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October 18, 2017

Maine Food Insider: Awards highlight work of Maine grocers and food producers

Courtesy / Maine Grocers and Food Producers Association
Courtesy / Maine Grocers and Food Producers Association
Ricker-Hill Orchards of Turner is being recognized today as "producers of the year" by the Maine Grocers and Food Producers Association at its annual "Food Means Business" summit in Freport. Pictured, from left, are co-owner Jeff Timberlake, Farm Operations Manager Harry Ricker and Cider Operations Manager Andy Ricker.

The businesses are different in many ways: a Saco snack distributor that's been around for 30 years, a family-owned orchard founded in 1803 that now grows produce in seven Maine towns, and an Aroostook County store owner who started his business in 2009.

But they also have a lot in common — local ties, strong customer service and that community outlook that Mainers come to expect from good businesses.

Snyder's-Lance of Saco, Ricker-Hill Orchards of Turner and Mark Kelley of Country Farms Markets of Washburn and Easton are being recognized Wednesday by the Maine Grocers and Food Producers Association at the annual "Food Means Business" summit in Freeport. The three businesses have been named "associate of the year," "producers of the year" and "grocer of the year," respectively, the association announced this week.

A "Maine home-grown feel" that brings a feeling of being part of the community fabric with it isn't one of the criteria for winning, but winners tend to have it, said Christine Cummings, MGFPA's executive director.

"A lot of these businesses are able to make those small connections," she said Tuesday as she prepared for the summit, which is the 200-member association's biggest event of the year.

Producer of the Year: Ricker Hill Orchards

The day-long conference, besides the awards ceremony, this year has sessions on branding, increasing revenue, a legislative update, vendor pitch session and networking opportunities.

Members range from major chains Hannaford and Shaw's to small stores like Grocer of the Year Kelley's. Producers products are as likely to be found at a local farmers market as on the supermarket shelves. Associates include not only obvious ones, like this year's winner, distributor Snyder's-Lance, but also banks and insurance companies.

Last year's Associate of the Year, for instance, was United Insurance.

The three winners are chosen from nominations made by association members, as well as members of the board.

Producer of the Year winner Ricker Hill Orchards, founded in Turner in 1803, not only grows apples in its orchards in seven towns in central and western Maine, but also harvests cranberries, blueberries, pumpkins and grapes. The company also has more than 1,000 acres of uncultivated wildlife habitat and hundreds of acres of wetlands.

Seventh-generation owner Don Ricker, 81, still works every day with his children and grandchildren, who run the business.

The Rickers say their success lies in the fact the operation is "a family farm."

"We have many employees and employee families who have worked with us for generations," farm operations manager Harry Ricker and his wife, Nancy, office manager, said in a news release announcing the award.

The company three years ago launched a line of hard ciders and opened a tasting room in Turner, with support from MGFPA's members, said Andy Ricker, cider operations manager. They recently bought a new cider press that will be capable of producing 1,000 gallons an hour.

Country Farms Market: Hard work pays off

Courtesy / Maine Grocers and Food Producers Association
Courtesy / Maine Grocers and Food Producers Association
Mark Kelley, owner of Country Farms Market in Aroostook County, was honored today as "Grocer of the Year" by Maine Grocers and Food Producers Association.

Grocer of the Year, Country Farms Market owner Mark Kelley, began in the grocery business when he was in college, working for a local IGA. He bought his first store, in Easton, in 2009, and his second, in Washburn, in 2012. Kelley runs the Washburn store and operates a catering business with Mike Gallagher, who now owns the Easton store.

He said the basics for a successful business are "hard work, long hours and a desire for excellence." He also said that good employees have contributed to his success, as well as giving back to the community by sponsoring and contributing to local events.

Snyder's-Lance: Distributor of more than 800 products

Courtesy / Maine Grocers and Food Producers Association
Courtesy / Maine Grocers and Food Producers Association
Snyder's-Lance was honored today by Maine Grocers and Food Producers Association as "Distributor of the Year." Pictured, from left, are Snyder's-Lance's Jon Dube, Dave Dickey, John O'Malley, Jeff Roy.

Snyder's-Lance, formerly Michaud Distributors, is a subsidiary of the Charlotte, N.C., company, but is familiar to many in Maine as a family-owned business that began in Scarborough in 1980. It's now in Saco and has 35 employees, with 150 distribution routes in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and parts of New York.

The company lists more than 800 separate products, from Maine's Humpty Dumpty potato chips and Snyder's pretzels to sauces made by local companies. Dave Dickey, regional sales manager, says the firm takes pride in its focus on healthy snacks and is constantly evolving with customer needs.

Cummings said the winners all bring something positive to the association and fellow members. She noted that Aroostook County's Kelley, for instance, has a perspective that members in southern Maine don't necessarily have.

One of the missions of the association is to help connect and promote Maine businesses, and Cummings said the awards and reaction to them underlines that.

She said that not only are the recipients excited about winning, those who attend the awards ceremony are excited for them and there's a camaraderie that comes with being part of it. "It's really rewarding to see," she said.

The Maine connection, she said, is a thread that runs through the association's work.

"I don't know if it's the same in other places or not," she said Tuesday. "But I feel like I'm always saying to myself, 'what a small world.'"

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