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Taking care of business: Millennial entrepreneurs on Long Island

Arsalan Pourmand, owner of Flux Coffee in Farmingdale,

Arsalan Pourmand, owner of Flux Coffee in Farmingdale, steams milk while preparing a latte behind the counter. Photo Credit: Daniel Brennan

They started out scooping ice cream or freelancing art. They learned the basics by trial and error, they bartered and worked 60 hours a week. This is the career path of millennial entrepreneurs.

Defining the millennial generation isn’t an exact science. The Pew Research Center categorizes them as born between 1981 and 1996, listing these defining life events: Most are of an age that they remember the 9/11 attacks and ensuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the election of the nation’s first black president; they’re digital natives, and many began job hunting at the height of the economic recession in 2008.

Much has been written about the difficulties millennials face on Long Island. A Long Island Association study released in August said young people here face lower wages than previous generations — and skyrocketing home prices.

No matter the statistics about their generation, the millennials featured here have parlayed their passions to make a living in brick-and-mortar or digital venues.

Stacé Hansen, a bilingual business adviser at Farmingdale State College’s Small Business Development Center, said she’s found that potential millennial business owners are more inclined to focus on the service industry and niche markets, “because they’re lower in cost to start.”

Hansen said that more and more millennials are starting their businesses from home while living with their parents for cost-saving purposes. She also noted that when starting a business, the most important consideration for a millennial should be their online presence — how they market themselves and interact with their clients.

At the same time, she said, the most frequently asked question she gets from her students is about how to stand out. “You can be online, but so is everybody else,” Hansen said, “so how do people find you?”

Strategy for job security

It’s always Halloween at Stephanie Buscema’s studio, where witches, pumpkins, black cats and skulls adorn the walls. Buscema, 36, is an artist who draws inspiration from the past — antiques, vintage clothing and such literary classics as “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” — and injects fun. Her studio is tucked behind her Huntington home, built in 1820.

Buscema said she bought the house with her husband, Robert Harrigan, turning the building around back — perhaps formerly a garage or workshop — into a studio. Her business, Kitschy Witch Designs, is booming this time of year, she said, customers ordering her eclectic clothing, jewelry and accessories from around the country. Since 2016, Buscema has been creating, producing and shipping all of her own products.

“It really started out as small things,” she said. “Pins, jewelry with images on them, stickers, anything we could really print up if I made a little design — we thought, how many different things can we put that on? And that sort of started branching and morphing into the business.”

In addition to the Kitschy Witch line, Buscema has a website where she sells paintings and prints. The clients listed on her website include Walt Disney Parks and Archie Comics.

It took Buscema years to traverse this career path. After graduating from the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, she freelanced for about six years, selling her work at comic conventions and creating commercial illustrations. But, Buscema said, lack of job security scared her.

“As a freelance artist .  .  . you don’t know where your next job or your next sale is going to come from,” she said. “I basically sold everything I could as far as artwork and originals I had and invested that all in the business in order to get it started. So it’s been sort of this crazy thing that I never thought would grow into something.”

Buscema said that putting her work and herself out there in the marketplace has been the biggest challenge. “Everything is a risk always,” she said. “So I guess it [the challenge] was really gaining the confidence to say, ‘Hey, you know what, if I want something done right, I have to do it myself.’  ”

Running her business with help from her husband, Buscema said they have about zero social life. She relies on creativity to keep her going: “I guess for me, the biggest success is just making something new every day.”

If at first you don’t succeed

Kevin Muller was 16 when he got his first job, scooping ice cream at a Friendly’s in Middle Island. Within a year, he was promoted to a manager position. But business wasn’t always what he had in mind for his career.

“I wanted to be a teacher,” recalled Muller, 31. “I wanted to teach biology, that didn’t work out. I wanted to teach history, too boring. I switched to business because everything in life is a business.”

Muller studied business at Suffolk County Community College, then at SUNY Polytechnic Institute in Utica. He returned to Long Island and in 2012 took over a struggling smoothie shop, Amazon Café in Selden. He changed the name to Simple Smoothie, putting his own spin on the eatery and aiming to improve the food and service.

“But it was tough to stand out with, No. 1, a bad name, and No. 2, Selden and Centereach both had Tropical Smoothie [locations],” he said.

Muller said he “failed miserably,” ultimately returning to Friendly’s simultaneously to pay the bills. But he didn’t give up. He said he went up and down Middle Country Road around Selden, familiarizing himself with the retail environment. That’s when it hit him: crepes, like his grandmother always made in her Italian dishes. “So, I thought, you know what?” he said with a smile. “I can do that.”

By year’s end, Simple Smoothie had closed, and Crazy Crepe was born. Stores in Smithtown, Miller Place, Mount Sinai and Ronkonkoma followed.

“I’ll never forget my first customer came from Stony Brook and got a ham-and-cheese crepe,” he said. “He was like, ‘This is great, I’m gonna tell all my friends!’ And that’s how we did it back then.”

With his crepes on a roll, Muller searched for a new challenge. Mount Sinai’s Crazy Crepe was one of his “slower locations,” and he’d always wanted to try an American comfort food concept. “We wanted to open up a grilled cheese place with our take on it,” he said.

With co-owner Nick Mauceri, 27, of Ridge, Muller opened Meltology in Mount Sinai in 2017. Mauceri also co-owns Crazy Crepe in Miller Place.

Despite working with millennials and being one himself, Muller said he has struggled with social media. He’s gotten help by taking on interns from SCCC to help promote Meltology on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and through email.

For business advice he’s often turned to his father, he said, though he’s mostly learned on the job. “Even in business school, there was no, ‘OK this is how you open up a restaurant, go to this agency and then go to this regulatory and fill out this or that,’ so all of that is a little bit difficult sometimes,” he said. “It’s a lot of trial and error.”

His advice to young business owners is simple, if daunting: “Just keep at it. You’re going to mess up, you’re going to fail — I know I did, big time. .  .  . Keep going beyond that.”

Cultural heritage becomes his passion

Growing up on the Shinnecock Reservation, Jeremy Dennis, 28, said he went to the annual Labor Day powwow with his family every year. “I don’t think I’ve ever missed a single one, growing up,” he said.

In 2014, he decided to document the festivities. He walked around with his camera, snapping photos and interviewing participants, making sure to include everyone — Shinnecock or not.

“That became a central interest for my photography,” said Dennis of Southampton. “Not particularly the powwow, but just the energy behind the powwow.”

Dennis went on to photograph powwows throughout New England, including those of the Mashpee, Narragansett and Mohegan tribes. In 2015, he self-published “Behind the Dance,” a book of portraits and interviews from those experiences.

He discovered his passion for photography after graduating from Stony Brook University with a degree in studio art in 2013. Then he got a yearbook photography gig in Pennsylvania. He learned lighting techniques, he said, and the breakneck pace of the work taught him “to simplify what I was doing.”

He applied to Pennsylvania State’s master’s program in photography, graduating in 2016. The desire to incorporate his Shinnecock roots into his art pulled Dennis back to Long Island, where he’s produced several portfolios centering on the tribe’s history. His project “On This Site” is a collection of photos, research and an interactive map documenting culturally significant American Indian sites on Long Island. It will be exhibited at the Rogers Memorial Library in Southampton in November.

To market his work, Dennis looks to fellow artists’ websites for guidance and, he said, social media helps.

“Instagram is great because it’s what people go to if they already like art and imagery,” he said. “And Facebook is a little bit more personal, where you can have a conversation. .  .  . But I think that no matter what, in-person exhibitions are probably a little bit better.”

He’s able to support himself through commercial work — shooting products for businesses, or photographing weddings and engagements. Between running his website and applying for grants — among them a $10,000 Dreamstarter grant from the Virginia-based American Indian nonprofit Running Strong for American Indian Youth that he received in April 2016 — Dennis said he has little downtime.

Dennis credits his work with providing opportunities for community as well as a barter system.

“I don’t have a lot of funds and assets at the moment to compensate people for their time,” Dennis said. “So usually what happens is, people get involved in modeling for my shoots and I try to have some sort of reciprocity exchange .  .  . if they need a headshot or their artwork documented .  .  . I can help out with. I think that’s more friendship-building than paying someone and never seeing them again.”

No sleep, all coffee

Arsalan Pourmand, 33, said people in his life tell him he’s better at coffee than business. He happens to agree.

“I’m more concerned about giving you a cup of coffee that’s going to be the best cup of coffee you’ve had today than making an extra dollar on you,” said the Plainview native, who admits drinking three cups a day. “That’s one thing in business that I do struggle with a lot: I would rather make less money but have a better product.”

His interest in coffee was piqued while managing a climbing gym in Brooklyn when a friend needed help opening his own coffee shop in the area. His next stop was Berkeley, California, where he opened Flux Coffee in 2010.

“I was putting in probably 60 hours a week roasting coffee and then another 50 hours a week brewing [at] Flux, and I was working seven days a week, 48-hour stretches without sleeping,” he said.

The routine took its toll on Pourmand, who quit coffee in 2014 for about a year and a half to work in marketing, a job that brought him back to New York. He had nights and weekends off, but he couldn’t stay away.

Pourmand opened Flux Coffee on Main Street in Farmingdale Village in 2017 by taking out loans and using his savings. He’s almost always behind the counter — roasting, brewing and serving or fixing broken equipment.

“In the last year and a half, I’ve had six days off,” Pourmand said. “Not including a three-day coffee conference that I went to in Seattle.”

Flux has four brews always on hand, highlighting beans from Mexico, Ethiopia and beyond. Don’t know whether you want fruity and floral or bold and chocolaty? Pourmand and his staff will chat you up before they pour.

“A lot of people come in not knowing what they want to drink, so we start a dialogue with them: What would you like, something hot or something cold, and try to figure out exactly what they want.”

Pourmand initially studied architecture at Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston. That wasn’t for him, he said, though he used the experience to build the lighting fixtures and tables at Flux.

Pourmand hopes to someday open a second location. Until then, he’s settled in on what he calls an ideal spot. “What we do is almost a destination,” he said. “People don’t stumble upon places in shopping centers, no one walks around a shopping center, and there are no nice backyard areas or fun events at shopping centers. We wanted the community feeling that a ‘main street’ has.”

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