Food Entrepreneurs Share Stories of Hardship and Success

Food Entrepreneur Panelists at the Long Island Food Council's inaugural East End event.
Food Entrepreneur Panelists at the Long Island Food Council’s inaugural East End event.

“I’ve called in all my favors and used up all my cash, and if it fails, it will be absolutely brutal.”

These are words that just about any entrepreneur might have used at some point in the arc of their career, and they rang true when Greenport’s new Matchbox Distillery co-founder Leslie Merinoff spoke them before a room of fellow food business owners at the Long Island Food Council’s inaugural East End event at Riverhead’s Hotel Indigo April 20.

“Why do we do this?” asked Ms. Merinoff. “I just see it and I have to do it. I believe in the power of mind-blowing beverages.”

The distillery, 16,000 square feet opening in early May on Greenport’s Corwin Street, will produce small batch spirits on demand with unique and custom ingredients from local farms, providing a service similar to the Premium Wine Group’s winery space in Mattituck, but for spirits.

Ms. Merinoff was one of about a half dozen food and drink business owners who shared tips and pep talks with the crowd in the ballroom of the hotel.

The Long Island Food Council, founded in 2015, is a networking group that helps food entrepreneurs work together to overcome challenges.

Nancy and Keith Kouris, owners of the Blue Duck Bakery, which now has four locations in Southampton, Riverhead, Southold and Greenport, have had more than their share of ups and downs in their careers, which began with delis and diners, bread routes and supermarkets.

Their first business together, an English and Scottish deli, was a trial by fire. They finally figured out how to make the business work in their fourth year, but they only had a five-year lease, which their landlord wouldn’t renew.

But, during that time, one day their baker didn’t come in to work and Mr. Kouris had to learn, on the spot, how to bake. The couple then briefly ran a bakery in Lindenhurst before Mr. Kouris went to work for King Kullen, at a time when “they had a lot of talented bakers, who were more than happy to let the new guys do the work.” He took classes at the French Culinary Institute in his spare time, in search of perfect bread recipes.

After 15 years at King Kullen, the supermarket began to change its business model to a frozen bakeoff operation. The couple saw the writing on the wall and began scoping out sites to start their own business in Southampton Village.

They found the perfect location, but four days after they opened, their incorrectly installed bread oven caught fire. That was a very bad day, but the couple pulled together, and now have a growing business, with four locations on both forks.

“Winston Churchill once said “success is stumbling from one failure to another without losing your enthusiasm,” said Ms. Kouris.

“You’re going to make mistakes. You’re going to screw up,” said Mr. Kouris.

“You need to forgive yourself for your mistakes so you can move ahead,” added Ms. Kouris. “In the food business, you really have to dig in and have faith in yourself that you are going to succeed. It’s like Rocky Balboa — how much you can get hit and still move forward.”

Some of the local food businesses represented included Dan’s Best microgreens; Little Vicky’s honey butter, honey lemonade and other honey products; and sweets made by Culinary Arts students at Suffolk County Community College.

Pete Haskell of Haskell’s Seafood has been an entrepreneur since he enlisted his grandmother to help him haul in seine nets as a child, and sold his wares from a little red wagon that he pulled through his neighborhood. While he’s currently building a business in which he markets fresh seafood-based meals delivered directly to consumers, he’s been no stranger to a diversified business model.

In addition to being a commercial fishermen, he also owns Haskell’s Bait & Tackle, a shop that now has two locations, in East Quogue and Westhampton.

“These are tests for yourself as you grow,” he said of the art of knowing when it’s time to expand. In this case, he said, his customers drove the expansion.

“Customers in neighboring communities said there was too much traffic to get to us in the summer,” he said. “I don’t regret it.”

Mr. Haskell added that many customers in the bait and tackle shop have asked him for recipes and information on how to gut and fillet the fish they catch after they go out for a day of fishing. He realized that, with new internet-based marketing tools and the flash freezer at the Stony Brook Incubator at Calverton’s test kitchen, he could expand the business still further, offering meals and fresh fish shipped on dry ice, as well as fresh seafoods that could be sold at farm stands and farmers’ markets.

Steve Amaral of the North Fork Chocolate Company isn’t just a chocolatier. A chef with 40 years of experience, he’s not afraid to fail. He once opened a pop-up farm-to-table restaurant next door to the McDonalds in the Tanger Outlets food court.

One day, while meditating, he couldn’t get the word ‘chocolate’ out of his head, and he set off on an exploration of chocolate that lead him to the creation of a series of small-batch Belgian chocolates using other local ingredients, from fresh fruit and cream to sea salt, herbs, honey, spices and spirits.

North Fork Chocolate has been on the Main Road in Aquebogue since 2015, where Mr. Amaral continues to experiment, sharing space by letting other entrepreneurs open “microstores” within his store. The chocolate shop also makes ice cream from milk sourced at Goodale Farms just down the street, and has just introduced a waffle and chocolate bar on Sunday mornings.

No matter the age of their business, most of the entrepreneurs who shared their stories also shared a big problem: finding enough staff on the east end.

“The labor pool out here is very small, and it’s difficult to find good employees who stay,” said Ms. Kouris.

Mr. Haskell said he’s solved many staffing problems by involving his family in the business operations, including his brother, who serves as general manager.

“I keep my core very close to me,” he said.

Suffolk County Community College Associate Dean Jane Shearer said the college’s programs “don’t have enough graduates to fill the labor pool.”

She pointed out that the average age of a utility company lineman here is 67 years old.

“Skills in these trades are critical, and we need to keep them here with affordable housing,” she said.

But all the businesses have been helped, the panelists said, by online marketing tools.

“We don’t have a marketing budget. We do it all through social media,” said Ms. Merinoff of Matchbook Distillery.

“We built the website first. Social media was integral,” said Mr. Haskell. “Then we hit the ground with our delivery trucks. It was the path of least resistance.”

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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