There is one food item that’s been having an unabashedly obvious “make something out of nothing” culinary renaissance seen across the entire globe: homemade sourdough bread.
This naturally fermented, no-commercial-yeast-required loaf — which, at its core, consists of just flour, water and salt — is really having a moment. Or continuing to have its moment, for over three years now.
While the world was in a state of lockdown during the spring of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it seemed like everyone and their mother was elbow-deep in some sort of singular, worldwide sourdough bread-baking party, partially due to the increased shortages of baker’s yeast brought on by a surge of at-home cooking. Times were tough, supplies were low, bread needed baking.
For East Hampton resident Stephen Robinson, founder and CEO of Newlight Breadworks, a Hamptons-born artisan bread company, sourdough wasn’t really anything new. In a way, he and his mother, Mary, had already been at the bread-baking shindig for years.
Hailing from Gig Harbor, Wash., located a little over 30 miles southwest of Seattle, he first learned the unique art of sourdough from his mom, an enthusiastic, life-long bread baker in her own right and the one who ultimately gave him a 20-year-old starter she developed over time at their family home. It’s the same one he still uses to this day.
“I grew up doing sourdough with my mom,” he says, noting the popularity of the bread type throughout the Pacific Northwest. “Sourdough was much more of a thing on the West Coast.”
Eventually, Robinson settled on the East Coast, and he brought his love of sourdough with him. Fast forward to early 2020 when he and his wife, Rebecca, decided to relocate, like many, many New Yorkers did, to the East End of Long Island from their home in Brooklyn. It wasn’t long before he noticed that the same sourdough popularity he was accustomed to in his home state was beginning to propagate on the East Coast, too.
“During the pandemic people started latching on to sourdough as a trend,” Robinson says. “People’s eyes were really opening to fresh, artisan bread.”
After settling at his in-laws’ house in Water Mill, he ended up seizing the opportunity to start baking bread again, making a couple of units of sourdough a day and hand-delivering them to local businesses.
A graduate of California’s USC Marshall School of Business with a master’s in business administration and finance, the new South Fork resident quickly realized there was a huge market for locally baked, artisanal bread on the East End, a gourmet food group typically outsourced from the markets of New York City and beyond.
“This was a tremendous opportunity,” he says, “and something my gut was telling me to say ‘yes’ to.”
Before long, the bread maker had his first customer with Babinski Farms, a since-closed farm stand located nearby on Newlight Lane in Water Mill. Using their location as his company namesake, Newlight’s big break came when then executive chef Emily Giauque at Topping Rose House in Bridgehampton caught wind of this newly crafted, baked-in-the-Hamptons sourdough.
“They reached out to me requesting 100 baguettes,” he says. “I did it. Half a dozen in each batch.” The idea of successfully executing his first “real” order pushed Robinson to make the move from a home kitchen into a professional facility. He found vacancy in a commercial kitchen located at the East End Food Institute at the Southampton campus for Stony Brook University and never looked back.
“That’s when the origins for our business model began, when we really started delivering volume,” says the founder. “And it’s when I started recruiting pro bakers.”
Robinson continued to make what he calls “great partnerships” less than six months after beginning his new business venture, moving operations to Stony Brook University’s larger Food Business Incubator in Calverton in 2021, while Newlight products quickly started to be consistently featured at local restaurants, grocers and farmers markets. And the business grew in more ways, too: As of this writing, Newlight has three full-time bakers, according to Robinson, along with one vice president of operations and what he describes as “a litany of farmers market sellers.”
“Stephen’s bread goes great with food,” says Jason Weiner, executive chef and co-owner of Almond Restaurant in Bridgehampton, which was among the first restaurants to feature the bread. Case in point: the famed tuna sandwich at L&W Market, Almond’s sister operation located right next door. “[It] would certainly be less vaunted without his nutty and crunchy multigrain,” says Weiner. “Same deal at our [restaurant]. Our steamed mussels are wrapped into a cute little bow by the presence of his O.G. sourdough boule – grilled in olive oil, of course.”
Aside from the super simple, pantry-staple ingredients the minimalist bread requires, Robinson notes that sourdough is highly coveted for its pro-biotic properties, considered by many to be among the healthiest bread options.
“It’s such a unique flavor profile,” he says. “It’s a really flavorful, savory bread and it’s so interesting to eat it.”
He also says the process can be a bit arduous, explaining part of what ensures super-premium product is the amount of time that’s involved. From the first rise to its final moments in the oven, the bread takes about three days to produce.
Presently, Newlight offers 14 different types of bread, ranging from their classic sourdough loaves to Parker House rolls and Japanese milk bread. They use six or seven different dough types, each with a sourdough element. Available at eight farmers markets and all Citarella’s across the Hamptons (including farmers markets in Babylon and Great Neck) their products can also be found at over half a dozen wineries located on the North Fork, nearly 30 East End restaurants and a slew of local grocery stores.
Because of their exponential growth, they moved again this year, this time to a 15,000-square-foot facility complete with industrial ovens located in Hunts Point in the Bronx.
“We have more than doubled our production in about one and a half years since transitioning from Calverton to the Bronx, and we are barely scratching the surface in terms of capacity,” says Robinson. “We were doing at most 800 units a day in Calverton, whereas now we do as many as 3,000 units a day. We could realistically quadruple that number in the Bronx before we start to run into capacity issues.”
Although the new Bronx location has allowed Newlight to scale significantly, Robinson’s ties to the Hamptons are stronger than ever.
“Part of our strategy is to expand into regions where it’s not so seasonal,” he says, “but I didn’t expect to be a part of such a fantastic group of people involved in the food ecosystem out here.”
Speaking to that sentiment, Robinson and his team are very active in giving back to the local community, even though the bread itself is now coming from a bit further west.
“We’ve gotten involved in other local organizations,” Robinson says. “We want to be involved and not just be a business. We want to be an organization that gives back.”
They’ve donated fresh-baked bread weekly to both the Springs and Montauk food pantries, and this past summer, Newlight gave 150 to 200 challah loaves to the Jewish Center of the Hamptons for their Friday night “Shabbat on the Beach” services.
Breaking bread, it seems, has become Robinson’s calling.
“Sourdough is the closest thing we have to those proto-breads from thousands of years ago. The natural fermentation that leads to the distinct ‘sour’ flavor is one of the oldest methods of leavening dough. I love that!” he says. “As bakers, we are carrying on a human tradition that has prevailed over millennia. It’s also just delicious, every time.”