A food movement grows in Amagansett

Innovation to table: The Amagansett Food Institute is exploring new ways to bring local agricultural, craft-beverage and small-batch artisan food products to expanding markets.

There’s fresh thinking and then there’s the Amagansett Food Institute, which operates well ahead of the food-innovation curve on its mission to promote regional producers.

Just a year into its ballyhooed takeover of the decades-old Amagansett Farmer’s Market, the imaginative institute – a membership-based 501(c)3 catering to farmers, vintners, fishermen, beverage crafters and other food artisans – is already imagining physical renovations and other organizational enhancements designed to spice up the regional farm-to-table movement.

Kathleen Masters: "Local" can be a relative term.

Kathleen Masters: “Local” can be a relative term.

But before the meat comes the salad, and the AFI is focused now on establishing the new-look farmer’s market as its public face, and on strengthening – and expanding – its primary mission of promoting East End interests, noted Executive Director Kathleen Masters.

“We define ‘local’ as going to the boundaries of New York State,” Masters told Innovate LI. “Our primary focus is the East End and Long Island. But if there are things we think people will buy and they don’t happen to be made on the East End, we’ll reach out across the state.”

The exec referenced dairy products imported from the Hudson Valley, macaroni from Brooklyn-based organic pasta maker Sfoglini – “You need pasta to go with our local tomato sauces,” she noted – and grains imported from the Southern Tier, useful since “we’re not producing a lot of corn polenta on Long Island.”

Masters has personally attended regional food shows and toured other New York regions to find worthy additions, and the AFI receives plentiful suggestions about interesting products made elsewhere in the Empire State. Expanding wares beyond Long Island-only products is meant to attract more customers and create a bigger audience for the local stuff – still the market’s primary bread and butter, Masters noted.

“If we can get it locally, we’ll carry local,” Masters said. “But we only grow by representing great new brands being developed by entrepreneurs across the state.”

Nothing highlights the institute’s growth better than its non-hostile takeover of the farmer’s market, which had been shuttered since September 2014, when former tenant Eli Zabar, the New York City-based specialty food entrepreneur, closed the gourmet market he’d run at the site for eight years, just a fraction of the market’s 60-year history.

The Peconic Land Trust, contracted by East Hampton Town officials to manage the preserved property, issued a Request for Proposals and the AFI responded, hungry for “an opportunity to really showcase local foods and local farmers,” according to Masters, “and to give us a physical location in Amagansett, which we’ve never had.”

Following moderate interior renovations, the Amagansett Farmer’s Market reopened under the AFI banner in August 2015. It closed for the season last November – the 1,200-square-foot space was originally a garage, Masters noted, and isn’t well insulated – then blossomed again in May.

The winter hiatus allowed the AFI to continue renovation work it began prior to the August 2015 reopening. Before the opening, workers removed about 70 cubic yards of trash from the site, which had sat unused for nearly a year; during the winter, the AFI – funded primarily by philanthropic donations – removed a virtual ton of dysfunctional refrigeration equipment and other relics from the market’s previous lives, and installed new shelving and other aesthetic improvements.

The institute also opted to reduce the market’s floor space, Masters noted, enough to install some much-needed office space.

The renovations also allowed the AFI to begin growing that product line and improving the market’s customer experience, including the addition of new attractions like “store-within-the-store” concessions stands offering Long Island-made ice cream and juices. There’s also a new tasting room managed by Cinque Family Wines, an Amagansett-based vintner that imports its grapes from regional vineyards.

The room features “a rotating display of curated choices,” Masters noted, “showcasing the bounty of our local wines.”

The tasting room, the ice cream stand – run by Joe and Liza Tremblay, owners of popular Sag Harbor restaurant Bay Burger – and the participation of the Montauk chapter of Dock to Dish, a national network of support programs connecting small-scale professional fishermen and local markets, make the revamped Amagansett Farmer’s Market the ideal vehicle for what Master’s termed “a new young-farmers movement in this country.”

“There are folks who are taking over family farms and there are young people who are coming to farming after serving apprenticeships on farms, or because they’re just interested in farming, even if they have no background in it,” she noted. “And there are a lot of representatives of this young-farmer movement working on the East End.”

They have an ally in the AFI, Masters added – meaning seasonal operation of the farmer’s market, which is open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. seven days a week through Labor Day (when it will cut back to a Thursday-Sunday schedule until closing for the winter in November), is a big part of the institute’s “economic development mission.”

“There is a growing community on Long Island of farmers, small-batch food producers, vintners, fishermen and women and other people who are engaged in food-related activity,” she said. “We’re here to help them develop new markets.”

While increasing regional consumers’ access to fresh local foodstuffs, she added, and supporting charitable efforts like Long Island Cares, a frequent recipient of surplus products through the AFI’s Farm to Pantry program.

The mission will be energized soon by a significant effort to “improve the look and functionality” of the farmer’s market building, Masters noted. While the location is ideal and the market “is beloved by the community, the building is in pretty poor shape,” according to the exec, even after the previous AFI renovations.

Within 18 months, the institute plans to host an “architectural competition” for plans to renovate the interior, or to knock down the building and start from scratch. Once the AFI has a selected a plan, it will start a fundraising campaign combining philanthropic solicitations, government grants and private investments, Masters said, along with “probably some level of financing.”

The overhaul won’t be cheap – but turning the market into a year-round operation that fully promotes statewide producers is critical to the regional and state economies, according to Masters.

“We are a mission-driven business, and our mission is to educate people about local food and encourage them to purchase it,” she said. “Having a better platform for community-related activities and services is very important to us.”