UNITY, Maine — Amish chef Matthew Secich of Charcuterie looked like a new man Tuesday as he bounded happily around his small store checking on the cheeses in the smoker and planning for the week to come.
The black cloud that seemed to hang over his head earlier in March because of his frustration over high food safety regulatory hurdles and heavy paperwork requirements had vanished. On Monday, he was visited by two new inspectors from the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry’s Division of Quality Assurance and Regulations and described the visit as very positive — a big shift from the way he felt after previous visits from state inspectors.
“It’s a new day. I have a smile on my face. I made a duck sausage I haven’t made in three weeks. I’ve been playing with food all day,” Secich said. “I feel that the state will be working with us.”
Last week, state officials told the BDN that inspectors were trying to help Secich find solutions to the problems they identified, but the chef at that time expressed his belief that the state’s complicated food standards put an unfair burden on small businesses such as his.
Secich, a former big-city chef who became Amish last year and moved with his family to the Unity Amish community, has found that his unusual story and artisanal meats and cheeses have drawn customers from far and wide to his popular Leelyn Road business. But despite the steady parade of customers, Secich said last week he was thinking of closing Charcuterie because of the regulatory issues.
He had received a retail butcher and meat shop license from the state when he opened his business Sept. 4, 2015, but was dismayed when inspectors told him later that retail establishments such as his now need to create a highly detailed food safety plan and follow specific standards laid out in the 158-page-long Maine Food Code. They also looked askance at some of his decisions, such as storing his food in a custom-built ice house instead of using modern refrigeration technology. The Amish faith doesn’t allow for certain types of technology.
That was then.
“The state said we should be working it out together,” Secich said, adding he didn’t want to share specifics just yet because the plan is still a work in progress. “The neat part is there wasn’t a fight.”
According to John Bott, the communications director for the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, the positive feelings are mutual.
“We have been working cooperatively with Mr. Secich to support his small business and his continued success,” Bott said in a prepared message. “Based on feedback from our inspectors and Mr. Secich, we are confident that everyone’s interests will ultimately be served. I think our relationship with Mr. Secich is now more indicative of the type of work our professionals do every day to assist in growing Maine agriculture and supporting the efforts of farmers and producers to provide wholesome, safe, local food.”
In addition to feeling better about his improved relationship with state food safety officials, Secich said he’s also been buoyed by support from his customers and the community. On Saturday, he sold out. Crowds packed Charcuterie, with people waiting in line for two hours for their chance to score hand-crafted sausage and other speciality items.
“It’s been pretty neat,” the chef said. “I feel so humbled.”
One of the people who dropped into the store was Rep. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, who has worked in the Legislature on local food issues.
“This issue is big. It’s really front and center,” he said of the food movement. “People want whole food, and at the state we have to make that much easier.”
Hickman said his experience at Charcuterie on Saturday was remarkable.
“I was struck by how many people stood in line for two hours to try the food,” he said. “As we were in line, people were talking about the good old days and how they were raised on food just like this — whole food that has been minimally processed. People in line were saying they didn’t particularly care about compliance. They just wanted the food. I think they just believed he was not going to be producing food that made them sick.”
Another Saturday shopper was Susan Law, a fan of local food who recently moved to Bangor from Pennsylvania. She had read about Charcuterie in the newspaper in January and meant to check him out. When she learned last week of his regulatory troubles, she decided she couldn’t wait any longer to make the trek to Unity.
“I thought I should head over and show my support,” she said. “When I got there, there were so many people I realized he didn’t need a pep talk.”
Instead, she chatted with the other folks in the store and bided her time to take home some smoked cheese and bacon sausage, one of Secich’s specialties.
“Everybody kind of bonded over supporting him,” Law said, adding that she later bumped into many of the same people while shopping at the nearby Amish-owned Community Market & Country General Store, and again when she stopped at 4Points BBQ & Blues House in Winterport for dinner. “I walked through the door, and all these people were saying hello to me. I’m not from this area — nobody should know who I am. Then I realized that all these people in line had decided to go get barbecue, and we sat together.”
Law, who said she strongly hopes Charcuterie will remain open, said it was a good day for her.
“It was a good introduction to Maine for me,” she said. “I haven’t had a lot of time to get out and do things, and it was a great opportunity to get out and meet people.”
Another community member rooting for Secich is Gunnar Norback, a 21-year-old Unity College student who is studying earth and environmental science.
“I am in complete support of him,” Norback said. “He’s popular in the community. Plus he brings a quality of food we can’t get anywhere else. The most we can do is offer him support and kind words. We are willing to help him with whatever he needs done. Chores, errands — there are people willing to drop what they’re doing and help him.”