It’s taken a little over a year for Stephen Robinson to go from hobbyist baker to nascent bread mini-mogul. At the start of the pandemic, he and his wife fled Brooklyn for Water Mill and, like millions of other untethered souls, he began baking bread for family and friends. Now you can find his Newlight Breadworks at five Hamptons farmers markets (Southampton, Easthampton, Springs, Sag Harbor and Montauk) and more than 30 East End grocers.
There’s a big, beautiful sourdough boule, plain or covered in seeds, a crackling baguette, a seeded rye that Robinson describes as "a cross between Jewish and Danish," buns for burgers, rolls for lobster rolls, a multigrain loaf, a brioche loaf and a tender "Japanese milk bread" used for of-the-moment sandos, Japanese-inspired sandwiches on thick-cut bread.
What Robinson doesn’t have is his own retail bakery.
The 32-year advertising executive old grew up in the Pacific Northwest, a sourdough epicenter. His mother used a sourdough starter from renowned Seattle chef Tom Douglas, and it was a portion of this starter that Robinson used when he made his first Hamptons sourdough. "Hampton Sourdough" was the name he used when, last spring, he started tooling around the East End with a couple of loaves of bread in the back seat of his station wagon, trying to interest local merchants. Tom Babinski, a Water Mill farmer, took a flyer and started selling the breads at his stand and, Robinson said, "by May we were selling 30 to 40 loaves of our original seeded sourdough, olive bread, baguettes every week."
By the time he’d secured a home-processing license from New York State (so his bread was "legal"), he got a call from Topping Rose House, the Jean-Georges Vongerichten restaurant in Bridgehampton: Could he provide some samples? He could, he did, and on June 29, he woke up to a photo of his seeded sourdough on Vongerichten’s personal Instagram. (More than 1,000 people liked it.) When Topping Rose ordered 100 baguettes for July 4, Robinson knew his own kitchen was not up to the task and moved the operation to the commercial kitchen at East End Food Institute in Southampton.
In Southampton, Robinson scaled up his home-baking operation. Like those millions of hobbyists, he was baking his loaves in Dutch ovens — a covered, preheated pot approximates the action of a steam-injected hearth oven — and each of the four convection ovens could accommodate eight Dutch ovens at a time. His production was further limited by the exigencies of the new facility. "At the Institute, it’s a shared kitchen. We were only able to bake bread after 4 p.m."
Orders were increasing and Robinson only had himself to blame. With more bread in his back seat, he started selling to farm stands such as Round Swamp and Balsam Farms, to restaurants such as Nick & Toni’s in East Hampton and Almond in Bridgehampton, grocers such as Schiavone’s in Sag Harbor and IGA in Greenport. To this he started adding farmers markets. After only five months, production had outgrown Southampton.
In December, Robinson moved to the Stony Brook University Food Business Incubator in Calverton, which provides space and support to such local producers as Peconic Escargot, Divine Brine, North Fork Doughnut Co. The spacious new facility houses three steam-injection hearth ovens that can bake more than 1,000 loaves a day. (With more shifts, they could put out up to 5,000.) Robinson, who has his hands full with his day job and sales and marketing for the bakery also hired a head baker. Carlos Barbosa, whose professional experience includes Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group and Dominique Ansel Bakery in SoHo (creator of the Cronut) heads up a staff of six.
In the midst of all of this, Robinson learned that he could not easily copyright the name "Hampton Sourdough" and so he came up with a name that honored the address of his first customer, Babinski Farm, at 160 Newlight Lane; on May 25, Hampton Sourdough became Newlight Breadworks.
For a complete list of Newlight Breadworks’ retail outlets, go to newlightbread.com.