Except for the electric car battery recharger in the parking lot, you would think you’re stepping back in time at Kerber’s Farm. Once past the green-and-white-striped awning, the smell of savory sage and sweet baked fruit hits the olfactory system. Like Pavlov’s dog I immediately start to salivate. I grab a soda (just this once) from the old school Coca-Cola cooler and ponder the banquet before me.
I am a pie person and the choices are overwhelming, so I step into the gift shop next door where the brick floor flows into the backyard. Three little birds perch in an antique cage. The space is filled with fresh flowers, French marble and iron café tables, an assortment of toys, antiques, pillows, candles and books.
Two of the books are authored by the owner of Kerber’s Farm, Nick Voulgaris, who is due into the shop any minute. Charlie, his black lab, brushes his nose up against my knee. “You can see we’re very pet friendly here,” says an employee while escorting Charlie out the screen door where he can harass the chickens. “He smells the food and wants to come in.”
Who can blame him? I order a lobster roll through an open window of the adjacent lobster shack and take a seat at a picnic table under a pine tree. Halfway through the lobster roll, Voulgaris, 43, emerges like the Wizard of Oz from behind the curtain.
“When I was a kid, I’d come here with my mom to get chickens and turkey and eggs and pies around the holidays,” he says. Voulgaris grew up in Huntington and currently lives in New York City, when he’s not on his Hinckley yacht docked at Shelter Island.
Voulgaris has a lot of irons in the fire. His first book from Rizzoli, Hinckley Yachts, did so well, he came out with The Seaside House: Living on the Water this spring and has two more books due out next spring, on Chris-Craft boats and the New York Athletic Club. “I love doing both areas,” he says of the food industry and his love of restoration, both buildings and boats. “It’s an ebb and flow, no pun intended.”
He credits his mother, “a creative gardener,” and architect father, with his determination and drive. “I’m risking a lot, so I really have to make it work and get out there to beat my own drum,” he says. He beats it at food shows, book fairs and knocking on doors.
Having previously owned South Street Café in Oyster Bay, Voulgaris wanted to save Kerber’s Farm, an abandoned poultry farm and a landmark since the 1940s, amidst the encroaching urban sprawl. “It was a real wreck, completely blighted,” he says. “I got letters from strangers saying, ‘Thank you for saving it,’ a testament to people’s appreciation.”
At first he thought he’d sell coffee and pies and rake in enough dough to pay the mortgage. Then he realized he had a brand on his hands. “It’s tangible, you can touch it, feel it. It’s not all fabricated. It truly is a place you can visit.” Truly. There are two nautically inspired guest houses for rent on the property.
“You can’t create that kind of history,” Voulgaris says. But he does a good job trying. The picnic table is an old German beer garden table. There’s a window from the Chelsea Hotel, metal shutters from the Highline, galvanized metal beams from a Steven Gambrel and Douglas Freeman townhouse. “I like to rummage,” he says.
Back in the day, the farm raised and processed 80,000 to 90,000 chickens at one time. “Look at their marketing,” he says, pointing to a photo with a sign that reads, “Fresh killed chickens.”
“We decided to change that. I didn’t want to be in the chicken slaughtering business,” he says.
Chicken potpies are a different story. After much experimentation, fresh sage became the “secret” ingredient, and although the farm was awaiting the arrival of 1,000 Dark Brahmas, the chickens are being raised for their eggs only.
For their first wholesale product, it seemed only natural to market jams, the same ingredients in their fruit pie fillings. Kerberry, their signature flavor, is a mix of strawberry, blueberry and raspberry with a touch of clove.
Voulgaris explains each new business development as a “happy accident” or “serendipitous,” but I think it goes back to his drive and determination. While in the offices of Oprah magazine pitching jams, the editors asked if Kerber’s had a pie kit. “Yes, we do,” he lied.
The wooden crate has everything you need except butter and water, including a 22-ounce jar of homemade apple pie filling, a pouch of piecrust mix, a glass pie plate and kitchen towel. “It’s a double gift,” Voulgaris says. “Buy it and give it as is, or bake it and put it back into the crate and give that as gift. It has a sliding top.”
Now, those pie kits are selling at Williams-Sonoma, Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale’s. “We want to be an international brand,” Voulgaris says.
The cookie jar mix is a throwback to the Pillsbury dough boy. Convenience with a touch of nostalgia. Comforting and quick, like a hug from mommy. Yummy without too much thought.
You might want to give some thought as to who gets the “Weekender,” or “Breakfast in Bed,” but basically your wish can be a Kerber’s gift crate.
“Myself, Mimi Ewald, Devin Dowd and Bonnie Borioto collaborate on recipes and develop new products,” he says. Kerber’s latest product line is candles, using wax from their own beehives.
One of the old barns is used as a warehouse to make products and prepare orders. The ghosts of chickens past, two 120-feet-long former processing barns, are works-in-progress and await the Voulgaris touch. “We’re going to put some cute windows in here,” he says.
The farm hosts workshops for visiting Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, inner-city students and special-needs children in their 30-seat classroom and cooking studio. “We try to do the most we can with a small piece of property,” he says.
“Lots of generations are missing a basic understanding of where our food comes from,” Voulgaris says. But not the WWOOFers, World Wide Organization of Organic Farmers farming interns from around the world who help out during the growing season. We’re the closest WWOOFing farm to New York City,” he says.
Once the weather turns brisk, the farm stand goes full throttle on the holiday express. “It’s a Christmas wonderland,” says Voulgaris. Gift boxes are decorated with holiday ribbon, sprigs of holly, pine and evergreen. Canadian Christmas trees, garlands, vintage ornaments, mulled apple cider and candy apples replace the summer’s flowers, herbs and vegetables that grow in neatly marked rows behind the stand.
The best part about Kerber’s Farm is that it’s open seven days a week year round. A brand is nothing without dependability, especially one that draws on history. Just don’t turn your back on your lobster roll. You never know who might move in.