Tucked away in the up-and-coming neighborhood of Bushwick, Brooklyn, beyond warehouses full of artist studios, tattoo shops, and used book stores, lies a little corner of serenity: BKE Kombucha. Located on a quiet street (well, quiet for Brooklyn), the kombucha brewery offers a place of respite for owners Saleena Subaiya and Lawrence Purpura.
For Subaiya, an emergency medicine physician, and Purpura, an infectious disease attending physician, the journey to opening BKE Kombucha’s doors was years in the making and, like all good stories, rife with unforeseen challenges, determination, tenacity and — most importantly — love.
Purpura, left, and Subaiya, right, at their space in Brooklyn, along with Gypsy the dog.
The pair met in April 2015 at a Centers for Disease Control (CDC) conference. They started talking and discovered they would both be stationed in Atlanta, Georgia, and both would be doing international work in Africa. Subaiya was working on a national measles-rubella vaccination campaign in Kenya, the largest in their history to date. Purpura was responding to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. They decided to become roommates to save on rent.
“When I first met Lawrence,” Subaiya says, “I came in with my usual bat-out-of-hell entrance and basically demanded that we brew some kombucha together.” Purpura, who was in the process of unpacking after his move to Atlanta, noted his homemade jars of kombucha on the kitchen counter and agreed. “That’s what started it all,” she says.
From batches of beer brewed in his living room to a homemade meat-curing vessel, Purpura says he was always interested in the fermentation process. “I’ve also always had an interest in infectious disease, which is my specialty now, and a lot of that is microbiology. I’m just incredibly fascinated by the microbial world, both in how it sustains our health and is used for food preservation but also in how it can cause disease. My entire life is dedicated to microbes.”
From choosing the best ingredients for their brews to devising marketing strategies, the two work together along every step of the way.
When asked if he ever thought his entire life would be dedicated to microbiology, Lawrence doesn’t hesitate: “Yes, I’m a total nerd that way.” Subaiya immediately interjects. “That’s not true at all! You wanted to be the lead guitarist in a thrash metal band,” she says.
As if it wasn’t obvious, Subaiya and Purpura are married. Their engagement rings are tattooed on, peeking out from underneath more traditional bands, and their comfort and ease with each other comes from a foundation of years of friendship.
Subaiya’s tattooed engagement ring peeks out from her wedding band as the couple share a flight of kombucha.
“So we fell in love, we got married.” Purpura says. “And we didn’t have a baby,” Subaiya continues. “We had a business.”
The Inception of BKE Kombucha
They never imagined owning a kombucha business. According to Purpura, it was the last thing on any sort of life list he’d imagined.
Similarly to Purpura, Subaiya was exploring several different life paths before deciding on medicine. “I wanted to be an artist,” she says. “I wanted to do film but realized that I had this desire to impact my community. My parents came from a very poor part of India and they instilled this notion in me that I could help people. I grew up seeing devastating poverty and that made me want to try and have a tangible, positive impact.” As a way to balance her passions, Subaiya went on to create films that focused on public health and traditional medicine.
The pair shared twin paths in this way: “Lawrence had his music and I had my art and we both had this need to make the world a better place.”
While they were exploring their careers and themselves, kombucha maintained an important role in their lives. “We made kombucha when we lived in Atlanta and we continued that tradition when we moved to New York City,” Purpura says. The starting culture, or kombucha base, the first ingredient when it comes to brewing kombucha, made the journey with them. “It was fun. We’d bring our home brews to dinner parties and to hang with friends. We were the kombucha couple.”
To flavor BKE Kombucha, everything from dried flowers, herbs, spices, and teas are used.
At the time, Subaiya was frequently flying to Haiti to work on a film about movers and shakers in the world of public health. One day, she was violently attacked by two Doberman dogs. “I still have the scars,” she says, pointing to several places on her forearms. “It made me realize that this wasn’t the space for me anymore.” That same day, a close friend of the couple had a dream about their kombucha. In it, they were making more kombucha than they ever had before — and it was wonderful.
“Everything was aligning,” Subaiya says. “I believe sometimes we get messages from really weird spaces and how you react to them is representative of what you should be doing.”
She booked her flight home from Haiti the next day and called her husband: “We’re starting this company.”
Though they never imagined being small business owners, it has offered them a surprising respite from their jobs as physicians.
BKE Kombucha (the origin of the company’s name is a secret known only to Subaiya and Purpura) began as an underground movement in the couple’s Bushwick loft. There, they would host monthly events, affectionately called “The Gathering,” complete with yoga, dance, and, of course, kombucha. These events helped the company build a dedicated following.
In the beginning, Subaiya and Purpura hand-delivered their kombucha, oftentimes after 10- or 12-hour shifts at the hospital. But their hard work and dedication paid off, enough so that Pilotworks, a Brooklyn-based start-up that connected local food vendors with spaces to help create their products, sponsored them in July of 2019. For 6 months, Pilotworks helped their business grow.
Here, Subaiya and Purpura weigh out the ingredients for their Pear and Chrysanthemum kombucha.
Pilotworks suddenly closed in October of that same year. Devastated, they immediately sought out a new space for BKE Kombucha. Once they moved into their current location in Bushwick, things really began to blossom. Perhaps Pilotworks shuttering had been another message from an unexpected place.
At the new location, the couple hosted friends and colleagues, yoga sessions, and monthly all-vinyl dance parties akin to their beloved Gatherings. With about 80 clients and discussions with a distributor to sell their kombucha throughout New York City, things were looking bright.
Then COVID-19 hit.
“We had zero clients,” Subiya says. A handful of orders each month helped sustain them. In addition to struggling to keep their business afloat, the couple stepped up to help out with the COVID-19 crisis. Subaiya, who had pared down her hours at the hospital to help establish BKE Kombucha, began working overtime at NYU’s emergency medical department. Similarly, Purpura dedicated himself to Columbia Presbeteryian Hospital as an infectious disease fellow and long-haul COVID researcher.
“Our friends and community saved us when we fell to our knees,” Purpura says. “This company should not be here today. The only reason we’re here is because of them.”
Friends of theirs put off moving across the country and stayed in New York City throughout the brunt of the pandemic to help Subaiya and Purpura keep BKE Kombucha running. Once, a friend showed up on their doorstep and offered to make all of the deliveries for them. “You’re our first line [of defense],” he told them. “Let me be your second.”
“It’s such a Bushwick story,” Subaiya says. “Or maybe a New York City story. But maybe it’s a people story. You just can’t do it on your own”
Lessons From Kombucha
Today, BKE Kombucha can be found in over 300 stores throughout New York City. The pair has hired five employees to help further the company’s vision. In their brewery, which looks part apothecary, part mad scientist’s lab, the pair is constantly striving to better themselves and their business.
BKE Kombucha comes in a variety of flavors, like Rose, Mango, and Citrus, Coriander, & Ginger, and there are always new varieties in the works.
According to Purpura, the production of kombucha is simple to a degree. In giant spaceship-like tanks, a mixture of water, tea, starting culture (scoby), and sugar ferments for about 3–4 weeks. “The scoby does all the work,” Purpura says. “This starting culture is actually one from Atlanta. It’s been with us for about 8 years now. We just create the environment so it can actually do its work.” The BKE Kombucha team lovingly tends to their brew, regulating temperature, feeding it oxygen and sugar. The kombucha, in turn, has returned the favor in varying ways.
Smaller tanks, like the one pictures here, are used for flavoring and carbonating the various kombucha flavors.
“This journey has changed my perception of failure,” Subaiya says. “Prior to starting BKE, I viewed failure as something that would prevent you from getting to your goal. Now, the way I view failure, it’s part of it.
“You had to have never failed to get into med school,” she continues. “Once you have a small business, you realize failure is a part of growing. Just because you fail at something doesn’t mean you’re bad at it.”
For Purpura, the lesson this journey has taught him is humility. “It strikes a very familiar chord,” he says. “Throughout medical training, humility has been one of the emotions that I’ve constantly been reminded of, whether it’s the first time you thought you made the wrong medical decision or wondering if you went into the wrong field.”
“I think humility is a part of growth,” he adds. “What I’ve seen here with this company is an extreme example of humility. We’ve been brought to our knees so many times, we’ve been forced to make very hard decisions, and had moments of not knowing what to do and having no one around us to tell us what to do. We’ve made mistakes. It’s that humility that we’ve done here that unites what we’ve done here with medicine.”
When asked what the future holds for BKE Kombucha, Subaiya doesn’t hesitate: “We’re going to make a hell of a lot more kombucha.” That scoby that has traveled over 800 miles from Atlanta to New York City, served as a catalyst for love and the inception of a business, survived a pandemic and now bubbles happily at its home in Bushwick is ready for whatever happens next.