The taste of Maine isn't just baked beans and cod cakes anymore. These days Maine's specialty food producers are turning out everything from mushroom oil to lobster pot pies to gourmet mustard made with Maine-grown mustard seed. And the rest of the world is noticing. Lately the taste of Maine means having good taste.
The New York Fancy Foods Show in July is a once-a-year extravaganza of comestibles, a coliseum of calories, a showplace for specialty and gourmet food producers. And Michael Gagné nailed it. "It was an omigod moment," recalls the owner and chef of the Robinhood Free Meetinghouse restaurant in Georgetown, referring to winning the best new product award in the bakery category for his seventy-two-layer cream-cheese biscuits, which he sells by the dozen through his Web site. "We nailed the show. That trip did a lot for us in terms of the future of the business."
Gagné isn't the first Mainer to walk away with top marks at the show. Two years ago Cal Hancock, founder of Hancock Gourmet Lobster Company in Cundys Harbor, took a first place award for her lobster pot pie. Hancock now has six full-time and up to thirty seasonal employees shipping everything from seafood Newburg to whoopie pies to customers all over the world.
The specialty and gourmet food business may well be one of the fastest-growing parts of the Maine economy. In 1997 the Maine Department of Agriculture counted less than a thousand food manufacturers. A 2003 survey found more than three thousand, and there is no indication the number has done anything but increase in the years since.
"Maine has an amazingly diverse and creative group of food entrepreneurs," observes Mary Ellen Johnston of the Maine Department of Agriculture's marketing office. "We're seeing phenomenal online and mail-order business. When it comes to small entrepreneurial food businesses, Maine compares very well with Massachusetts — even though Massachusetts has a much larger population and market — and Vermont."
Specialty food producers cite various reasons for going into the business, from expanding a hobby in retirement to replacing a lost job to smoothing out annual cash-flow cycles. Several years ago Gagné, who already operates a successful high-end restaurant, was looking for a way to keep his kitchen and staff busy in the off-season and saw his famous cream-cheese biscuits as the vehicle. "I figured we would brand it with the Robinhood Free Meetinghouse label and send out these little ambassadors by the dozen all over the country," he explains. The biscuits are sold uncooked and frozen.
Gagné now markets cream cheese and parmesan biscuits (cinnamon rolls are next) through gourmet food stores, catalogues, and Hannaford supermarkets throughout New England, and he's hoping to use the food show victory as the springboard to wider distribution. "My goals are pretty humble, actually," he says. "One is to have the first restaurant and food manufacturing business that offers health benefits to its staff. Second is to finance my retirement."
Candice Heydon started Oyster Creek Farm Mushrooms in Damariscotta some fifteen years ago "because I read about mushroom growing in the Coastal Journal," she explains, referring to a local weekly shopper. She had a Christmas wreath business at the time but had developed an allergy to evergreens. "I live on a woodlot, and I was looking for something I could do with this land," she adds.
For years she grew and sold shiitake mushrooms as a part-time enterprise. Then her husband, Dan, lost his job, and the couple turned to mushrooms as a full-time effort. Their mail-order and Internet business in dried mushrooms, mushroom powders, and mushroom oils has grown to the point where they now buy mushrooms from suppliers all over the country, but Heydon says she still prefers the face-to-face contact of talking to customers at the five farmer's markets she and her husband attend each week in the summer and the handful of food and wine shows they visit in the off-season.
Being able to claim a Maine provenance can be a considerable asset for food producers who are marketing outside the state. "The Maine location definitely helps," Cal Hancock insists. "There's a mystique about Maine. People have heard about it, and they think it's very cool, even if they've never been here."
Hancock, whose grandmother owned and operated the Ogunquit Lobster Pound, began her company in 2001 when she returned to Maine after a business career in the Midwest. Beginning with a gourmet lobster stew, she now ships her high-end lobster and seafood products to every state every day. "People feel Maine is a good place, with a certain purity," she explains. "They figure that things that come from Maine must be good."
"At the Fancy Food Show, people really perked up when they saw that Maine connection," adds C. Waite Maclin, of Portland, an Episcopal minister and psychotherapist who sells a line of applesauce and apple butter under the Pastor Chuck Orchards label. "Maine is a great place to have a business like this. The state's Department of Agriculture has been very helpful, along with the Small Business Development Center at the University of Southern Maine."
Maclin also gives the informal network of specialty food entrepreneurs in Maine high marks for its cooperative spirit and lack of infighting. "One of the things that overwhelms me is the great community of people doing this in Maine," explains Maclin. "Everyone helps everyone else. They've given me great feedback and leads and suggestions."
In 1986 Maclin started a small orchard on land he owned in Cushing. "I began making organic applesauce and apple butter, and people kept saying I should sell it," he explains. "I took a few jars around to stores, and, by golly, people really liked it."
Today Maclin has to buy apples to meet the demand for his product, and he's looking at marketing Pastor Chuck well beyond the boundaries of Maine and even New England. "Over the past fifty years I've had seven careers," he observes. "Every seven years I do something entirely different. I guess this time I'm going to be in the food business."
He will apparently have plenty of company. "We have people doing wonderful things with food in this state," notes Mary Ellen Johnston. "I think we'll have a lot more in the future."
For more information on Maine specialty food producers, go to www.getrealmaine.com
or write the Maine Department of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Resources Division of Market and Production Development, 28 State House Station, Augusta, Maine 04333-0028. 207-287-3871.