During the summer between their first and second years at the University of Maine, future husband-and-wife team Abe and Heather Furth took a cross-country motorcycle trip for two months. It was a trip that changed their lives in many ways, but the most life-changing experience they had was not at a beach, mountain or famous landmark. It was in a burrito shack. Multiple burrito shacks, to be exact.
“By the time we got to California, we were pretty destitute. Burritos were a great way to have a really yummy, filling meal for not a lot of money. We ate them constantly,” said Heather Furth, who with Abe co-owns Woodman’s Bar and Grille in downtown Orono. “We’d never had that here in Maine. We were really sad when we couldn’t get a California-style burrito here. We wanted to bring that here, because we knew other people would feel the same way, once they tried it.”
Eight years later, their dream of spreading the gospel of burrito love has come to fruition, with Verve Burritos opening last month in Orono. After a full year of extensive renovations on the 150-year-old building that houses it at the corner of Mill and Main streets, the burrito has now landed.
“We’ve had our eye on this spot since the beginning,” said Abe Furth, who is 28 years old, as is Heather. “It’s been through so many renovations over years. When we bought it last fall, it was eight little rooms with a hallway and a dropped ceiling. It was months in that we discovered the hardwood floor, which is all the original wood.”
Verve Burritos is as visually attractive a restaurant as eastern Maine has ever seen. Sunshine pours through every window during the day, lending it a bright, cheerful atmosphere. The striking green-and-brown decor, designed by Chez Cherry and Chad Arsenault, evokes the natural world, augmented by quirky touches, such as an old Atari arcade game converted into a dining table. Outside, sidewalk benches made of used skis and snowboards greet customers.
Presiding above the gentle hum of conversation and the fragrant smell of food cooking is a stunning timber frame arch, constructed by Ravi Varnum, a graduate of College of the Atlantic and a master timber framer. On the walls are banners displaying photos of local people doing what they love — gardening, mountain climbing, beer brewing — which embody the definition of “verve”: energy, vitality and passion.
“We wanted to open a place that was full of positive energy, and that would be friendly and comfortable for people of any stripe to come in and enjoy,” said Furth. “We picked Verve as a name because that’s what we’re all about. We want to encourage vitality in our community.”
The Furths, ever health-conscious, planned from the beginning to make food that is as nutritious as it is delicious. Verve steams its tortillas, cooks with little to no fat and doesn’t employ a fryer to make chips. Aside from burritos, quesadillas and burrito bowls are available, all filled with either chicken, steak, chorizo sausage or vegetables. Fresh-baked pastries, Bagel Central bagels, Maine-roasted coffee and individually blended smoothies round out the menu. Oh, and don’t forget the breakfast burritos.
Along with their commitment to health, the Furths were equally concerned about making sure their burritos were very, very tasty.
“We did a lot of taste tests to see if the healthier version tasted as good as the less healthy options, and honestly, nine times out of 10 we couldn’t tell the difference,” said Furth. “We don’t use lard. We don’t deep-fry anything. We use fresh ingredients that we source locally as often as we can. It’s filling, but it’s not greasy and heavy and bad for you.”
An assembly-line style of preparation means that even on a busy day, when the line stretches out into the street, the wait for a fresh-made burrito is rarely more than 10 minutes. The Furths studied the science of food prep, so that one person loads up the rice, beans and meat, another applies the cheese and other toppings, and one more rolls it up and wraps it in foil. One, two, three, burrito.
“It’s very frustrating to stop in for breakfast or lunch somewhere, and end up waiting in line for a half-hour to get your food,” said Heather Furth. “We’ve timed it, and the longest it took for someone at the back of the line on a really busy day to get their food and pay was 15 minutes. Healthy, friendly and fast. That’s our goal.”
In addition to the downtown location, Verve Burritos has also taken over the cafe at the Collins Center for the Arts on the University of Maine campus — a first at UMaine, for an outside business to be invited on campus to operate. While the campus location doesn’t sell burritos yet, it does offer pastries, coffee and smoothies.
The Furths are plenty busy, running both Verve locations and Woodman’s. But that hasn’t stopped either from thinking down the road. Could Verve, with its efficient simplicity and casual vibe, have potential to expand into a chain of restaurants?
“We’ve definitely thought about it,” said Heather Furth. “I feel like in New England there aren’t really any great burrito shops. It would certainly be something further in the future, but it’s a dream, for sure.”
Verve, located at 2 Mill St. in Orono, is open from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday. For more information, call 866-4004, visit www.verveburritos.com, or friend Verve Burritos on Facebook.