The reasons people get married are often some of the same reasons people decide to go into business together: they like each other, they have complementary skills and interests and there’s a level of trust that is invaluable in business, love and life.
There are three married couples currently up for the $1,000 grand prize for the Big Gig, a series of business pitch events for entrepreneurs in Greater Bangor that culminates in a final pitch for the three finalists, set this year for 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 8, at the University of Maine’s Foster Student Innovation Center. They also all happen to be in the food and beverage industries.
All three couples acknowledge that there are as many challenges in being both romantic and business partners as there are triumphs.
“Sometimes we have a hard time separating work and home,” said Scott Galbiati, who owns Brewer-based spirit company Twenty2 Vodka with his wife, Jessica Jewell. “Sometimes she has to tell me to put it down and focus on something else.”
“We both work or go to school full time during the day, and then we come home and work all night on our business,” said Christine Carney, who with her husband, John, owns Thick & Thin Designs, an Orono-based design company that specializes in laser-cut acrylic cupcake toppers. “It’s long days, long nights.”
“We have some differences of opinion, and we share them in pretty blunt ways that I’d probably never do to a regular employee,” said Kathy Chamberlain, who with her husband, Bruce, owns and operates Stone Fox Farm Creamery, making ice cream on their Monroe farm.
Nevertheless — or, maybe, because of their similarities and differences — all three couples have found success in their respective endeavors. After nearly five years of planning and working with the state to get a distiller’s license, Jewell and Galbiati started Twenty2 Vodka in 2009, originally based in Houlton and now in Brewer. They recently expanded their product offerings beyond their signature traditional vodka to include Create, a 150-proof vodka designed specifically to make vodka infusions.
Jewell initially got involved with the Big Gig to improve her public speaking skills, but both she and Galbiati found the entire process was helpful to them as business owners. Big Gig events are geared to help innovators and entrepreneurs network and pitch their products.
“Just getting to know people and networking with other entrepreneurs in the area has been great,” said Jewell, 31, who has been married to Galbiati for nearly 10 years. “Plus, there’s a whole new group of people who know about our product now.”
John Carney is finishing his master’s in intermedia at UMaine. As a student, he has access to the university’s high-end laser cutter. The couple had the idea to make cupcake toppers after seeing how precise the laser cutter was, and how cute other decorated cupcakes were. The Carneys founded Thick & Thin in 2012, as a one-off creative endeavor for the then newly married couple, in order to pay for Christmas presents that year.
They put their designs on Etsy, and to their surprise and delight, they were an immediate hit. Though they have not yet been able to make Thick & Thin a full-time job, they are eager to expand and are looking for their own creative space in the Bangor area. Right now, Thick & Thin is based at the Foster Center at UMaine, and the laser printer they use is housed at the Intermedia Resource Center on campus.
“What sets us apart from what you might buy at a store is that they’re all original designs. They’re completely our own creations,” said John Carney. “If we win the Big Gig we’ll be putting that $1,000 towards buying our own laser printer, which we definitely need in order to go forward, but is not a cheap thing to buy.”
For Bruce and Kathy Chamberlain, Stone Fox Farm Creamery was initially a thing to do once the pair retired — Bruce worked for Maine’s Office of Marine Resources for 35 years, and Kathy worked at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Bangor and did catering on the side. Kathy bought an ice cream maker on a whim to supplement her catering, but quickly found the ice cream was her most popular offering, eventually deciding to focus entirely on the sweet treat.
They now sell their frozen treats in more than 40 stores and restaurants from Portland to Bangor, and through their ice cream trailer at shows and festivals statewide. They aim to be in 100 locations by the end of the year.
“I was able to quit my job in 2010, and Bruce retired in 2011, and it’s really taken off since,” said Kathy Chamberlain. “We’re lucky because there’s such an awareness of local foods, and we’ve been able to get in on the wave of that popularity. We use local milk from Hilltop Farm in Monroe, we use local berries and pumpkins and maple syrup. … Mainers love ice cream. Even in January, they love ice cream.”
The Big Gig is a program jointly organized by the towns of Orono and Old Town, the University of Maine, Husson University, University Credit Union and Blackstone Accelerates Growth. More than 10 small businesses in the greater Bangor area participated in a series of three pitch events over the past six months at Kosta’s in Old Town, Verve in Orono and at the Dyke Center for Business at Husson University in Bangor, showing off their products to a panel of business experts.
Tuesday’s final event will feature panelists Don Gooding of the Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development, Jay Fortier of University Credit Union, and Susan McKay, the CEO of Orono-based water filtration company Cerahelix.
“As far as the Big Gig goes, It’s really just been great to meet people, and to get our ice cream in the mouths of people who wouldn’t otherwise have tried it,” said Kathy Chamberlain. “Being a small business means a lot of work, but boy, we’re sure enjoying ourselves. I wouldn’t want to spend my retirement just sitting on a couch or on a lawn chair in Boca Raton. This is much more rewarding.”