PITTSFIELD, Maine — A year ago, Mark and Jennifer Yarbrough thought life was going pretty well.
Mark had a well-paying job for a subsidiary of Citibank, for which he traveled all over the country. His income was enough that Jennifer didn’t have to work, allowing her to home-school their two children in the family’s home in Pittsfield.
Everything changed one morning during a conference call Mark took while waiting for a flight out of Portland, Ore. He and four others were laid off.
A year after losing his suit-and-tie job with its first-class airline seats and clients all over the country, Mark spends most days over a hot griddle at the Phoenix Cafe, which is located in Palmrya. And Pittsfield. And someday, maybe somewhere else. The Phoenix Cafe goes wherever it pleases.
“Basically, it’s a full-service restaurant kitchen on wheels,” said Mark, standing amid the mobile cafe’s stainless steel appliances and polished white walls. “It’s got a generator, its own water supply, sinks, a refrigerator and a freezer. It’s completely independent. I could just pull it over in the woods somewhere and start serving food.”
All Mark has to do is hitch the white box trailer to his truck — albeit with the tell-tale restaurant exhaust sticking straight up — and the Phoenix Cafe follows the cook.
The Yarbroughs started the business about a month ago in a turnoff beside Route 2 in Palmyra, about three miles from the Newport town line. Today they christened a second location on South Main Street in downtown Pittsfield, just across from the Pittsfield Public Library. It’s open from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays in Pittsfield and during the same hours on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays in Palmyra. The Yarbroughs intend to keep it going year-round.
“It’s like a paper mill,” said Jennifer. “You have to either keep it going or shut it down completely.”
The strategy behind the Phoenix Cafe is to make the food as high quality and fresh as customers would expect in a sit-down restaurant. The menu features food inspired by the Southwest, ranging from the Phoenix Spicy Sausage and Egg Burrito to the Jumbo Taco. It’s not as spice-laden as some Mexican dishes, unless diners want it to be. The Yarbroughs make their featured hot sauce in the Lavender Honey Habanero and the Paper Lantern Jalapeno varieties.
“I’ve had people come from as far away as Bar Harbor and they want to buy a bottle of my hot sauce,” said Mark. “‘I can’t,’ I tell them. ‘I need it for the day.’”
The Yarbroughs, after abandoning a fruitless job search, began their new business with the assistance of Janet Roderick, a certified business councilor with the Small Business Development Center’s Fairfield office. In 14 years of dealing with at least 200 clients annually, Roderick said she’s never seen a mobile kitchen with in-tentions of operating through the frigid Maine winter.
“I have worked with just about any kind of business you can think of,” said Roderick. “When we first started talking about it I was a little skeptical. I thought, ‘Who’s going to stop in the middle of the winter?’”
But the Yarbroughs’ business plan was solid — “down to the ingredient,” said Mark — and accounted for slow, midwinter days, not to mention the promise of heat from the hot sauce. Merrill Bank signed on to finance the venture.
“Just because it’s cold doesn’t mean people stop eating,” said Mark.
The phenomenon of mobile cafes is hardly new to Maine, though most of them frequent fairs and festivals, said Richard Grotton, executive director of the Maine Restaurant Association. Other than a few seasonal hot dog stands sprinkled around the state, mobile kitchens haven’t yet posed a serious challenge to sit-down restau-rants in Maine, though Grotton is worried that may change.
“It has become a fad on the West Coast,” said Grotton, who hopes towns or the state will step in to make sure mobile kitchens abide by the same regulations and pay the same fees as restaurants.
“Quite frankly, we don’t know what to do about it,” said Grotton. “My pure entrepreneurial spirit says good for you. My industry hat says wait a minute, your competitors are all paying license fees and a variety of taxes. One guy has his overhead and one doesn’t and they’re competing head to head. That gives a person quite an advantage.”
That advantage is a major reason why the Yarbroughs chose the venture they did. They hope that like the Phoenix their restaurant is named for, they will rise from the ashes of Mark’s life-altering layoff.
“It’s hard in this part of Maine to find a big enough population center to support a restaurant,” he said. “If the business moves away, we’ll move with it.”
“But we really want to stay local,” added Jennifer.