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For One Bushwick Couple, COVID-19 Means Overtime as Doctors — and a Struggling Kombucha Business

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“We’re working well beyond overtime. There’s almost no time to think about kombucha.”

Saleena Subaiya and Lawrence Purpura — two doctors who used to work at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention — founded BKE Kombucha in Bushwick in 2018. Over the last two years, the Brooklyn brewery has developed a local following for its non-carbonated kombucha, available at restaurants in the neighborhood, local grocery stores, and tasting events in the couple’s loft apartment.

Before the shutdown went into effect, BKE was gearing up for a big expansion into local retail. The brewery was producing 2,000 gallons of kombucha at a time, and the couple was on the verge of inking a deal to bring BKE to roughly 300 stores in New York state. The brewery’s pear and chrysanthemum kombucha had even landed a spot on the tasting menu at Momofuku Ko, the two-Michelin-starred East Village restaurant from David Chang.

“It seemed like the puzzle pieces were finally coming together,” Saleena says.

Saleena and Lawrence, founders of BKE Kombucha, on their wedding day
Saleena and Lawrence on their wedding day
Saleena Subaiya/BKE Kombucha

But when the shutdown on dining-in due to the spread of COVID-19 went into effect on March 16, almost everything changed overnight. BKE’s head brewer needed to leave the city to be with her family, Momofuku Ko announced it would be temporarily closing, and BKE’s massive retail expansion plans came to an immediate halt.

As one avenue closed for Subaiya and Purpura, though, a familiar calling became their focus once again. Reports of the city’s hospitals and doctors being pushed beyond the limits began to emerge shortly after the shutdown, and the couple was asked to step in to help out during the crisis — Purpura in the division of infectious diseases at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital and Subaiya in the department of emergency medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center.

Subaiya had previously scaled back her hours working as a doctor so that she could devote more time to expanding BKE, but in the month since Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued stay-at-home orders for New Yorkers, the couple has not had a single day off. “We’re working well beyond overtime,” Subaiya says. “There’s almost no time to think about kombucha.”

Though business had declined at BKE, orders were still trickling in. Purpura recalled returning home from a hospital shift one evening, only to realize that he still needed to print invoices and schedule home deliveries for the next day.

Despite being pushed to the limits by the hospital work, the couple wasn’t willing to give up on their kombucha business. They enlisted the help of friends, who for the past month have stepped up to carry out BKE deliveries across the city. Meanwhile, Bushwick bars like Otis and Threesome Tollbooth have listed its kombucha on their delivery menus to help with sales.

“People think you’re a doctor, you have all this money, you’re fine,” Subaiya says, “but we can’t pay BKE’s rent without BKE. We’re completely relying on the people around us.”

There are parallels between the tragedies unfolding in hospitals and those taking place in New York City restaurants, Subaiya says. Namely, the sheer amount of loss that people have been forced to process.

“You worked tirelessly to build this thing. Some people spend their entire lives doing it,” Saleena says of the business shutdowns. “It’s almost like part of your family, and we are grieving that loss. Seeing other people go through that pains me nearly as much as walking through the ward.”

So, the couple is soldiering on trying to keep the kombucha business afloat while also working long shifts at the hospital; it’s a passion project that’s intrinsic to how they got involved romantically. Before Subaiya and Purpura founded BKE — and got married — they were friends working on the international outbreaks team at the Center for Disease Control.

“Originally we were just friends moving in with one another to save rent,” she says. “We had just moved in together in Atlanta and the first thing I said was, ‘We should brew kombucha in here,’” Subaiya adds.

Purpura had already beat her to it. A self-described “microbiology nerd,” he had spent the last decade making yogurt, brewing beer, and even installing a meat-curing fridge in their apartment. It turns out, he was also capable of making some pretty mean kombucha.

Encouraged by friends in the Bushwick community, the couple decided to scale back their hours at their hospitals and see if they could make a business out of selling kombucha. “Back when doctors still worked part-time,” Subaiya jokes.

Subaiya and Purpura say they both plan to return to BKE following the coronavirus pandemic, if possible. Kombucha from the Bushwick brewery can be ordered for next-day delivery through the company’s online store.

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