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Businesses continue to feel impact after explosion at Stony Brook Incubator’s walk-in oven

Eight weeks after an explosion at Stony Brook University’s Food Business Incubator at Calverton, the more than 70 food startups that rely on the shared space continue to reel from its impact.

With no firm reopening date for the facility, which launched in 2012 to provide shared kitchen and storage space to support food startups across Long Island, many entrepreneurs have had to scramble to make alternative production plans. Economic experts have estimated that the businesses have collectively suffered over $600,000 in economic loss as a result of the incident.

“This will have a catastrophic impact on a lot of the businesses there,” said Jimmy Lyons, who opened North Fork Doughnuts with his wife, Kelly, in Mattituck in 2018 and expanded to a second location in Bay Shore in 2020.

When they launched the business, the couple were making everything on-site in Mattituck, working long hours and often arriving at 1 or 2 a.m. to begin proofing the dough.

“We were running out of doughnuts by 10 or 11 a.m.,” Mr. Lyons said. “We realized pretty quickly that we needed bigger equipment and space.”

The incubator offered a perfect solution for the fledgling business, which began renting space there about two years ago.

Gratefully, Mr. Lyons said their operation was not directly impacted by the Aug. 10 explosion, since his company’s space is on another side of the building. However, Stony Brook shut down the entire facility as a precaution for cleanup, repairs and safety inspections, leaving Mr. Lyons unable to access his production equipment. 

“Initially, we held on,” he said, adding that he was told the explosion would result in a “brief” closure of the facility. Both locations of North Fork Doughnuts closed down as Mr. Lyons took to social media to share updates about the reopening and ongoing delays. Mr. Lyons, who said he has continued to pay his staff of about 30 during the disruption, estimates that the business suffered approximately $300,000 in losses between Aug. 10 and Sept. 9, when both North Fork Doughnut locations reopened thanks to using temporary kitchen space elsewhere.

The explosion at the incubator occurred in a gas walk-in oven, injuring one employee and rendering one large oven inoperable. Stony Brook officials noted that the employee has made a full recovery. 

The blast also caused significant damage to building systems, which affected equipment, gas and electrical distribution in adjacent areas and damaged the finishes on walls, flooring, ceilings and furniture.

According to an FAQ on the incubator website, a team of carpenters, electricians, plumbers and professional cleaning crews has been working in the facility daily to address critical repair and maintenance issues before it can safely reopen. Officials said each appliance is being inspected, calibrated and tested to ensure they are safe to operate and that the building’s fire alarm will also need to be inspected before it can reopen.

In a statement, Lawrence Zacarese, the vice president of enterprise risk management and chief security officer at Stony Brook University, said that “a plan [is] in place for a partial reopening of the building by the end of [September] once safety checks and inspections have been completed.” FAQ notes, however, that new walk-in ovens could arrive as late as mid-November.

Mr. Zacarese also said the university is consulting with the Long Island Food Council and Suffolk County to identify alternative locations for businesses to operate, including the East End Food Institute.

“We take seriously the impact this temporary shutdown is having on the incubator community, and repairs, upgrades and improvements are well underway to get the incubator back up and running safely and as quickly as possible,” Mr. Zacarese said.

To help businesses stay afloat during this period of uncertainty, a GoFundMe account was established by the Suffolk County Alliance of Chambers to help offset their economic losses.

“Many producers invest their dreams and even life savings in their businesses,” the fundraising page states, noting that more than three-quarters of the businesses housed at the incubator are women- or minority-owned. 

Many of the businesses there are also local to the North Fork, including Satur Farms, which uses the facility to produce a line of organic salad dressings to accompany their salad greens, and Peconic Escargot, which uses the kitchen space to process and package their snails.

The GoFundMe campaign has generated around $3,645 in donations so far and its organizers said they are asking for assistance primarily from the private and corporate sectors and philanthropists.

In the interim, many producers have had to seek alternate options.

Stephanie Knorzer, who owns The Cookie Shop in Centereach, said she doesn’t know how long her business will remain closed. But she does know it won’t reopen anytime this year.

Without clarity from Stony Brook about when the incubator would reopen, Ms. Knorzer and her husband, Mike, made the decision to build a kitchen in their retail location. 

“It’s very difficult finding a good architect to lay out a whole kitchen into a small 1,000-square-foot retail shop,” she said.

While Stony Brook has indicated the incubator may reopen partially, Ms. Knorzer said she especially needs access to the walk-in ovens. “With so many of the other businesses hurting to get in there, I can just imagine it’s going to be a zoo of all of us trying to book our time and get stuff baked off,” she said.

An architect she’s working with told them not to expect to open before February 2023. “We don’t have any end game in sight of when we’ll be open, but that’s our plan,” Ms. Knorzer said.

Mr. Lyons said earlier this week that his company is still identifying a permanent solution. “The community has been amazing — reaching out, offering kitchen and refrigerator space,” he said. “It was really cool; it was a scramble.”

He pointed out that the timing of the disaster couldn’t have been worse since, especially in Mattituck, revenue made in the busy summer month of August helps offset the quiet winter months financially. 

He described the response from Stony Brook as “extremely frustrating.”

“This isn’t my hobby — this is how I feed my family,” he said, though he remains determined to stay open. “We’ve got to grind a little bit harder this fall to try to make up for that month.”

While some producers do not plan to return to the Calverton facility, others are still hoping it’s temporary.

Milla Benevides of Milla’s Puffs has rented space in Deer Park to get by, but looks forward to returning to the incubator to make her signature pão de queijo, or cheese puffs, a Brazilian staple made from cassava root, eggs, milk and cheese. Her products can be found locally at several East End stores.

Estimating that she’s lost $10,000 to date, Ms. Benevides said in an interview Tuesday that her freezer suffered damage and she went two weeks without being able to deliver her puffs to over 25 locations on Long Island and in New York City and Connecticut.

Since she doesn’t require use of the ovens, she plans to return to the incubator as soon as it partially reopens, which could be as early as next week.

Despite the hardship, Ms. Benevides she remains positive that everything will work out and hopes for relief via the GoFundMe.

“I think we have to be positive. I’m like the grasshopper,” she said. “I don’t jump back, I don’t jump sides, I jump forward. We have to understand that everything happens for a reason, and that we can change the scenario by putting out there our positivity.”