Down East 2013 ©
Maine was home to nearly twenty microbreweries when Rob Tod moved to Portland to launch the Allagash Brewing Company in 1994. “It was a competitive atmosphere even then,” he says. “From that standpoint, Maine may not have seemed like a logical place to start a brewery, but I really wanted to live here.”
A native of Carlisle, Massachusetts, Tod was introduced to the Pine Tree State in the late eighties by classmates at Middlebury College in Vermont. “I had a bunch of buddies who were from the Falmouth-Cumberland area, and I visited them in the summers during and after college,” he says. “Portland had a lot of the good things that cities offer combined with the nice aspects of a small town, and I loved that it was right on the ocean. That is one of the big reasons I chose to start a brewery here.”
With one year’s experience at a Vermont brewery under his belt, Tod worked alone for the first couple of years. “That was a huge challenge,” he says. “If anything needed to be done, I had to do it.”
He carved out a niche in the crowded microbrewery market by specializing in Belgian-style beers, but they were not immediately embraced by consumers. “At the time, people just weren’t drinking Belgian beers,” Tod says.
“They’re very different-tasting. It was a long process, getting people exposed to them and educating them about what makes them unique. But once you talk to people about these beers and they try them, they fall in love with them.”
Today, Allagash brews more than twenty varieties of beer and sells 90 percent of its product out of state, which “is unique in Maine and fairly unique nationwide,” Tod says. “One reason we’ve done well out of state is that the Maine brand appeals to people.”
Maine’s cachet also helps attract employees, too. Allagash now has thirty-five employees, and will likely grow to forty by fall. “We started out mostly hiring people who lived here — no one was moving here to just work at Allagash,” Tod says. “But in the last six months, we’ve hired people from Delaware, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and a couple other places. Portland is gaining a reputation for being a great city. One of the exciting things that has happened here since we started the brewery is the surge of excellent restaurants and bars. I’m in the beer business, so I’m in restaurants and bars all over the country all the time. Portland offers something very special: You could go out every night for thirty days and visit a different restaurant or bar each night and have a great experience — and they’re all within walking distance of each other.”
In Good Company, Rockland
In 1982, eighteen-year-old Melody Wolfertz left Rockland to train at the Culinary Institute of America in New York. She figured a career as a chef could take her to some interesting places. She never expected her hometown would be one of them. Its traditional fishing economy having collapsed, Rockland offered few job opportunities, and its restaurant scene consisted largely of bars and chowder houses. “I always knew I would come back,” Wolfertz recalls, “but it would be when I retired.”
Wolfertz’s assumptions about her career path proved partially correct. After graduating from the institute, she did land jobs in some vibrant cities. She worked in Washington, D.C, at the Willard Hotel; in Aspen, at Hotel Jerome; and in Dallas, at the Crescent Club and, later, Parigi. But on a visit home in 2000, she realized life could be better.
“It was September, one of my favorite months in Maine,” Wolfertz recalls, “and it was gorgeous.”
“You can move back now, you know,” Wolfertz remembers her friend and fellow chef, Theda Lyden, telling her. “You can make the same amount of money you make in Dallas.”
Maine, and Rockland in particular, had indeed become more adventurous culinary territory during her nearly twenty-year absence. Her first glimpse of this evolving scene came at a Main Street gourmet food shop that offered fresh pastas, olive oils, and exotic mustards. “I said, ‘Okay, I can move back now because I can get good olive oil here,’ ” she says. “Rockland had reached a point where it was possible for me to live here and do what I do.”
After a stint working for Lyden in the kitchen at the Harraseeket Inn in Freeport, she took a job managing the Wine Seller in Rockland. “It was a great re-entry,” says Wolfertz, who is now a part owner of the wine shop. “I highly recommend anyone who is moving to town to take a retail job, because you get to meet people. I met more people coming back to town as a retailer than I ever would have working in the kitchen.”
That social network gave her the confidence in 2004 to open In Good Company, a contemporary wine bar in a nineteenth-century bank building on Main Street in Rockland. The challenge then: Sustaining the business through the winter. “The tourist season is gravy, but I built my business for the locals because that’s who I was selling my wine to at the Wine Seller,” Wolfhertz says. “I knew they were out there and they were interested in wine, so I knew I could make it work.”
The challenge today: It’s still the off-season, but for a somewhat different reason. Rockland now boasts a number of excellent restaurants, including In Good Company’s next-door neighbors, Lily Bistro and Suzuki Sushi, all vying for the same relatively small clientele. “I like that we have three restaurants together, and I wish the Black Bull was still open across the street, because Rockland really needs that variety,” Wolfhertz says. “But there are a lot of seats in Rockland, and winter can be tough. If you do the best you can do and you have an audience, you should be okay.”
Does she really make the same amount of money she would be making if she had stayed in Dallas? “That,” she says with a laugh, “turned out not to be true. But the quality of life is just so much more. I live in Thomaston, just half a mile outside town, so I’m not in the country, but this past winter I had an ermine in my house, a fox, a deer, and a rabbit in my yard, and my neighbors saw a bobcat. You can’t get that in Dallas.”
Pulpit Rock Properties, Scarborough
“I loved, loved, loved living in Manhattan,” Tyler Karu says. “I could have lived there a lot longer than I did.” That’s why a trip home to Kennebunkport in 2007 took her by surprise. “It was May in Maine,” she sighs. “The whole summer was ahead. I realized I didn’t want to go back. It was a very quick decision. Within less than a year of being home, I had started my own business.”
A graduate of the New York School of Interior Design, Karu buys distressed houses in the Greater Portland area and rehabilitates them for first-time homebuyers. As Pulpit Rock Properties, she works in partnership with real estate agent Matt DiBiase, a best friend from her Kennebunkport High School days. “We always thought that when we were around thirty, we’d do something like this,” Karu says. “We actually made it happen! Usually the houses we put on the market are priced under two hundred thousand dollars, so we’ve been able to tap into our age group. We’re renovating for people like ourselves.”
Karu graduated high school intent on a lifestyle that would be dramatically different from the quiet, small-town pace of Kennebunkport. “I wanted the big school and big city,” she says. She completed her undergraduate studies in literature at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. “Other than that, I had no direction in terms of my life goals. The next step was an even bigger city: New York. I had a couple of odd jobs in Manhattan, including an internship with a public relations firm where I figured out that that was not for me.” Her interest in interior design was piqued by a stint as a real estate agent for an apartment brokerage firm. She had just finished the two-year graduate program at New York School of Interior Design when she made that fateful trip home to Maine in 2007.
In addition to DiBiase, Karu has built relationships with several carpenters and craftsmen, who carry out her renovation plans. She likes to apply her design expertise to unusual properties, like the William Sparrow House, a distinctive 1850s Gothic Revival house in Portland’s Back Cove neighborhood. Because the house is designated as an historic landmark, the renovations had to meet standards set by the city’s historic preservation ordinance, a process Karu called both demanding and rewarding.
Flipping houses is an especially ambitious endeavor in Maine because it has a small housing stock compared to other states, and people tend to renovate their homes and stay put, rather than sell and move, Karu says. On the other hand, she has found a supportive community. “People want to help and they are excited for you,” she says.
“The encouragement we’ve received has been amazing.”
Sometimes it takes new blood to see a community’s potential, especially when that community has been down on its luck for decades. In this case the new blood is graphic designer Tammy Ackerman and the community is Biddeford, the once-thriving textile center that is striving to overcome its reputation as a gritty and shuttered mill town.
“Biddeford is like the frontier,” Ackerman observes. “It is the last ungentrified community in southern coastal Maine. You can come here and make an investment and be part of the renewal. We like to call it the land of opportunity.”
Ackerman, a South Dakota native, first rolled into town on a cross-country road trip with her former boyfriend in 2004. They looked past the many vacancies on Main Street to the handsome nineteenth-century brick storefronts and massive mill buildings that seemed ripe for redevelopment. Curious, they stopped to talk to some of the locals. Among them was Rachael Weyland, then director of the Heart of Biddeford, a downtown revitalization organization. “Rachael pulled out the full-court press,” Ackerman says. “She pretty much recruited us.”
So it was that Ackerman, who had closed her graphic design business in Reno before the trip, joined the artists, craftspeople, architects, and budding entrepreneurs who are pioneering Biddeford’s reinvention, which she describes as slow but steady. She lives and works in the former textile workers’ union hall, a once dull, dingy building that she has brightened with several coats of orange paint. And as president of the board of directors for the Heart of Biddeford, she often finds herself passing along the message Rachael Weyland delivered to her seven years ago.
“The most difficult thing and the biggest surprise is this community’s perception of itself,” Ackerman says. “It isn’t as good as it should be. That’s a challenge we have to overcome. Biddeford is a great place for entrepreneurs who work in the creative economy. It’s affordable. There are some beautiful buildings, there’s history, and, of course, there’s the coast. If you’re resourceful, it can be done. There are a lot of talented designers in Maine, and the work is limited, so I have reached outside the state’s boundaries. Very few of my clients are local. A lot of them live in New York, and they have found me by word of mouth. It took three years for my business to get a foothold, but last year was my best year ever. I am making a living in Biddeford, Maine.”
Ben Slayton and Erin Cinelli
Farmers’ Gate Market, Wales, and Slayton Family Farm, Gardiner
Ben Slayton grew up in Vermont and worked for a time in Maine. Erin Cinelli was raised in Maine and went to college in Vermont. When they decided they wanted to marry and make a life together as organic farmers, only one question remained: Maine or Vermont?
“Vermont has done well in the last ten to fifteen years in developing the market for local, organic, and pasture-raised sustainable livestock and produce,” Slayton says. “They’ve developed a lot of the infrastructure necessary for processing, warehousing, and transportation. They’ve even developed regional markets and cooperative efforts to pool their resources and products.”
Vermont was, in other words, the perfect place to carry out their dream, right?
Not exactly, says Slayton. “We thought we may not be sophisticated enough to fit into that landscape,” he explains.
“Maine has a strong desire for more local products and a desire to grow the infrastructure for supporting sustainable agriculture. We saw an opportunity to be able to come onto the scene with a loose business plan and to contribute in a meaningful way to developing the infrastructure for supporting sustainable agriculture.”
That’s what they hope to do with Farmers’ Gate Market, their butcher shop in Wales. Many small farmers have been voicing concerns about the lack of slaughterhouses in Maine, but Slayton believes the problem actually boils down to limited butchering capacity.
“Most small-scale producers have only six to twelve customers,” he points out, “and each customer has a different set of requirements for how they want their cuts of meat.” Because they deal in large volumes, slaughterhouses are unable to meet those individual demands. Farmers’ Gate Market, which is dedicated to supporting small farms in the Gardiner area, can.
Slayton developed an interest in butchering at Tenuta di Spannocchia, an 1,100-acre organic agricultural estate in central Tuscany, managed as an educational and research farm by Cinelli’s aunt and uncle. Cinelli is the executive director of the Portland-based Spannocchia Foundation, which develops the farm’s internships and activities and serves as an information center for Americans who are interested in the programs. They worked together at Spannocchia in 2008, and moved back to Maine that fall.
The couple’s Slayton Family Farm is on land leased from Oakland Farms in Gardiner. Last year they raised 450 chickens and a dozen pigs, but they have temporarily scaled back while they develop Farmers’ Gate Market. The former Little Alaska butcher shop, it serendipitously came up for sale last year while Slayton was apprenticing with butcher Leon Emery. “It was a neat opportunity to build our business,” he says.
Cold Mountain Builders, Belfast
Jay Fischer didn’t really choose Maine. Maine chose him.
It happened in the early seventies when he was a newly minted college graduate working in Washington, D.C. A friend begged him to drop what he was doing and come to Maine to help conduct research for the Allagash Group, an informal policy institute founded by the late journalist John Cole to develop a master plan for protecting Maine’s environment while promoting economic development. Fischer obliged.
“I immediately realized that this was a special place,” Fischer says. “The work that I was assigned involved traveling around the state, and my own time also involved traveling all over the state. I went to the far reaches of the North Woods, Aroostook County, and Down East, and it didn’t take me long to see that this is a place where I could feel very comfortable.”
The next thing Fischer knew, Cole had enlisted him in a barn restoration project on the Sheepscot River in Whitefield. “I transitioned from doing deed research and photography for various projects into a builder,” Fischer says. “I had some experience, but it certainly wasn’t my background — I had studied history. So within a few months of arriving here, I found myself with a new business and a five-man crew, which had all coalesced around the idea of staying and making a life here.”
During the early years, Fischer’s Cold Mountain Builders focused on restoration and preservation work in rural areas and abandoned brick blocks in downtowns like Belfast’s. “More recently we’ve been doing complex residential work in and around the Camden-Belfast area,” he says. “Occasionally we’ll stray off to do something like the major restoration at the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland.” His company has thirty employees.
Building in Maine is not really any different than building anywhere else, Fischer believes. “It’s the way you approach the work,” he says. “We seem to attract a certain kind of clientele, and we work collaboratively almost exclusively with architects. The challenges are about the projects more than being in Maine. This is a very, very conducive environment in which to do business because you have beautiful landscapes to work in, and you have honest materials to get right around the corner from the local sawmill,” Fischer says. “Plus, there’s nothing predictable about any of it. Each site has its own challenges in terms of how much ledge you’re going to encounter and how you’re going to manage this or that. That’s what maintains your interest.”
Lisa Brodar and Troy Tyler
Portland General Store, Portland
Lisa Brodar and Troy Tyler’s natural colognes and skin care lotions for men were born five years ago in New York City, but the name of the product line reveals where their hearts were at the time: Portland General Store. “We had already decided we would move to Maine,” Brodar says.
Brodar, an artist, had just left a job in advertising when, inspired by her collection of vintage perfume and soap recipe books and antique Czechoslovakian pharmacy bottles, she began “playing around” with bath salts and creams. She bottled the formulas in old-fashioned-looking vials and sold them on the Internet marketplace Etsy. Tyler, who has a master’s in business administration and had started a couple of businesses of his own in New York, designed the product logo and packaging, and he served as guinea pig, slapping on the aftershaves and other balms and letting Brodar know when she was on the right track.
Their desire to relocate evolved out of a shared interest in sustainable living. “We had traveled around the country visiting many places,” Brodar says, “and we liked what Maine had to offer.” They settled on Portland, she adds, “because we are city people. I don’t think we could spend our full time in the country as much as we like it on occasion.”
When they moved in 2007, Portland General Store was strictly a “grocery money” affair, and Brodar entered nursing school intending to train for a new career. “Last year, when I was five months pregnant and doing clinicals, our business got very busy,” she says. “I decided to let go of nursing to pursue Portland General Store. I love nursing and PGS equally. They’re very different, but both are about wanting to take care of people. Nursing has helped me want to give better products to my customers.”
Portland General Store has grown quickly. More than forty stores around the country and abroad carry the products, which range from toilet waters made with coriander and cardamom to vegan shampoos to eucalyptus and tobacco smelling salts. Working from home, Brodar still makes many of the formulas herself from scratch, but she also relies on several vendors for some of the preparations. “Sometimes I barter with friends who come and help, and they get products in return,” she says. This fall, she and Tyler expect to hire their first employee to fulfill orders. “Maine,” she says, “has been our lucky charm.”