What happens when a walking tour hops on the bus? Dom Gervasi will soon find out. He took a risk when he started his own small business in 2011—a one-man operation called Made in Brooklyn Tours—and now he’s taking another one by expanding it.
Gervasi gives walking tours of Red Hook, Dumbo, and Williamsburg designed around industrial revolution history and local “makers,” a term he uses to define everyone from craftsmen to artisans. Next month he will give his first small bus tour to a group of up to 14 participants. As of Oct. 12, there were 12 people pre-registered for the inaugural tour. “It’s a huge risk,” he says. “If I want to sustain myself and making a living, I have to diversify.”
Gervasi is Brooklyn through and through. He grew up in Bensonhurst, the son of Italian immigrants, and lives in Gravesend. He sees the borough as a family of neighborhoods that resemble small towns, and he is a passionate champion of small businesses like the ones he shows visitors on his tours. That admiration, he says, is partly the product of time spent traveling in Greece and Italy after he lost his tech sales and marketing job in 2010. In those countries he became captivated by local merchants and craftsmen. He is fascinated by how things are made, as well as the technological advancements that have changed processes over time.
Once back in the States, he came up with the idea for the year-round walking tours. Gervasi guides anywhere between two and 12 people around the borough at a time, pointing out facets of the waterfront and explaining the history behind them. Depending on the season, he does anywhere between one and four tours a week. Patrons pay $35 each for three hours worth of Brooklyn history and an insider look at local businesses.
But he wants to expand, and he has decided a bus tour is the way to do that. Gervasi is still deciding between three bus companies, but has settled on a price of $80 per person—which includes a meal—for the new four-hour tour on wheels. He hopes that the new venture will generate more patronage and streamline the tour by covering multiple neighborhoods on one trip.
His first bus tour is slated for Saturday Nov. 4, and will start in Downtown Brooklyn aboard a rented Mercedes-Benz Sprinter. From there, a driver will deposit the group in Gowanus to visit a ceramicist and the Gowanus Canal. Next will be Red Hook, for stops at Flickinger Glassworks, Defonte’s sandwich shop, and leather designer Alfred Stadler. “The focus is on the craft,” Gervasi says, “rather than an industrial process with huge machines.” The final stop will be in DUMBO and the tour will end at the Brooklyn Bridge.
On a warm October afternoon in Brooklyn, I met Gervasi at the IKEA Dock, where he typically starts his Red Hook walking tours. There’s no doubt that the 49-year-old was made in Brooklyn himself. He walks at a brisk pace, speaks animatedly in a Brooklyn accent, and points out that the jeans he is wearing were made in Williamsburg. With no notes in hand, he launched into the history of the Erie Basin, the Red Hook Grain Terminal, and the biggest wind turbine in Brooklyn—located in Sunset Park. He says that as a child he was fascinated with Brooklyn history and has amassed his knowledge of the borough by reading books, talking with “old timers,” and doing online research. Gervasi has also been involved with two local historical societies—Friends of Historic New Utrecht and the Bay Ridge Historical Society.
We walked through the black iron double door entrance of Flickinger Glassworks, a shop that specializes in custom bent glass on the waterfront in the Pier 41 building, and Gervasi was met with a warm welcome from office manager Jeremiah Wall who greeted him like an old friend. When Gervasi scouted locations for his Red Hook tour six years ago, he says that not all small businesses were as receptive as owner Charles Flickinger, who allows him to give tours of his facility. Before walking through the space—where Gervasi explained everything from glass bending to polishing to packaging—manager Joe Bailey gave him free reign. “You know the place as good as I do at this point,” Bailey said with a laugh.
Turning a profit as a small business can be difficult, making the relationship between Gervasi and the owners of the the stops on his tour mutually beneficial. The businesses provide Gervasi the access he needs to run his tours, and in turn get exposure and potential new customers of their own. According to a 2016 report by the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, small businesses—defined as those with less than 50 employees—accounted for 39 percent of the workforce in the borough. Alfred Stadler, the owner of the last shop we stopped at, was complimentary of Gervasi’s efforts to highlight local makers. “Dom is really—for us here in Brooklyn—very important,” Stadler said.
Expanding from a walking-only tour to a bus-assisted one had always been in Gervasi’s mind. He began riding his bike around, like he did back when he designed his first walking tour, to test potential routes. But there was another unusual catalyst. Earlier this year, he saw that NYC & Company, which heads the city’s tourism marketing efforts, said they expected a decline in tourism to the city. “I thought to myself, I have to find another way to expand,” Gervasi says.
According to information provided by Explore Brooklyn, the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce’s tourism department, New York City welcomed 60.7 million visitors in 2016. Across the five boroughs, tourism employs more than 375,000 people. Between 2014 and 2015, tourism and entertainment was one of the quickest growing industries in Brooklyn—taking credit for almost 15 percent of new jobs created. But out of the 4,200 new jobs added, only 700 of them were not in the restaurant and bar industry.
Like the small businesses on his route, he says that diversification is necessary to keep up, otherwise a profession becomes just a hobby. “There’s a certain underdog spirit,” he says. “This is a huge step for my business.”