PORTLAND, Maine — Who is the next Stonewall Kitchen? What does it take to go from food startup to culinary stalwart?
Making Maine a great place to grow food companies was dissected Monday at the start of the second annual Maine Startup and Create Week. Food is a focus of this year’s weeklong event, which draws business leaders from Silicon Valley and Canada to workshops and panel discussions held in downtown Portland.
As all things edible, “natural” and “Maine-made” have become buzzwords across the country, from Manhattan to the Midwest, food startups are popping up in rural areas of Maine such as Hanover and less vibrant towns such as Lisbon Falls to get in on the action.
“Food is Maine’s brand,” said Tanya Swain, project co-director of The Maine Food Strategy, who spoke on a panel with entrepreneurs Joel Alex, founder of Blue Ox Malthouse, and Aaron Anker of Grandy Oats. “People are recognizing there is an opportunity to develop food businesses in Maine.”
There are several barriers, such as infrastructure needs and distribution, but the determination of the earnest ravioli maker and chocolatier who asked questions from the floor shone through.
“There is a spirit of entrepreneurship around food here that is unrivaled,” said Matthew Stevens of the U.S. Small Business Administration Office of Entrepreneurial Development, who was part of Monday’s panel. “I was just reading a New York Times article that said there are almost as many restaurants per capita in Portland as San Francisco. That’s exciting.”
Portland’s robust dining scene has paved the way for hand-crafted food companies to surge.
“You are seeing people heading in those directions,” Swain said. “It’s an exciting time to be here.”
Anker, chief granola officer at Hiram-based Grandy Oats, has focused on organic growth and reinvesting in his company. He cited people who include Tom Chappell of Tom’s of Maine as early influencers. In the last few years, Grandy Oats, a $5 million company offering organic granola, nuts and oatmeal available at Whole Foods and independent shops across the country, has grown 25 percent yearly.
“It’s been a fantastic place to grow business. I’ve met governors, senators, the owner of Oakhurst. … You can’t do that in New Jersey,” Anker said. “It’s a really approachable place to grow business.”
Karen Farrell, a branding pro who oversees strategies for companies that include Burt’s Bees and Dr. Bronner’s, spoke later in the day at a panel called “Getting Your Food Product Ready for Retail.”
“We look at the passion,” Farrell said. “The story means so much. The passion behind the individual is so important.”
Just basing your business in Maine is not enough. You need a niche, an untapped niche, she said. “Take what’s conventional and make it natural,” Farrell said.
Right now, the food landscape is filled with “high end in small amounts or cheap and big,” she said. “There is nothing in the middle. We are looking for new innovations that are on trend. Find a way to make a chip not a chip,” Farrell said, pointing to the popularity of vegetable chips and “beer, ice cream, BBQ sauce and salty snacks” as opportunities for local food companies.
“Not everything has been invented yet,” Farrell said. “There will always be something new.”
Alex of Blue OX Malthouse, a commercial malt house in Lisbon Falls, created a way to work a local product into Maine’s food system.
Maine’s growing beer scene, with 63 breweries at last count, is keeping him busy.
“Maine is a large enough state that I don’t have to go outside,” he said.
He has found access to public water, loading docks and “the infrastructure needed” to craft malt in Androscoggin County. But, the Old Town native has discovered, “Maine as a brand has walking legs all the way to New York City,” he said.
The crowning event is the Maine Food Show held Thursday at The Portland Company. Like the Fancy Food Show in New York, it’s a sampling of the most innovative Maine food products.
“The idea is to create a showcase of companies from Maine and those that have a connection to Maine, from Downeast Dayboat scallops to Bouchard Family Farms to Maine clam cakes and Coastal Root Bitters,” Jess Knox, who runs Maine Startup and Create Week, said.
“I think of Stonewall Kitchen, which started at a farmers market,” Knox said. “What’s the next to come? Maybe we already have it.”
Tips to become the next Stonewall Kitchen
1. Network. “Seeds planted now can be sown years down the road,” Aaron Anker said.
2. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Kate Shaffer of Black Dinah Chocolatiers in Westbrook said she learned to make chocolate “after a few years of screwing up.”
3. Take a leap of faith and be open to experimentation.
4. Your story is very important. To get to the shelf, “tell that on the package,” Chelsea Wagner, who manages the local food program for Hannaford Supermarkets, said.
5. “Reach out and be willing to ask for help,” Forrest Butler of Royal Rose Syrups in Brunswick said.
6. Be responsive. “When you are running your own business, the buck stops with you,” Butler said.