EAST MILLINOCKET, Maine — Barbara Van Loon came to the Katahdin region to hike Baxter State Park years ago and fell in love.
A restaurant owner and caterer with experience in Boston, New York City and the U.S. Virgin Islands, Van Loon and her husband, Paul, swore that they would eventually move to the area full time, but it wasn’t until they received a $5,000 matching grant from the Katahdin Area Recovery and Expansion Committee that they opened their Soup to Nuts restaurant on Main Street in October.
“It allowed us to buy newer and more energy-efficient kitchen equipment,” Paul Van Loon said this week. “It really helped.”
The grant was among $46,647 in grants KARE has distributed to new and established businesses since its inception as the region’s economic development agency in spring 2009, KARE budget documents show.
Funded by $75,000 that Brookfield Renewable Power Inc. pays Millinocket annually as compensation for the Brookfield Asset Management-owned Millinocket mill’s shutdown in 2008, KARE was formed with representatives from East Millinocket, Medway and Millinocket to create new businesses and jobs.
Though it has almost exclusively funded small businesses such as Soup to Nuts, KARE has done pretty much what it’s supposed to do, Millinocket Town Manager Eugene Conlogue said.
“A number of businesses have been helped, and there have been a number of jobs created,” Conlogue said. “We’re getting concrete results. It’s a case where you can look at businesses in each town and say, ‘We’ve helped them.’”
“It’s an example of the good things that can happen when the three towns put aside their differences and work together,” Millinocket Town Councilor Michael Madore said.
Some of the projects were clearly earmarked as having regional impact, such as a multiuse recreation bridge over the Penobscot River just west of Millinocket that was funded by $75,000 from the KARE fund and Penobscot County’s first permanent snowmobile drag-racing track, including bleachers and other amenities, at the East Branch Sno Rovers clubhouse in Medway. The track was funded by an $18,000 grant.
Both got heavy use this past winter and should be larger tourist and recreational draws as they become better known, Conlogue said.
Millinocket Fabrication and Machine, a tool-and-die shop, and Michael Brown Custom Builders, both of Millinocket, each received $5,000 grants. Intrepid Creations of Millinocket, a Web design and video production company, received $4,522.
The KARE committee also voted to fund a one-day-a-week economic development agent, Jason Bird, from Eastern Maine Development Corp. for $8,125, records show.
Though it would welcome a large-scale employer, “we have a lot of storefronts and places that people can use,” Madore said, advocating for the KARE board’s small-business approach. “If all the businesses we get employ two or three people, then we’ll eventually get 100 jobs, one way or another.”
Mark Scally, chairman of the East Millinocket Board of Selectmen, said he is especially pleased at Soup to Nuts’ success. Though a small business, employing only the Van Loons, the restaurant serves excellent and unique fare, Scally said.
“Everything they do is marvelous,” Scally said. “You find so many nice touches in what they do. Like their hamburger buns are homemade. Where else do you find that?”
Almost everything they do, the Van Loons said, is homemade and reasonably priced. A very casual experience, with paper plates and napkins inside a small dining area, the breakfast and lunch shop expanded to include dinners because business has been so brisk.
“If you want an example of how busy it’s been,” Paul Van Loon said, “I used to bake loaves of bread all the time, but I am falling behind on that because people are always coming in.”
“It’s all about the food,” Barbara Van Loon said, adding that she and her husband are culinary school graduates. “We want it to be casual so we can put all of our energy into making the food as good as it can be.”
Since it opened, Soup to Nuts has become a regular stop for Town Office workers in East Millinocket, town Administrative Assistant Shirley Tapley said.
Their landlord is hoping they will expand their Route 11 business into an adjoining storefront, which formerly housed a bookstore, but the Van Loons are unsure.
“We like our business being just the two of us,” Barbara Van Loon said, “but we’ll see.”