Gingerbread houses are a holiday staple, so December is naturally the busiest time of the year for Gingerbread University in Baiting Hollow, a barn turned candy store where families can decorate an edible structure in a colorful, festive setting.
The 4,000-square-foot shop on Sound Avenue, which smells like one giant cookie, attracts guests of all ages with its one-hour decorating sessions. But what owner Fred Terry likes best about his business are the families — many of whom span generations — who visit to make something artistic with their hands.
“I like the idea that we’re creating a venue where families can get together and do a very intense bonding exercise that doesn’t involve electronic devices,” he said.
On a recent Friday, Keri Defeo of Oyster Bay went to Gingerbread University for the first time with her daughter, Ava, 6, and mother, Toni Cona of Riverhead.
“I would definitely come back and do it again,” Defeo said.
The trio joked around during their visit, taking photos and squeezing icing into each other’s mouths as they decorated a house with pink frosting.
“I like that there’s so much candy on the house,” Ava said.
Another parent, Amanda Roth of Dix Hills, brought her 9-year-old daughter and a friend.
“It’s awesome,” Roth said after the kids were nearly finished decorating. She said her daughter had been asking to make gingerbread houses, so she’s glad they can go somewhere and not make a mess at home.
“I think I’ll come back and make it an annual tradition,” she said of the projects, which cost $34.95 each.
While guests work on their houses, Terry, 72 — who sports a baseball cap that reads “Gingerbread Fred” — always finds a way to lend a hand. Sometimes, he uses frosting to draw perfect-looking trees on the sides of the houses. Other times, he designs edible icicles that hang from the roofs.
The idea for Gingerbread University arose in 1975, when Terry was teaching a culinary class at Nassau County Community College. While there, he encouraged students to visit the homes of underprivileged children or nursing home residents and make gingerbread houses. After retiring from teaching, he brought the idea to Riverhead, opening his business in 1999 on land his family has owned since the 1600s.
Terry said Gingerbread University is an original concept, although you can now easily find gingerbread house kits at big-box stores.
“The big difference is we’re still using the same recipe we used in 1975,” he said. “We are doing our own old-fashioned kind of baking here.”
Something that has changed at the shop over the years is the number of gingerbread shapes and characters offered, which include trains, fish, flowers and hearts. The shapes change depending on the holidays; during the shop’s slow season Terry focuses on selling cookies and fudge.
“We offer anything that you can imagine that we can cut out of gingerbread,” he said.
Terry’s original mission of giving back has endured. He still takes his employees to local nursing homes and hospitals to decorate gingerbread houses and he donates a portion of his shop’s proceeds to The Smile Train, an international charity that finances cleft palate surgeries for children.
Terry said he simply enjoys helping kids, whether they’re in need or someone he can make smile while he reads one of the children’s books he has authored.
He isn’t slowing down, either: At 72 years old, you can still find him running between Gingerbread University and his adjacent restaurant, The Lobster Roll Northside, every day.
“It’s a very rewarding activity for me and one I hope to continue for some time,” he said.
Gingerbread University is open Fridays from 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturdays from 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Sundays from 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Drop-ins are welcome, but reservations are strongly recommended.