Back in the days before the Great Recession, Steve and Lori Gingras of Augusta seemed to have their lives figured out pretty well.
Steve, a self-employed carpenter, built all kinds of houses for his customers. Lori, a high school English teacher, taught her students. After work, the couple would take care of their two sons and their small in-town farm, which featured a large kitchen garden, goats, honey bees and — perhaps most importantly — chickens.
But when the recession began in 2008, eroding Maine’s building trades economy, Steve’s construction jobs seemed to quickly disappear. The Gingrases had to figure something else out, and when they looked at the backyard coop that Steve had built as a Mother’s Day gift to Lori, inspiration struck.
“I remember thinking wow, there might be something to this,” Steve Gingras said this week, adding that he built one and advertised it on Craigslist just to see what would happen. “It really took off. It was one of those aha moments.”
That instant interest helped lead the couple to create Roots, Coops & More, which sells Maine-built chicken coops, coop accoutrements, cold frames for gardens, raised garden bed frames, root cellar consultation and much more. Lately, they’re venturing into the world of tiny houses, too.
“We mostly sell tiny homes for chickens and tiny homes for people,” Lori Gingras said.
The tiny houses and the chickens coops, though built for different audiences, have some things in common. Both are built to last and to look good, too, with an aesthetic appeal that makes Common Ground Fair attendees stop in their tracks as they pass the Roots, Coops & More display. Some of their coops look like classic farmhouses and barns on a miniature scale, with thoughtful touches such as windows to allow natural light, side doors for easy clean-out and raised, roomy nest boxes and roosting bars. Many have attachable coop pens to allow chickens to peck at the lawn without fear of being nabbed by a fox or hawk.
The Gingrases knew what they liked in a chicken coop, and figured that other people would like the same kinds of things. They were right.
“With us, our model was just to have products that we found useful, that we were using and we knew were working,” Lori Gingras said. “And that we could sell for a reasonable price.”
According to the company’s 2017 price list, coops range from $479 for an unassembled, unpainted kit to $1,250 for an assembled, painted “Coop Deluxe,” with room for ten chickens.
The business climate for homesteading supplies such as they provide has changed over the nearly ten years since they started Roots, Coops & More. At the beginning, there weren’t a lot of other people selling chicken coops or doing root cellar consultation. In fact, it sort of seemed that people interested in homesteading were in a definite minority. Back then, many Mainers weren’t talking about gardens and chickens, preserving their own food or knowing their farmer. With the recession, that seemed to change, the Gingrases said, and their business was one of the only local places to go for cute coops and other homesteading supplies.
“I think there’s a resurgence happening,” Lori Gingras said. “I think we were just a little bit ahead of the bubble.”
They found that a lot of their customers were new to the world of backyard chickens and they had both a lot of questions and, at times, a lot of concerns. For instance, Lori said, people called looking for a coop in a hurry, because they were keeping their chicks in the bathroom and the growing birds needed a new place to live as soon as possible.
“People can be stressed by that,” she said. “Once they spend time with chickens, they see it really isn’t that difficult. You just need to keep them fed and keep them hydrated.”
Lori and Steve Gingras enjoyed sharing advice about raising chickens and other parts of homesteading with the people they met. For about five years, the business was very busy, with the family selling from 75 to 100 coops a year. Then other competitors started to get into the coop game, both other family-owned small businesses and large companies such as Home Depot and Tractor Supply. Roots, Coops & More found that sales slowed down quite a bit.
“Now, we’re lucky if we do 40 a year,” Steve Gingras said.
It’s OK, he said, because his home construction business has come back. But the Gingrases like Roots, Coops & More and want to keep growing it sustainably, which is one reason why they are getting into the tiny house market. Steve is now finishing a 180-square foot tiny house on wheels that a customer commissioned, which he said is ultimately going to cost between $25,000 and $30,000. The tiny house features lots of natural light, fine craftmanship and high ceilings that make it seem larger than it is.
“It’s snug, but for one person or perhaps a couple, I think it would be quite comfortable,” Steve Gingras said.
Between the coops, the tiny houses and their other creations, the Gingrases feel good about their small business that, like their structures, is built to last. Steve Gingras said that he enjoys having a type of work that is different than his day job.
“Because I work alone and spend a lot of time alone, it’s nice to interact with people who appreciate what you do. I enjoy that,” he said.
Lori Gingras also said she enjoys meeting customers who have similar interests to hers and who sometimes become friends.
“I love sharing our knowledge and educating people about homesteading,” she said. “And meeting all the really cool people we’ve met over the years.”