Inside the gates of the former Grumman plant in Calverton is a place you might liken to Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory — a land of pure imagination, made real through the hard work of a slew of new entrepreneurs.
The Stony Brook Incubator at Calverton, which began as a site for tech and aquaculture start-ups, has in recent years been the driving force behind new and innovative packaged food products, thanks to a commercial kitchen space built in 2012.
The Incubator held a series of Foodie Friday lectures in October, bringing together new food producers to talk about their successes and challenges, and to learn from one another.
Former Riverhead Community Development Agency Executive Director Chris Kempner was named the associate director of the Incubator in May of this year, and she’s been working since to get the word out about the food resources available here.
“We’re always looking for more users,” she said, adding that part of the goal of the incubator is to help entrepreneurs transition into their own production spaces once they get their products off the ground.
She’s also built on her work in Riverhead to help new food producers build relationships with local businesses and education institutions, from hotels to Suffolk County Community College’s culinary program on Riverhead’s Main Street to the Long Island Food Council, a networking group that helps food entrepreneurs work together to overcome challenges.
The Food Council’s President, Michael Tucker, and Director of Marketing Chris Scala, shared their resources with entrepreneurs at the Oct. 20 Foodie Friday forum.
FoodCubate Metro New York Incubator Network Founder Anna Kotler also offered a nuts-and-bolts discussion on packaging and distribution challenges.
The Food Council was founded in 2015, and runs networking events and a Food Conference and Expo, to be held Dec. 5 at the Crest Hollow Country Club in Westbury. It also offers entrepreneurs chances to meet with potential financial backers and help with social media marketing.
“You’re not going to get onto shelves unless you have a buzz behind you, and people are mostly online,” said Mr. Tucker at the Oct. 20 forum. “You really have to know your product. You’re your best salesperson.”
They were reaching a room full of passionate foodies who seemed to embody that passion.
Kyle Chandler, founder in 2013 of Subtle Tea, is one of many entrepreneurs who are working on their food business at night while working full-time.
An engineer and systems administrator for Northrop-Grumman in Bethpage, his journey into the world of iced tea began when he used to accompany a friend who runs brewery festivals.
One day, while wandering through a beer festival, he realized he didn’t want an alcoholic drink. He was just thirsty, but there were no craft beverages around that weren’t alcoholic.
His craft teas, which are sold both in single serve bottles and in boxes similar to boxed wine, include seasonal varieties like teamonade (a mix of tea and lemonade) and sweet potato, along with plum, unsweetened and decaf apple mango.
His tea is now in 110 locations throughout Long Island, including at many wineries and breweries on the North Fork.
He currently brews his tea at the incubator in 60-gallon batches twice a week.
“It’s been great. There’ve been some challenges with a shared space and having to break down your equipment, but the lights are always on, it’s clean, and you can work late hours,” said Mr. Chandler.
His secret to working around the clock? He drinks a lot of tea.
Now, he said, he’s looking for financial backing to enable him to brew his tea in his own space, and devote himself to his own business full-time.
Grace Copia, the owner of Copia Granola, has been building her new business for the past three years, after a career as a special education teacher and administrator.
Her company is committed to environmental sustainability, and she also has a strong gluten-free line, enabled by a gluten-free kitchen at the Stony Brook Incubator.
“I went from a home producer to a full-fledged business here,” said Ms. Copia, who lives in Melville and said her business grew out of a demand for gluten-free granola products. “It’s hard to set up shop on your own, and being part of the state university helps add credibility to the product.”
Ms. Copia, who sells protein-packed granola bars as well as granola cereal, said food producers who come to the incubator are required to take a food safety class every three years and have to be insured.
“Most start-ups don’t do that, but they should,” she said of the insurance. “There are always educational programs here to help make you better at what you do.”
Peter Haskell of Haskell’s Seafood has long been a commercial fisherman, which is a notoriously difficult business to be in. He has a deep network of relationships with restaurants that buy his catch, which has helped sustain him for decades.
Low profit margins, daily dangers of the sea and government regulations have made life difficult for fishermen throughout the northeast, and Mr. Haskell decided the best way to continue to do the work he loved was to make his products stand out from the crowd.
Based out of the Shinnecock Inlet commercial dock, he catches his fish through sustainable methods — using hook and line and free diving for scallops, and flash freezes his catch at the Stony Brook Incubator before shipping it on dry ice to customers’ doorsteps in perfectly portioned sustainably insulated boxes.
He’s now embarking on prepared foods like baked clams and fish salads that are available through the mail and at independent grocery stores and farm stands and farmers markets throughout the East End.
He said Ms. Kempner has done a lot at the incubator to help him strive toward his goals, and set new ones.
“It’s been great working at the incubator,” he said. “It’s really accessible, and easy to be here at night, and the blast freezer does the job well.”