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For food entrepreneurs, the Incubator at Calverton is a great gift

When his catering business went into the offseason in 2012, Steven Amaral decided to keep his hands busy by making chocolate. The idea came as an epiphany.

One day during his meditation session, the word “chocolate” came up in his mind, although he had not made chocolate since culinary school. Having worked in the food industry for over 30 years — first as a sous chef at a hotel in Hawaii, later as a consultant for a restaurant chain in Boston — he was familiar with foods and quickly learned everything he could about chocolate on the internet. The next step would be to turn his epiphany into a business. 

But he needed a kitchen — not just any home kitchen, but the kind with big tables and machines for roasting cocoa beans, pressing nectars and cooling the chocolate paste. 

“We would drive by different places looking for [kitchens] … It’s hard to find a kitchen to rent in Suffolk County,” Mr. Amaral said.

Eventually he found the Stony Brook Food Business Incubator at Calverton, which offers workspaces to entrepreneurs, and rented a space there. Two years later, his shared-kitchen workshop grew into a chocolatier — North Fork Chocolate Company — and he “graduated” from the program, using what he learned to open a brick-and-mortar store in Aquebogue.

There are currently more than 70 food startups benefiting from the food incubator as Mr. Amaral did. Started in 2012, the Calverton facility provides shared kitchens, storage and separate rooms to support food startups on Long Island. The building can host up to 200 businesses at once, assigning resources based on individual needs such as time, storage space, team size and equipment.

“We know Long Island is very expensive,” said Yvonne Schultz, the incubator manager who oversees the daily operation of the facility. “So we know that they need to be incubated. They need to grow; they need to be nurtured and supported.”

Unlike commercial kitchens or other accelerators, the program does not require applicants to come in with an elaborate business plan.

“When they come in, they sit with me, get a tour, and then we start a dialogue and try to understand what their process is and what do they really need here,” Ms. Schultz said.

A kitchen area at the Calverton incubator. (Credit: Joy Sze)

Susan Walsh of Hampton Bays and her son James, who lives in Huntington, started with their crumb cake business at the incubator in 2014, selling their goods at farmers markets. They have moved in and out of various rooms in the facility over the years as the company grew. Now, Clarkson Avenue Crumb Cake occupies one of the biggest rooms in the building, equipped with their own racks, tables, refrigerators and mixing machines. The mother-and-son team spends seven to 10 hours a day at the facility to fulfill their increasing number of online orders and wholesale accounts. Moving forward, they are looking to graduate from the program and go brick-and-mortar like Mr. Amaral did.

The resources and flexibility offered by the facility are also appealing to business owners who have strict requirements with food. Calverton is the only facility in the region that has a designated gluten-free kitchen. 

Paulette Satur, the owner of Satur Farms in Cutchogue, said that even an industry veteran like her benefited from the incubator’s workshops. She and her husband started the farm business 24 years ago, but the salad dressing business, which involves food processing and manufacturing, was new to her. Through the incubator, she formed networks to learn about business compliance of the food industry.

“You’re constantly learning here,” said Ms. Schultz, who has been in the food industry for over 30 years and still owns a bakery business. “I’m still tweaking and changing it and seeing how I can be more efficient.”

Susan and James Walsh working in their room at Calverton. (Credit: Joy Sze)

The program has been swamped with new applications since the Covid-19 pandemic broke out — they are getting 20 appointments a month whereas before the pandemic, there were only 20 businesses in the whole facility. Kathleen Ferrell, the associate director of communications at SUNY/Stony Brook’s Office of Economic Development, said that people recognizing the business potential of their ideas is what drives the demand of the incubator.

But even people without prior background in the food industry found their spot at Calverton.

Nicole Canestro of Holtsville experimented with different cookie recipes during the pandemic when she was still working as a physical therapist. She considered baking only as a hobby until her Facebook inbox was bombarded with messages asking about cookie sales. She landed in Calverton in January 2021 and moved from a shared kitchen to a room of her own two months ago as the orders picked up. She said the lessons learned from the Calverton community have changed how she thinks about baking as a business.

“Yvonne and everyone [here] have significantly taught me not to waste things,” Ms. Canestro said. Now she is looking to expand her product line and team size to take the business to another level.

“We try to teach them what it really is and understanding what it is to be in business,” Ms. Schultz said. “When you go out there on your own in a brick-and-mortar, you have all this understanding, the language and the concept of business.”

North Fork Chocolate Company in Aquebogue. (Credit: Joy Sze)

But not everyone ended up with a sustainable business after the incubator. Some bakers came in as hobbyists and eventually left as hobbyists because the business model does not suit them; some came in with ambition and determination — even resigned from full-time positions — but because of a lack of planning and knowledge, they had to drop the business. 

For these startups, the incubator plays the role of a buffer where people could learn. During their time at the incubator, business owners get to experiment on their own as well as discuss with the on-site staff and peers. They get to see what works and what doesn’t. As Ms. Schultz put it, “it’s a great exercise program for [startups] to understand what [business] entails.”

As more businesses are beginning to reopen, the incubator is expected to host events in the coming months and is in talks with SUNY/Stony Brook about an open house event in June and a weekly farmers market throughout the summer at the Calverton site.