BELFAST, Maine — It’s part theater, part art installation and part feeding frenzy. It’s the daily produce delivery at Chase’s Daily restaurant on Main Street.
The Chase family — Addison and Penny, their daughters Phoebe and Megan, and Megan’s partner Freddy Lafage — operate the business, which by many accounts, has become an anchor for downtown Belfast.
At about 10:45 a.m. Tuesday through Saturday, a handful of customers begin milling about in the back of the restaurant building, which is more 100 feet long, has 14-foot-high tin ceilings, and has a Main Street entrance and a back door on a side street.
By 10:55 a.m., there’s a dozen or more people, many of whom have shopping baskets tucked under their arms and several clear plastic bags clutched in their hands.
Then, within a minute or two of 11 a.m., a restaurant employee emerges from the kitchen area and shouts, “Truck!” and it’s game on.
Restaurant employees march to the rear and out onto a small wooden deck, where a small box truck has parked. A family member or employee who’s driven the truck the 15 miles from Freedom, where Addison Chase farms, begins handing out the trays and buckets of produce and flowers, all harvested just hours earlier, to restaurant staff.
They carry in the bounty, arranging it on rough-sawn wooden shelves, dodging the now 30 or more customers who are scooping up beans, tomatoes, lettuce greens, broccoli, herbs and dozens of variations of more exotic vegetables as fast as they can be set down.
There are lots of smiles and polite apologies from among the shoppers, most of whom are 50 years or more old, as the jostling intensifies, but on some days, it’s clear the shoppers are on a mission. Tuesday is especially busy, Addison said, since it’s been two days without a delivery, but so is Friday, as weekend dinner parties are planned.
By early afternoon, the bins are depleted, with stray leaves on the floor the only evidence of what occurred earlier.
Judy Kao of Belfast is a regular and a fan.
“Their produce is just amazing. It tastes wonderful and it looks beautiful,” she said. The interesting variety also is a lure, as the farm grows many Asian variations that are just beginning to be featured at top restaurants in Boston and New York.
Judy Stein of Belfast is another regular who braves the 11 a.m. rush.
“Penny can’t get the labels on [the bins] fast enough before people take it all,” she said. The selections are interesting, too, Stein said. “They’ll try new vegetables that we don’t normally see here.”
Stein, like Kao, also patronizes the restaurant, which features a good portion of the Chase farm produce and vegetarian fare. Stein and her daughter had lunch at the restaurant on Friday, and though neither are vegetarian, they knew they’d be served “something healthy.”
“You know you’re eating what they picked that morning,” she said.
Stein believes the restaurant and produce market have helped Belfast turn the corner toward prosperity.
“When Chase’s opened,” in July 2000, “I think people from Camden, people from Rockport, from Rockland who never came to Belfast came up for Chase’s,” she said, after the restaurant’s reputation for its lunch began to grow. Stein, who helped put on the Camden Conference on international affairs for several years, recognized many of her fellow volunteers from the organization who hailed from those communities.
Then, she said, some of those friends related how they walked down Main Street after dining and discovered interesting shops.
Sarah Waldron has been on both sides of the feeding frenzy. She worked at Chase’s for two years, and now runs Good ’ n’ You, a small taco, burrito and tostada restaurant that operates out of a truck off Lower Main Street.
The enthusiasm of shoppers could be daunting, but she would remind herself, “They’re there because of the quality” of the produce. Now, Waldron shops five days a week at Chase’s to get the onions, peppers, chili, tomatoes and herbs she uses in the food her business serves.
The variety of the produce is a big part of the draw, Waldron said.
“And they know a lot about what they’re growing,” she added.
While she worked at Chase’s, she recalls a co-worker ringing up a customer’s lettuce, and telling her, “I picked this lettuce yesterday, and I helped plant it from seed.” That kind of connection is rare, Waldron said.
Karen Federle of Belfast’s Trillium Catering also is a regular at the produce market, and Lincolnville-based Swan’s Way Catering also sometimes uses Chase’s produce, Addison Chase said.
Lynn Karlin, a fine arts photographer who these days is specializing in photographing vegetables on pedestals, wandered around the produce on Thursday morning. “I come here for inspiration,” she said with a smile.
Addison Chase has been farming in Freedom since 1971. He’s raised beef cattle and chickens and grown produce. Daughters Phoebe and Megan got the farming bug and sold produce at a local farmers market in the mid-1990s. Penny, a former elementary school teacher, joined when the family started the restaurant.
Phoebe now bakes the bread and pastries sold at the counter and featured on the menu, Megan oversees the crop selection at the farm, son-in-law Freddy Lafage manages the restaurant and the elder Chases fill in the gaps.
Customers often comment on the family work ethic. “They work exceptionally hard,” Kao said. “All the members of the family do an amazing job.”
Chase grows produce on about 20 acres. Though they do not use organic growing methods, the Chases work hard at practicing environmentally sound approaches, he said.
The restaurant employs 33 wait and kitchen staff, and the farm has 14 workers at the height of summer, with an average work-week of 25 hours, Addison Chase said.
Chase’s Daily, located at 96 Main Street, serves lunch Tuesday through Saturday, dinner on Friday only, breakfast on Saturday and an extended breakfast through 1 p.m. on Sunday. Call 338-0555 for more information.