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Incubator helps LI food businesses grow

The Agriculture Consumer Science Center in Calverton, where

The Agriculture Consumer Science Center in Calverton, where small Long Island food businesses can produce their goods. (Oct. 11, 2012) Credit: Heather Walsh

The explosion in the food world of all things local, small-batch and artisanal has given rise to legions of entrepreneurs who, if lucky, eventually confront the same problem: what to do when the business outgrows their home kitchen.

Starting this week, culinary start-ups on Long Island have somewhere new to go. On Tuesday, Stony Brook University's business incubator in Calverton will open an 8,400-square-foot addition with industrial cooking space, processing equipment and laboratories to help local farmers and upstart food and wine purveyors get products to market.

Instead of spending precious capital on a commercial kitchen of their own, fledgling businesses can rent Stony Brook's facility for a few hours and, say, crank out a few hundred gooey organic cupcakes or vegan shortbread cookies. Farmers, meanwhile, can use the space to pickle vegetables or whip up vats of salsa to sell at their local greenmarket.

"The intent is to provide space for small-scale food producers. Hopefully they will someday graduate from this facility into a larger space of their own," said Monique Gablenz, the incubator's manager.

The $3.5 million facility, called the Agriculture Consumer Science Center, is replete with loading docks, industrial freezers and massive stainless-steel appliances. It's part of a broader effort by Stony Brook to nurture local start-ups. "Economic development is a really critical part of our mission," university president Dr. Sam Stanley said.

Small-scale food production has become big business, driven in part by a proliferation of farmers markets and the popularity of the Food Network.

"I can't tell you how many people call up and ask: 'How can I move this from my kitchen stove and find a way to make money?' " said Herb Cooley of Cornell University's Northeast Center for Food Entrepreneurship.

The boom also spurred creation of A Taste of Long Island, a shared-use commercial kitchen in Farmingdale that opened in July. Clients rent shifts in the kitchen, and the company also offers business advice and sells clients' products at its shop and its farmers market. "We're a small business that's launching many, many small businesses," Jim Thompson, president of A Taste of Long Island, said in a recent interview.

Food entrepreneurs have a long history in America. Generations of immigrants have launched small businesses with flavors of the old country, from pickles to pizza to chicken lo mein. Kraft Foods Inc. began in 1903 with J.L. Kraft selling cheese from a rented wagon.

These days, commercial food is supposed to be produced in a licensed kitchen. That can be a big hurdle for young businesses.

Rebecca Castellano, of Wantagh, launched Rachel Lu Foods Corp. last year, selling home-baked gluten-free muffins and cookies to local shops. When larger outlets began to take interest, Castellano, a nutritionist, considered a commercial facility. She figured it would cost $150,000 for equipment, plus $2,000 in monthly rent. Then someone suggested the new Calverton incubator.

So far, roughly 10 businesses have signed up to use the facility, including a scone baker, a cheesecake maker and a spice-and-herb purveyor.

For Castellano, it means taking the next step in business -- without overextending. "It allows us to grow and flourish without the stress of major risk," she said.

 With Jacqueline Rivkin

An incubator for food businesses

What. Stony Brook University's new Agricultural Consumer Science Center

Where. Calverton

Size. 8,400 square feet

Cost. $3.5 million

Offers. Commercial cooking space and food processing equipment for rent

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