Chef, leader, entrepreneur, and Hartford resident Ben Dubow says he fell in love with the mission and vision of Forge City Works “making lives better through the power of food” in 2016. In early March 2022, Forge City Works named Ben as its new Executive Director, following an extensive search that began in July 2021.

MetroHartford Alliance Content Manager learned about—and also fell in love with—Forge City Works’ mission through interviews with Founding Executive Director Cary Wheaton (2019) and The Kitchen Executive Chef Andy Perri (2021). Nan originally connected with Ben in 2018, when he was General Manager at Bistro on Main. She recently reached out to congratulate Ben on his new position.

NAN PRICE: How has your prior experience helped prepare you to step into this new role?

BEN DUBOW: My career path focus has been a dual track: chef and restaurants and nonprofits and faith-based nonprofits. I’ve done a lot of restaurant work and I’ve opened a lot of restaurants, including Bistro on Main in Manchester, which is a social enterprise restaurant that ties in a culinary training program. In the nonprofit church world, I’m also a pastor. I’ve done a lot of development in fundraising and working with boards and organizational life. So, this position with Forge City Works brings all that together.

NAN: Let’s talk about community impact.

BEN: Forge City Works focuses on three areas: food access, culinary jobs training, and using social enterprise both as economic development and an opportunity to create jobs for people coming out of the training.

All of that is community-based. It’s this hypothesis that you can create positive energy within a community or a neighborhood as economic development by bringing in resources to help people get ahead—the hand up not the handout model. Then, over time, you’ll begin to transform neighborhoods, communities, and people’s lives.

For almost 20 years Billings Forge, which became Forge City Works, has proven that hypothesis correct. It’s about moving the ball down the field very slowly and intentionally and learning as you go. It’s about doing a lot of listening and engagement with the community, which also means being agile and respectful and willing to change. And, it’s about constantly evaluating how we’re doing, how we’re connecting with the community, whether we’re meeting the community’s needs, and how we’re engaged with and integrated within the community.

NAN: I would be remiss if I didn’t ask what’s next for Firebox.

BEN: Clearly, Firebox is an important part of this brand and the vision for this community. We’re working hard to come up with a concept. It won’t be just reopening Firebox. So much has changed over the last two years in the restaurant industry and in Hartford.

We need to figure out what makes sense for both the business component and the social enterprise component. And it has to be effective in terms of economic development, impacting the neighborhood, and providing job training and a workforce pipeline. Coming up with a concept that does all those is one of my first tasks.

NAN: What types of opportunities do you see in the Hartford Region for food entrepreneurs or those seeking employment in the food and hospitality industry?

BEN: I think Hartford is in an interesting place. Prior to the pandemic, it felt like there was some really positive momentum around downtown. It was an increasingly good environment for businesses and people moving in, which then flowed over into the restaurant world.

I still think we’re 12 to 18 months out from knowing how the impact of the pandemic will settle in terms of supply chain issues and whether people are going to come back and work in Hartford. That’s a huge piece of the puzzle. But on the other hand, Hartford has built a ton of new apartments and living spaces. And from what I’ve told, occupancy rates are very high, which means there are new people living in Hartford.

So, I think the dynamics are shifting and changing, which creates a great opportunity for entrepreneurs to figure out what’s next and address the needs of this new population that’s living in Hartford. Particularly in the food industry, there’s always going to be a strong need for restaurants, prepared foods, and food businesses.

Hartford has such an amazing fabric of different ethnicities and neighborhoods. Parkville Market is a perfect example of where we see that come together. It’s a joy going in there because the 20+ places are all different. And they’re all local. There’s not a chain to be found. Most of those folks are entrepreneurs, who are often are in business with the first time and are starting up. And every place is great.

I feel like that energy is going to overflow and reflect in neighborhoods. Some businesses will outgrow Parkville Market and move out and new ones will move in. It creates an environment in our part of the city that’s ripe for new thinking and new ideas. So, while there are still some challenges, I think it’s an exciting time to be a food entrepreneur in Hartford.

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Photo of Forge City Works Executive Director Ben Dubow courtesy Winter Caplanson, CT Food & Farm