d love to have them, and it would come with free rent, board, and laundry. But otherwise, if they come back to NY, they have to live in Greenpoint.

Here are just a few places you may want to check out if you come to see us in Greenpoint.

Turn right on leaving the office, walk east on Driggs Avenue, and you come to Monger’s Palate, an artisanal cheese shop just a few steps down the block. The first time I went in I was a little overwhelmed by the selection, so I asked the proprietor to pick her favorite cheese and put a few slices in a baguette with some fresh butter.

She picked out a perfect Vermont Cheddar. As with medicine, so with food – sometimes it’s best to forgo the research and go with expert opinion.

A little further down the block, you’ll find a Syrian restaurant called DAR 525, where we had dinner one evening after a long day with the contractors. Everything was fresh and delicious, but don’t miss the Muhamara, a spicy dip made with roasted peppers, cashews, olive oil, and spices.

Looking for lunch? Walk a few more steps to La Sandwicherie, a little French cafe for the perfect place – I can vouch for the Sandwiches Le Chevre, with goat cheese, tomatoes, and greens, drizzled with balsamic vinaigrette. As a bonus, you can watch French news on TV while you wait.

In the other direction from the office, walk West on Driggs Avenue to McCarren Park, with its playground, running track, swimming pool, and tennis courts, some of which have been – no surprise – repurposed for pickleball.

My personal favorite place around McCarren Park is Vital, a 24h climbing and bouldering gym that doubles as a cafe and coworking space. If I had a job where I could work remotely that’s where you’d be able to find me anytime – I can’t think of a better move when you are mentally blocked or just need a break than to literalize the metaphor and scale an actual wall.

Next door to Vital is a grungy anarchist bar/cafe with a refrigerated food pantry on the sidewalk where people can give what they have or take what they need. In the opposite direction is a funky store called Upstate Stock, that my brother, Anthony, discovered while filming a movie in the area. It sells an eclectic mix of locally sourced products from small businesses around the state.

Also in that area, Rachel discovered a micro-shop called Bin Bin Sake – I love sake – and bought me a locally brewed brand called Brooklyn Kura, which was pretty good.

Just over the border, in Williamsburg, we had a delicious meal at Chez Ma Tante, where we went with my mother after showing her the new office – the vibe there may be casual but the food is serious, the perfect neighborhood restaurant.

In fact, Chez Ma Tante is a good metaphor for what we are going for in general at Westside Family Medicine – high-quality medical care delivered in a relaxed, comfortable, and down-to-earth environment.

The Chez Ma Tante of primary care.

When we opened our first location, on Broadway and 110th Street back in 2006, one of the unexpected pleasures for me was being recognized by patients on the street. New York is a big city that can also feel small, partly because each neighborhood really is like its own little town.

I remember walking to the park with my oldest daughter, Noa, a little girl back then. Inevitably we would pass someone out walking their dog, or pushing a stroller, or just out for a stroll, who would recognize me and say, “Hi, Doctor Bregman!”

“Is that a patient?” Noa would ask. “Yup!” I would answer, to her delight. I felt like a small-town family doctor from Alaska – like Joel from Northern Exposure, say, or Dr. Ernest Ceriani, the sole physician for Kremmling, Colorado, whom W. Eugene Smith famously photographed for Life Magazine back in 1948.

Rachel and I are rooted on the Upper West Side, so that will never happen to me in Greenpoint. But I’m excited for it to happen to James Lauren, our Nurse Practitioner. It turns out that, although we knew he lives in Brooklyn, little did we know he lives in Greenpoint, a five-minute walk from the new office.

Jane Jacobs, the urban theorist and author of the book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (a timeless read), argued that chance personal encounters are the lifeblood of great cities like New York. I couldn’t agree more. Street life is what gives the City its unique magic and personality.

Not only that.

What feels special about Greenpoint is more than just the great food, peaceful streets, and pretty parks. It’s that everything has a human touch. The stores and eateries feel like the outgrowth of someone’s private dream or crazy idea, the final and improbable result of a conversation that began with, “Wouldn’t it be cool if….”

That’s the whole problem with chain stores, banks, and national pharmacies popping up like mushrooms all over Manhattan. They may (arguably) be better than empty storefronts but they do nothing for a neighborhood’s personality. On the contrary – they homogenize instead of heterogenize (is that a word?); corporatize instead of humanize; flatten instead of roughen the urban terrain.

Take Upstate Stock, for example, the store my brother discovered. There’s a chain of highway rest stop stores called Taste NY – I’m sure you’ve seen them while stopping for gas or a bathroom break, usually attached to a Dunkin’ Donuts. Taste NY also stocks items from small businesses all around the state.

What’s the difference between Taste NY and Upstate Stock? Everything.

It’s the difference between wandering into a place and feeling a sense of surprise and discovery versus just being relieved to find what you need; between a human touch and corporate strategy; between the vagaries of individual taste and the results of A/B marketing testing.

It’s the same difference between Dunkin’ Donuts and Moe’s Doughs (126 Nassau Ave); between Haagen Daz and The Screen Door (145 Driggs Ave); and yes, between Optum, Sinai, or One Medical / Amazon and Westside Family Medicine.

What distinguishes the latters from the formers? For one thing, they are all motivated by more than just profit. Does that mean that, in this day and age of corporate conglomerates and private equity-backed mergers, they carry with them the seeds of their own destruction?

Probably. At least in the long run. But, as John Maynard Keynes famously said, in the long run, we are all dead. In the meantime, they also carry the seeds of something else.

Jacobs wrote, “…lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration, with energy enough to carry over for problems and needs outside themselves.” Walking around Greenpoint in the wake of Covid, it’s hard not to feel that, at least in parts of Brooklyn, the seeds of New York’s post-covid regeneration are sprouting in just the way that Jane Jacobs envisioned.

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Full Stack Family Medicine

Dr. Bertie Bregman
Dr. Bertie Bregman
Full Stack Family Medicine is a newsletter about what it’s really like to practice medicine and run a medical practice in New York City.
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