A Conversation with Karen Karp, Pt. 1: Roots: Pt. 1: Roots
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5 October 2015
How did you first become connected to the world of food systems?

I always had a fascination with how restaurants work. I got a job assisting a bookkeeper at a seafood restaurant in high school and loved everything about it. When I left my hometown of Islip, Long Island, and went to New York City to attend Parsons School of Design, I continued to work in restaurants.

Making art is very introverted, working in restaurants is very extroverted, and, somehow on that Myers-Briggs scale,  the midway point was where I landed. After working as general manager of a restaurant group for awhile, I went to work for a consultant. Then I basically hung a shingle out and said, I’m in business.

As it turns out, I’m the fourth generation of Karp in this country that has either worked or owned businesses in the agriculture and food sector. My great-grandfather, a farmer, immigrated here from Ukraine just after the turn of the century. His first job was driving a horse-and-buggy cart for Sam Breakstone, the dairy company. He saved up and opened a butter, eggs, and cheese wholesale business on West 38th Street in Manhattan. In the 1920s, they moved to Brooklyn, and opened a feed and seed business to service the farms there. My father was born there, but the family soon moved to Long Island.

My great-grandfather ran the feed and seed business with my grandfather, who was later recruited to attend Cornell University to learn how to manufacture fertilizer, along with another Long Islander. My grandfather (Lee Karp) returned and began making fertilizer for the agriculture sector, and the other gentleman founded Miracle-Gro. My father grew up in the business and became the lead salesperson, lugging 100-pound sacks of fertilizer (and still seed) to customers all over the east end of Long Island. My grandfather sold the business in the late 1960s, and my father then took his customer base and went to work as a real estate broker, dealing exclusively in agricultural and industrial properties on Long Island.

I didn’t particularly like going to the farms when I was growing up. First, it was my punishment for being an unruly child, and all I remember is the interior of dark barns and mud. But somehow it stuck. And as I my interest in food grew, I was able to combine that and my affinity with chefs and love of food culture with the social service work that I started doing with my business, helping nonprofits create revenue generation opportunities. The agriculture piece came a bit later. But I was completely unaware of much of that family history when I started my business in 1990; it was only after my father died that I unearthed a paper trail that put all the pieces together for me.