Welcome to Gingerbread University — a colorful candy-filled workshop where the tradition of decorating holiday cookies is taken to the next level. The “university” started as a bit of a tongue-in-cheek operation founded by a former college professor looking to design a happy place for his retirement. Since then, decorating gingerbread at the shop has become a cherished annual holiday activity for families across the North Fork.
And this week on December 22nd, the sweet-smelling school will set up shop in Southampton at the Lobster Roll (aka Lunch) at 32 Montauk Highway.
Fred Terry is a 78-year-old entrepreneur and the maker behind Gingerbread University.
While teaching an advanced culinary class at Nassau County Community College in the 1980s, he assigned his students a unique task for their final exam: creating pre-made gingerbread houses and delivering them to people in nursing homes, rehabilitation centers and hospitals.
“It caused a groundswell of interest in decorating pre-made gingerbread houses, which had never really been done in any major way before,” Terry explained.
The assignment — designed to bring joy to members of the community — sparked the beginning of what would become Terry’s long-term mission to use gingerbread to make people smile. After teaching for 30 years, Terry retired and founded Gingerbread University in 1999, earning the nickname “Gingerbread Fred.”
An 11th-generation North Forker, Terry launched the business in an old barn on his ancestral land. Today, Gingerbread University is located at the Shoppes at East Wind, where it offers self-guided workshops in a cottage next to the quaint shopping village’s carousel.
“It’s lots of fun. It’s a smiley place, probably the happiest place I know,” said Terry. “Now, obviously, the pre-made gingerbread houses have become extremely popular with the big box stores and so on, but the experience is very different from what we do.”
Gingerbread University students are given the space and tools that they need to let their creativity run wild: an assortment of candy, two eight-ounce bags of homemade icing and, of course, gingerbread, which is hand-cut and made from rich, thick Barbados molasses.
“My grandmother had recipes that I kind of modified,” explained Terry. “My family has been doing this forever.”
Students can choose from a variety of gingerbread shapes that rotate throughout the year. In the winter, there’s the traditional gingerbread house, a menorah, a locomotive, a sleigh and a ski chalet complete with gingerbread skiers coming down the roof. In the spring, students can expect butterflies and flower bouquets, followed by a summer of whales, dolphins and summer cottages with swimming pools.
“Our most popular piece is called Ginger Jaws — it’s a 14-inch shark that comes with baby gummy-bear shark children and royal blue icing for waves,” Terry said. For birthday parties, Gingerbread University also does custom-made gingerbread shapes, from Pokémon characters to unicorns. “If you can think of it, we can make it,” he said.
For those who don’t like the taste of gingerbread, the store also sells houses made of chocolate, sugar cookies and Speculaas, a hard Danish biscuit. The university is also mindful of those with food allergies, offering gluten- and egg-free options.
This year, Terry is also experimenting with German gingerbread, a dough made with honey rather than molasses. “I love to play,” he said.
The university also has its own built-in candy store, where students who want to go the extra mile can purchase additional candy decorations and colorful icings to add to their creations. The store also offers a wide assortment of gingerbread house window treatments, additional roofing options and other themed decor.
The workshop’s “elves” supervise the classes, aiding students when needed. Little instruction, however, is required.
“Our focus is not to do fine, lacework icing gingerbread houses. We want the individuals to do their own artistic endeavor,” Terry explained. “An artistic endeavor, like decorating a gingerbread house, is a wonderful focal point for family interaction, joy and smiles.”
When students have completed their masterpieces, they’re awarded a degree in “Gingerbreadology,” signifying that they are now official Elves of Gingerbread Land.
“There are probably tens of thousands of refrigerators in America that have that degree hanging on them,” Terry said. Those who can’t visit the workshop, can pick up decorating kits to take home through a preorder system.
Upholding his original mission, Gingerbread Fred donates part of the university’s proceeds to Smile Train in New York — an organization that provides free comprehensive cleft palate care to children around the globe.
“My idea always was to make people smile. We’ve probably done over 100 cleft palate surgeries for children that cannot smile,” he said. “That’s probably the most rewarding aspect of it. I’m far past when I should be retired, but I’m keeping it alive so we can continue to do surgeries for children.”
Gingerbread Fred also continues the university for local families, who bond during the holidays through its creative, unplugged atmosphere. Though he’s had several offers to nationalize and sell the business, he’s turned them all down.
“For me, it’s not a monetary thing, it’s just a great local, traditional type of business that lends itself very well to family gathering,” he said. “I’m looking forward to working with individuals who would like to put these small venues in different towns and villages.”
This year, Gingerbread University is operating by reservation only, with limited space available. For the first time since before the pandemic, a year-round schedule will be offered that includes classes for Valentine’s Day, Easter and Passover, as well as seasonal summer and fall workshops.
To make a reservation or order a to-go kit, email [email protected].