Stephen Hamilton Is at Home at the Helm of South Fork Bakery - 27 East

Food & Drink

Stephen Hamilton Is at Home at the Helm of South Fork Bakery

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Stephen Hamilton is the new executive director at South Fork Bakery. ANNETTE HINKLE

Stephen Hamilton is the new executive director at South Fork Bakery. ANNETTE HINKLE

Bryan Salton, Collier Lee, Clay Bratches packaging South Fork Bakery cookies. SOUTH FORK BAKERY

Bryan Salton, Collier Lee, Clay Bratches packaging South Fork Bakery cookies. SOUTH FORK BAKERY

Andrea Soto labels South Fork Bakery cookies. SOUTH FORK BAKERY

Andrea Soto labels South Fork Bakery cookies. SOUTH FORK BAKERY

A group photo of South Fork Bakery's employees. SOUTH FORK BAKERY

A group photo of South Fork Bakery's employees. SOUTH FORK BAKERY

Jon Irwin at working with brownies in the South Fork Bakery kitchen. SOUTH FORK BAKERY

Jon Irwin at working with brownies in the South Fork Bakery kitchen. SOUTH FORK BAKERY

Julian Garcia packaging South Fork Bakery blondies. SOUTH FORK BAKERY

Julian Garcia packaging South Fork Bakery blondies. SOUTH FORK BAKERY

Employees at work in the South Fork Bakery kitchen in Amagansett. ANNETTE HINKLE

Employees at work in the South Fork Bakery kitchen in Amagansett. ANNETTE HINKLE

Employees at work in the South Fork Bakery kitchen in Amagansett. ANNETTE HINKLE

Employees at work in the South Fork Bakery kitchen in Amagansett. ANNETTE HINKLE

Packaging baked goods at South Fork Bakery in Amagansett. ANNETTE HINKLE

Packaging baked goods at South Fork Bakery in Amagansett. ANNETTE HINKLE

Packaging baked goods at South Fork Bakery in Amagansett. ANNETTE HINKLE

Packaging baked goods at South Fork Bakery in Amagansett. ANNETTE HINKLE

Packaging baked goods at South Fork Bakery in Amagansett. ANNETTE HINKLE

Packaging baked goods at South Fork Bakery in Amagansett. ANNETTE HINKLE

authorAnnette Hinkle on Oct 26, 2023

In 2016, South Fork Bakery was founded with the sweetest of missions — to provide developmentally disabled adults on the East End with an opportunity for meaningful employment. The bakery was the brainchild of Shirley Ruch, a speech pathologist who worked with many East End students over the years, but she came to realize that once many of the young adults she worked with aged out of the school system, they were on their own — left without a social support system or a way to further their job prospects.

Her idea was to create a vibrant business where young people who would otherwise struggle to find work could instead build friendships, confidence and life skills, all while contributing to the local economy and earning some money. Seven years later, South Fork Bakery is an unmitigated success — staffed by 20-plus employees with Down Syndrome, autism spectrum disorder, or learning and emotional disabilities who produce baked goods that are sold at retail establishments and markets across the area.

Working out of an industrial kitchen in Amagansett’s Scoville Hall, the staff ranges in age from mid-20s to 40s and under supervision of chef and baker Jessica Taccone produces chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin and ginger snap cookies, blondies, brownies, scones, marshmallow squares and other goodies. In an adjacent room, additional bakery employees gather at tables to pack the treats in cellophane bags and label each one, preparing them to be shipped out to retail establishments across the region.

Recently, a new team member arrived on the scene to help take South Fork Bakery to the next level — Sag Harbor’s Stephen Hamilton, who is now at the helm as the organization’s executive director. Hamilton was initially introduced to South Fork Bakery a few years ago by board president (and fellow Sag Harborite) Robbie Stein, who asked him to join the board.

“South Fork Bakery started as a for-profit business in 2016 — it was not until 2018 it was decided it would be a not-for-profit, then Robbie came on to create the board,” Hamilton explained. “I was a board member for two years. Around this time last year, we, as a board, realized that emerging from the pandemic, in order to sustain the operation and grow it we had to really support the infrastructure of the staff.”

“It was decided we needed to do an executive director search.”

It was also determined that Shirley Ruch would move into the position of program director for South Fork Bakery so she could focus fully on that aspect of the organization, and the board began a search for a new executive director to take on fundraising and other operational tasks.

“I was on the search committee, and we found good candidates, but they lived way far west,” Hamilton explained. “Their demands were reasonable, but they were also beyond our ability to meet them. Robbie asked if I would consult until we found the right person. So I started consulting at the beginning of the year and then I realized — this was something I really wanted to do.”

On July 1 of this year, Hamilton officially became the full time executive director of South Fork Bakery. Though he has never worked for an organization quite like this one before, he is well-acquainted with the ins and outs of the nonprofit world. In 1991, Hamilton co-founded Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor with his wife, Emma Walton Hamilton, and Sybil Christopher where, in his 17 years as executive director, he oversaw more than 50 productions. In addition, from 2011 to 2016 , he was the associate director of the MFA in Theater program at Stony Brook Southampton, and in 2020, he took on the role of interim director at Sag Harbor Cinema during its extensive renovation.

“Dealing with the artists and personnel in a theater is completely different than this. But you’re still dealing with different people and different personalities and managing a staff,” said Hamilton. “I was actually surprised how my skills did translate here.”

But ultimately, Hamilton said what convinced him to take on the job permanently was the people he encounters at South Fork Bakery on a daily basis.

“It was coming here to volunteer — the vibe of the production work, our employees,” he said. “It’s difficult to describe. The sense of purpose, the joy they have to be in the room together, their appreciation for having really meaningful employment and being validated for that.

“It’s important for all of us, but especially for adults with disabilities and special needs.”

One of Hamilton’s primary roles as executive director is fundraising for the organization, and to that end, on Saturday, November 11, South Fork Bakery will hold its second annual Cocktails for a Cause from 4 to 6 p.m. at Tutto Il Giorno restaurant in Sag Harbor, an evening of drinks, hors d’oeuvres and a silent auction.

Hamilton notes that events like Cocktails for a Cause are an important aspect of the mission as they bring in much needed funding to keep the bakery humming along.

“I can expand the fundraising reach, the community reach and plan for that next phase,” Hamilton explained of his new position. “We earn 40 percent of the yearly nut in the bakery, the rest we have to raise. It’s about finding new business opportunities, expanding west and finding more markets between here and New York — and possibly even in the city — to provide more work for more people.

“That’s the mission.”

Currently, South Fork Bakery products are sold in some 45 retail markets on the East End, though some outlets are seasonal in nature and only sell the baked goods in the summer months.

“Our holidays are huge, and we have a big online packaging service and send out a lot of product,” Hamilton said.

Expanding the reach by finding more retail outlets for selling the baked goods is important, as it will allow the bakery to bring on more employees down the road. But perhaps the most important initiative now taking shape at South Fork Bakery is one designed to further the opportunities for its employees beyond the scope of the bakery itself.

Called Launch, the hands-on training and employment program includes classroom instruction that is designed to help adults with disabilities develop a range of skills to take them to the next level in their careers. Working with job coaches, employees in the program are placed with employer partners where they continue to receive ongoing support from South Fork Bakery, even after they are placed in their new jobs.

“The program is a year old, and we have four employees in jobs,” Hamilton said. “One works at King Kullen, two are at The Hamptons Center for Rehabilitation and Nursing — both work in the nutrition department — and we have a woman working at Marder’s. They’re doing really well. All of them are now working independently, without job coaches.”

As he settles into his new role as South Fork Bakery’s executive director, Hamilton exudes an air of contentment. In recounting the organization’s successes, he reflects on what the new position means to him on a personal level.

“It’s been a profound, heart-opening experience. I had no idea that this would be something I’d want to do until I started doing it,” Hamilton said with a grin. “I’ve taken all the stuff I’ve learned and I’m able to funnel and focus it on a mission that is so important, I find, not just for the community or society — but for me too.

“After 30-plus years promoting artists and serving audiences on the East End, It’s been a profoundly rewarding experience to be using those same skills and experience I’ve gained over the years in service of some of our community’s most vulnerable citizens,” he added. “I feel blessed.”

South Fork Bakery’s 2nd annual Cocktails for a Cause is Saturday, November 11, from 4 to 6 p.m. at Tutto Il Giorno restaurant, 16 Main Street, Sag Harbor. The evening includes drinks, hors d’oeuvres and a silent auction. Tickets are $200. For more information, visit southforkbakery.org.

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