YARMOUTH, Maine — In a corner storefront where nails and hoops once were made, hot slices of pizza with butternut squash, ricotta and cranberries now can be washed down with cold-brew coffee. Need a bottle of wine for tonight’s dinner party? Ice cream for the kids?
Handy’s, the 2-month-old reinvention of the corner store on Main Street in Yarmouth, has all that plus Ritz crackers, pickles, milk and a bag of chips.
“Handy’s is becoming handy again,” said Roberta Pearson, a North Yarmouth fiber artist sipping an iced tea at the open bakery and cafe, one of three businesses under the Handy’s roof.
The new enterprise is owned by Yarmouth developer Sean Ireland, who purchased the former Andy’s Handy Store to “give the community what they want.” Two established Portland brands, OTTO Pizza and Hilltop Coffee, are partners along with Ireland’s cousin Amy Ireland, who oversees the grab-and-go groceries, beer, wine and bread from Portland’s Standard Baking Co.
From Scarborough to Brunswick to Brewer, independent markets are opening at a rapid clip. Falling somewhere between a food co-op and corporate superstore, these specialty shops are riding the buy-local momentum on waves of kale and consciousness. Call it a reinvention of the New England general store tuned to the tastes of the 21st century.
“When you can’t get to the farmers market, come in here whenever you want,” said Lindsey Levesque, co-owner of Tiller & Rye in Brewer, which opened in April with organic and local produce and fresh meals and pressed juices, such as the Green Toddy. “We’ve had an amazing response. Business is growing every day.”
Carrying just-harvested vegetables, carefully curated quality meats, baked goods and fresh fish, the new grocers are a welcome alternative to the maze of giant markets and corporate feel of Whole Foods or Wal-Mart. Many, including Main Street Markets in Rockland, have full-service cafes where the neighborhood can gather for gourmet breakfast and lunch options.
“I opened the cafe as an afterthought,” said Jennifer Rockwell, who launched Main Street Markets among a busy network of art galleries and restaurants this summer. The 25-year-old moved to the midcoast from New York City and was scrambling to find fresh and healthy meals in a foodscape of fried seafood. “If I am moving to Rockland, I want to eat something healthy and share that with the community.”
At the in-store Garden Cafe, trendy meals such as avocado toast, acai bowls and succulent salmon salads are whipped up in a flash. In the two months it has been open, the cafe has fed an eager stream of tourists and hungry locals.
“This is the kind of place that makes people want to move to Rockland,” said Kerry Altiero, chef and owner of Cafe Miranda, located a few blocks away. He is impressed by the market’s array of goods, from local spices to gourmet ketchup to heirloom tomatoes.
“It has been well received and fills the gap in a food-centric community,” said Richard Rockwell, Rockwell’s father and partner, who built out the space and added brick archways.
Though the market is pricier than nearby Hannaford, many locals say the quality and convenience is hard to beat.
“They have the best-looking tomatoes I’ve ever seen,” said Bruce Busko, owner of Landing Gallery one block away.
Busko admits “you’ll pay way more than you would in a grocery store,” but “the sandwiches are fairly priced” and “it’s certainly nicer. You can sit down and relax for a little bit before you head out.”
Main Street Markets activates the northern part of Main Street, which had been a “dead zone,” according to Busko. Plus it’s a five-minute walk to the ferry terminal, allowing easy access for island hoppers.
Appealing to a more discerning shopper is the goal of this new crop of grocers. Proprietors of On the Vine Marketplace, which is slated to open in early September on Route 1 in Scarborough, say freshness and trust is key.
“Our veggies will be 1 to 2 days old,” said Abel Schultze, an Eliot native, whose On the Vine Marketplace in Exeter, New Hampshire, just turned 10.
“We grew up with mothers who made things,” said Schultze. “All our baked goods are from scratch; we hired a pastry chef who can make eclair dough, not just fill them.”
The soaring space, once home to the Dunstan School, a red brick schoolhouse, and later a buffet-style restaurant, is being transformed into a welcome destination on a busy commercial strip. Customers will find a full-service butcher, fishmonger, bakery and deli as well as a wine and beer loft. Freshly made smoothies and sandwiches round out the offerings.
“We’ve hired experts that know meat, produce and fish,” said co-owner Scott Edwards. “Our focus is on quality. You have to be very vigilant or you can lose customers like that.”
A sure way to retain them is by offering a space to congregate that isn’t home or work. Back in Yarmouth, where another specialty store, Rosemont Market and Bakery, is a mere blocks away, Handy’s is expanding its appeal with a comfortable seating area.
To retain clients for more than an impulse buy or two, a new carriage house with seating for up to 32 will be attached to Handy’s by Thanksgiving.
Coffee and pastry will be consumed by day and pizza at night.
“The service we provide is a gathering place,” said Sean Ireland, who is constructing a second floor for community meetings and creating space for an art gallery. “In a small town you need to have a space for multiple functions.”
Amy Ireland, who runs Handy’s Market, said the market isn’t a convenience store, but a reinvention of the general store.
“It’s everyday items, both specialty and unique,” Ireland said.
In Rockland, Main Street Markets is still testing local appetites. It will add more products, from health care to locally roasted coffee, as it finds its footing.
“There are so many things we can do here,” said Jennifer Rockwell. “You can make a big impact in a small town.”
To locals such as Altiero, the new addition already has.
“You couldn’t get a fresh vegetable in downtown Rockland for at least 10 years,” he said. “This adds to the quality of life.”