BELFAST, Maine — Cheryl Wixson may have spent some of this week scrubbing fresh marinara sauce out of her hair, but she’s still thrilled about the reason why.
Wixson and her husband, Phillip McFarland, have been testing the brand-new food preparation equipment that they’ve moved into space rented in Coastal Farms and Foods, Inc.
Cheryl Wixson’s Kitchen is one of the first tenants of the U.S. Route 1 business that formerly was home to the Moss Inc. manufacturing facility.
“We’re very, very excited about it,” she said of moving her prepared-food business from Bangor to Belfast. “We’re scaling up. It’ll make a difference. If it works, we can do in one day there what we can in five days in Bangor.”
The tomato sauce incident — during which 36 pounds of tomato puree got stuck in the pumps and made its way to the floor and even her hair — was just a hiccup in the master business plan.
“It just made me realize that we have a lot of work to do. It doesn’t just happen,” a sanguine Wixson said. “It’s not going to be a piece of cake … but we are really very excited to take part in Coastal Farms and Foods. We’re looking forward to it.”
The 50,000-square-foot space is the brainchild of Jan Anderson, who also is the co-owner of the venture. The former Belfast City Councilor had a few years before decided that the area could support more food processing jobs. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, there are 1,652 farms within a 50-mile radius that sold nearly half a million dollars worth of produce by direct sale in 2007.
After a feasibility analysis done by the city found that area farmers curtailed production because of a lack of climate-controlled storage and food processing facilities, she kept pursuing the dream of creating a place that could solve those problems.
Anderson found two more business partners: Tony Kelley, a longtime frozen storage operator, and Wayne Snyder, a businessman with more than 35 years of experience. The trio incorporated Coastal Farms and Foods in 2011 and raised $2 million in private investment and financing by last February.
“I’m anxious and excited and exhausted. I have a lot to do,” Anderson told the Bangor Daily News at that time.
She’s been getting it done, according to Wixson, McFarland and other food processing tenants already hard at work in the facility. Those include makers of tofu, dilly beans, salsa, tabbouleh, soda and more. There also is industrial-sized storage for frozen foods including blueberries.
“There’s a lot of activity,” Dean Anderson, Jan Anderson’s husband, said Friday at the processing center. “Things are exciting. People come in every week. Local farmers want to see the coolers. And some of them, when they see the facility, say, ‘Oh, I have a recipe.’”
He said the space could easily fit 100 producers inside, joining people such as Brian McCarthy, who is starting his Magic Dilly Beans company in a space adjacent to Wixson’s.
“I started to sell because I love them so much,” he said of his pickled product, which will be available in four flavors — habanero, dilly, original and horseradish.
McCarthy’s space gleamed with large, spotless stainless steel kitchen gear, such as a 300-gallon kettle and an industrial-sized green bean snipper which can trim 800 pounds an hour. He emptied a box of beans into the trimming drum and waited for the finished product to tumble down the assembly line.
“I love cooking for people. My version of cooking for people is on a mass scale,” he said with a smile.
Coastal Farms and Foods is allowing him to more easily do that. For $1,000 a month, he rents a USDA-approved space that has washable floors, walls and ceilings.
“It’s allowing us to be much more aggressive in our equipment purchases,” McCarthy said. “They’ve been pretty much wonderful in terms of letting us do what we want.”
If all goes well, his dilly beans will be available for sale in stores beginning this spring, he said.
Roxie Whitney of Crosspatch Farms in Morrill, stopped by to check out his operation. She said she is hoping to supply some green beans in the future.
“I think this is a great idea,” she said of the food processing facility. “I think more people are trying to buy local. The bad thing about fresh anything is that it’s more expensive.”
Processing local produce adds both value and shelf-life, Anderson has said.
“The shelves and freezers at supermarkets as well as mom-and-pop convenience stores are filled with processed items from around the country and the world,” she said in a 2011 press conference that marked the launching of the facility. “Most of these items … can be produced in Belfast.”
Jeff Wolovitz of Heiwa Tofu said he has been making fresh tofu in Belfast since October, when he moved his processing operation from Camden. He said that in addition to the efficient, easily cleaned, light space, he has been enjoying the camaraderie around him.
“It’s a really nice crew here,” he said. “Everybody’s really friendly.”