With New State Grant, Time To Lean In For Food Hub On Stony Brook Southampton Campus

Robert Curreri of Robert's Bakestand in the kitchen at the Eat End Food hub. DANA SHAW

The East End Food Institute is a space where farmers, food entrepreneurs, chefs and others collaborate to aggregate and process local farm crops, launch new businesses, and share knowledge with each other and the community.

Tucked into the cafe and commercial kitchen in the student center on the Stony Brook Southampton college campus, the institute aims to be a hub for the local food system. Its popularity among those within the system — particularly with farmers and producers — has grown, but the space where it operates hasn’t.

With more people working in the kitchen, often renting one of the kitchen’s four stations by the hour, jockeying for position to use some of the equipment can be a hurdle to clear.
Recent news from Albany may help.

Last week, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced more than $761 million in economic and community development funding had been awarded by his Regional Economic Development Councils. The East End Food Institute is getting a piece of the pie, thanks to a $300,000 grant from New York Empire State Development, one of the state’s 10 regional councils.

The funding will be used in two ways: to launch the institute’s East End Food Hub Project, and to purchase equipment.

“We do the best we can with what we have,” Bob Hatton, the institute’s operations manager, offered during a recent tour of the facility. However, he noted that an investment in new equipment, like a second pressure canner, could “speed things up” and give institute tenants a better cost per unit.

Sometimes, Executive Director Kate Fullam allowed, there can be a backup of people waiting to use a particular piece of equipment.

Sharing is the nature of working in a kitchen, Robert Curreri said. He sells the dense, dark chocolate desserts he bakes in the institute kitchen at local farm markets, under the business name “Robert’s Bake Stand.” He said he loves the chance to interact with other bakers and chefs at the institute. “It’s great working with people — you get to try everybody’s stuff,” he said.

The challenge, he said, is having to move all his ingredients around every time he visits. A tub of flour alone can weigh 50 pounds. He applauds the idea of a renovated kitchen with more space on the horizon.

So does Aki Goldberg, who cooks soups and salads for her business, Aki’s Kitchen. In contrast to Mr. Curreri’s 35 years in the food industry, Ms. Goldberg is just starting out. “I’m new to this,” she said, calling the grant award “very exciting.”

“It could use a pick-me-up in here,” she said of the kitchen. “A little renovation would make it definitely easier for people to work together.”

Still, she conceded, the institute has been a huge benefit for her. “For a start-up business like myself,” she said, “it’s great here.”

Ms. Fullam made note of several of the kitchen’s limitations. Built to respond to a college food program, the kitchen isn’t set up to efficiently address the needs of the institute. It operates as much as a food processing facility as a kitchen.

A 3,000-square-foot space, it includes a retail cafe, food demonstration and workshop space, commercial kitchen, large volume processing equipment, walk-in refrigerator and freezer, dry storage, and loading dock. The loading dock entry in the rear of the kitchen, for example, is too narrow to accommodate a pallet, Ms. Fullam pointed out.

Staff working at processing food — washing, peeling, preparing vegetables for freezing — work shoulder to shoulder with tenants using the kitchen to prepare their own wares. Wider entry points and more processing stations could enhance circulation within the facility.
More equipment could also streamline the process, Ms. Fullam said. Currently, much of the processing is done by hand, she said.

New equipment is just one aspect of the institutes’s growth plan.

“In 2020, we plan to purchase more efficient equipment and raise money to build out infrastructure,” Ms. Fullam said. “New York State is behind the project, and now we need community support as well.”

The East End Food Hub is described in the grant award as “a regional food hub with optimized square footage and layout for aggregation, processing, storage and distribution logistics that will bolster a local living food economy.”

One step closer to raising the estimated $1.5 million it will take to realize the vision, Ms. Fullam noted that it was “time to lean in and build a more efficient space to continue to help our farmers thrive.”

In 2015, the organization completed a Food Hub Feasibility Study funded by the USDA Local Food Promotion Program. The $300,000 grant will allow the institute to pursue some of the study’s recommendations, Ms. Fullam said.

Five key recommendations emerged from the study. They include building partnerships to provide technical assistance and food safety training for local producers, and creating a strong East End brand with a strategically marketed food and beverage product line.

The study also suggests finding additional markets for local farm crops, especially during early season and late fall harvest to support year-round economic viability for farms. It calls for facilitating sales and distribution of local farm crops to buyers, with a focus on Long Island retailers.

The establishment of new produce and product aggregation centers and more efficient distribution of crops is the study’s fifth recommendation.

Applying for the grant, the institute listed outcomes from programs conducted in 2018. More than $67,000 in wholesale and retail revenue was generated by the production of value-added products and cafe meals using local farm produce. Value-added products are raw agricultural products that have been modified or enhanced to increase their value — for example, cherries made into cherry pies.

Nearly $50,000 in revenue from tenants for over 2,000 hours in shared kitchen rental fees for the production of local food and beverage products, many of which use local ingredients, was another reported outcome. A third 2018 program resulted in over 5,000 pounds of local produce and about 2,000 pounds of local beef distributed to local food pantry partners, the grant application points out.

Founded in 2010 by the late philanthropist John de Cuevas, Katie Baldwin and Amanda Merrow of Amber Waves Farm, and Carissa Waechter of Carissa’s The Bakery, the East End Food Institute’s mission is to support, promote, and advocate for local food and local producers. The mission has expanded to envision the food hub.

More than 8,000 projects have received $6.9 billion in funding through Regional Economic Development Councils since 2011. This year, 94 Long Island projects were awarded a total of $87.9 million.