BELFAST, Maine — A couple of weeks ago, when Yvonne Chick of Orland had her two hogs slaughtered, she wasn’t looking forward to the big, messy task of processing the meat in her own kitchen.
Fortunately, she had another option available to her — the community kitchen at Halcyon Grange No. 345, which was open to the public in May after a major renovation effort. The kitchen, licensed and built to commercial standards, is intended to be an incubator for small, value-added businesses and a community resource for other types of cooking projects, such as Chick’s hog processing ordeal.
“We just had this great place to cut it all up and get it into the freezer,” she said of the kitchen. “It’s big and clean and has big, stainless steel counters, a huge stove, a dishwasher. The space is fabulous.”
Chick, who also is the volunteer kitchen coordinator for the grange, said that she and other grange members are excited about the possibilities for the community kitchen. So far, the kitchen has attracted bakers, an older man who makes crackers, and a couple of other small producers who have come in and made their wares in a clean, licensed establishment. It is among a few other similar enterprises that recently have opened in the area, including the licensed commercial kitchen at the Orland Community Center.
Lots of people in Maine are cheering on the growth of this type of commercial kitchen, including Donovan Todd, the state executive director for the Farm Service Agency. He said Thursday that the more kitchens like this there are in Maine, the better it will be for the state’s farmers.
“They’re kind of an incubator-type situation, to help people come up with new markets and new products,” he said. “Value added is where the money is. From my perspective, a lot of the farmers today are surviving by being producers of raw products, but the ones making more of the money are the ones that can process the food and sell it as a value-added product.”
Fall from grace
But just because licensed commercial kitchens are a good idea doesn’t mean that their success is going to be a slam-dunk. Todd and others are quick to mention Coastal Farms and Foods Inc. in Belfast, a large-scale food processing facility that went bust dramatically in the spring of 2014, just two years after it began operations in a former manufacturing warehouse.
When Coastal Farms, a 50,000 square foot enterprise, went dark, it cost its investors nearly $2 million, according to co-owner Jan Anderson of Belfast, who invested in it herself. Producers renting space there also had to scramble to find a new home. The essential problem, she said Thursday, was one of undercapitalization. That meant that when things didn’t go as predicted — such as when the blueberry processing and freezing portion of the business that was expected to subsidize the commercial kitchen failed for two years running — there wasn’t any margin for error.
“I think the vision or concept of Coastal Farms was the right one,” she said. “We would have recovered had we continued to get backing. But the lender, Farm Credit, had subsidized us the first two years, and they did not want to [continue].”
In hindsight, Anderson said that if she could do it again she would start it smaller and get more capital so that the business could weather growing pains. If she had owned the building and not rented it, and perhaps found a different way of supporting the commercial kitchen, she believes that also could have allowed the business to survive. Over the two years it existed, the products made there included tofu, ice cream, soda, dilly beans and blueberry vinaigrette. The first year, two farmers rented storage space from her. The second year, 48 farmers did.
“I don’t think of it as a failure,” she said. “I think of it as an idea that was ahead of its time. I think it needs to be done, and it should be done.”
One more thing she said she took away from her experience with Coastal Farms is a changed outlook on the world.
“I had a lot more faith in people than was reasonable,” she said. “I was really hoping that when the dream became a reality, everyone would pitch in to help. In the two years when we were in business, everyone loved it. All our political representatives wanted to come get their pictures taken. Then when we ran into financial difficulty, they wouldn’t even respond to an email.”
Both Mainers who were close to Coastal Farms and those who were just observers are trying to learn from its demise. Cheryl Wixson of Cheryl Wixson’s Kitchen rented space at Coastal Farms to produce her line of prepared food. Now, she is processing her goods at the Orland Community Center and consulting with other community kitchen managers.
“My philosophy is that we need to have failures so we can figure out what works. That’s the way I look at it,” she said. “[Coastal Farms] broke my heart, but then it didn’t, really. We have the opportunity to say this is what worked there and this is what didn’t. My mission now is to educate other people so we can help everybody pull together and learn from that.”
Mike Malenfant of the Orland Community Center said that he is pleased with his own facility’s growth, and its role in the town. The center is located in the old Orland Consolidated School, which town residents voted to close in 2011. Now, the structure is home to office space, a community gym, banquet and meeting space and the kitchen, where chefs, such as Wixson, produce their wares.
“You’ve got to figure out what type of direction you want to go in — what type of food,” he said of the kitchen. “You’ve got to have your policies in place.”
Wixson said that she’s a big fan of collaborative management, which she sees at both the Halcyon Grange and the Orland Community Center.
“We’re all working together for a common mission,” she said. “We listen to each other. We respect each other’s experience. That’s what I truly believe is needed to make anything happen.”