A man crosses the street in downtown Biddeford on Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

One of Maine’s former mill towns is seeing a renaissance local leaders say is led by its vibrant food and drink scene.

Food and Wine magazine recently named Biddeford as one of four “Small Cities with Big Food Scenes” on a list highlighting the next great food cities in the United States. It was the only community in Maine that made the list.

Biddeford and its surrounding communities saw more than $145 million in restaurant sales in 2021, by far the highest revenue number it has seen going back to 2004, which is the farthest back that state data is available. Sales have more than doubled during that time, with restaurants in the Biddeford area seeing a growth rate far beyond that in Portland and surrounding communities.

Once a thriving mill community, Biddeford saw difficult times after all of the textile mills that once drove its economy shut down. It has seen significant development in the last few years, but still has room to grow on several fronts, local leaders say.

The development was spurred by revitalization efforts from city officials and prominent locals to make Biddeford a more attractive destination to live and work in. When a waste-to-energy plant downtown closed a decade ago, it opened the door for changes, said Biddeford Mayor Alan Casavant. Locals had long complained about the smell and truck traffic brought by the incinerator.

“Biddeford had something that nobody else did and that was cheap rent,” Casavant said. “With Portland prices going up, there were a lot of restaurant entrepreneurs that looked elsewhere. And some settled in Biddeford.”

The community of around 23,000 residents is actually one of the oldest permanent settlements in Maine, first being settled by Europeans in 1616. That predates modern Portland’s first non-Native settlement by some years, leading Food and Wine to refer to it as Portland’s “quiet older sister.”

Young people walk in Biddeford on Tuesday afternoon. The city has seen recent renown for its food scene, with city leaders say that further growth is likely ahead. Credit: David Marino Jr. / BDN

All the new food and drink businesses downtown have spurred a renewed collective pride and encouraged further development, Casavant said. That includes new sidewalks, new lighting, cobblestones and the opening of the city’s first parking garage in 2021.

But growth is also a “double-edged sword,” Casavant noted: Housing prices have soared in part because Biddeford has become a more attractive place to live. In the new position as a city on the upswing, he hopes he can focus on smart growth rather than growth for the sake of growth in the future.

And there are still pieces that need to be put in place. Of note is the lack of retail stores downtown: Casavant said he wants to see a new clothing store and a pharmacy.

One area that the city has the potential to grow in is entertainment options, said Delilah Poupore, executive director of the non-profit Heart of Biddeford, which promotes the revitalization of the city’s downtown.

She noted that there is City Theater and Ingenious Escape Games, an escape room. Yet, she sees the potential for further growth on that front, both downtown as well as recreational opportunities in the nearby Saco River.

“We need more things that you can bring your family to, like go bowling … or wall-climbing,” Poupore said.

Poupore noted that the downtown had already succeeded in bringing in many new faces, with foot traffic being prominent at both newer businesses, like Elements Books Coffee Beer, and long term mainstays, like Pizza by Alex, which has served Greek-style pizza since 1960.

“The restaurant scene is attracting younger people to move and live here,” Poupore said. “It’s becoming a place that people are coming to as a destination.”

The revitalization of Biddeford has spilled across the Main Street bridge to downtown Saco, just on the opposite side of the Saco River.

Natives like Katie Pinard, who owns Elements Books Coffee Beer with Saco’s Michael Macomber, have seen the highs and lows of Biddeford-Saco’s downtown corridor. The present success is decades in the making, Pinard said.

“We’ve kind of lived through that entire storyline,” Pinard said. “And we feel so proud to be part of what’s happening.”

Elements opened in 2013, serving as a hub and meeting place for the community since then. People date, network and just socialize as they purchase coffee from Elements’ roastery, craft beer and books.

The COVID-19 pandemic only magnified that aspect of the business and highlighted the importance of social connection, Pinard said, amid a pandemic that has affected the mental health of many locals.

“There’s a real sense of meaning and purpose in being able to give back to the community, to create an anchor space,” Pinard said.

A man carrying takeout bags exits the Palace Diner on April 26, 2022. Credit: David Marino Jr. / BDN

Another meeting space for locals is the city’s iconic Palace Diner. Co-owner Chad Conley, who reopened the spot with Greg Mitchell in 2014 after a brief period of closure the previous year, said business was better than ever. Downtown was frequently seeing people who had the disposable income to go out to eat, resulting in more restaurants than ever. Biddeford’s economy appeared to be stronger than ever, he said.

The diner first opened in the 1920s, and still retains its classic set-up: 15 seats inside a box car. While it went through a major renovation a year ago, rebuilding the entire kitchen among other changes, the owners have decided to not add a dining room.

For a diner that has served as a center for the Biddeford population, including mill workers, for nearly a century, some formulas shouldn’t be changed, Conley said.

“We think it’s just a really magical place,” Conley said. “We don’t want to mess with that.”

Though even advocates acknowledge flaws, nearly everyone in Biddeford sees an optimistic future for the “Proud City.” Pinard noted that the creative sparks that had so elevated the city in recent years makes sense in a city once home to thousands of hardworking mill workers.

“We have this long history of being makers in this community,” Pinard said. “All these different makers have found their way here to Biddeford, and I don’t think that’s accidental.”