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November 11, 2021

In Lewiston, brewer wins $80K prize, including free rent for a year

storefront with sign COURTESY / Carl Sheline A storefront at 120 Lisbon St., provided rent-free for a year, is part of a prize package through Lewiston’s JumpstartME business attraction competition.

A home brewer looking to scale up into a startup business will get a big boost as the winner of a business-attraction competition in Lewiston.

Rusty Bus Brewing Co. has won JumpstartME, a competition to attract new businesses to Lewiston’s Downtown Business District. 

“In August, my wife happened to see an article about JumpstartME  and we thought, 'This is exactly what we need to start our business,'” Peter Ouellette, who owns Rusty Bus with his wife Nichole, told Mainebiz.

2 people smiling and hugging
Courtesy / Ouellette Family
Peter and Nichole Ouellette of Lewiston will scale up their home brewery into a downtown Lewiston startup.

Year of free rent, services

Facilitated by the Downtown Lewiston Association and the LA Metro Chamber of Commerce, the contest launched in July and generated 15 applicants. Eligibility included businesses that are a sole proprietorship, limited liability company, corporation, partnership, S Corporation or nonprofit, or will become one of those entities within three months of winning and with support provided through the contest from accounting and legal services.

The focus was on businesses in the food-and-beverage industry, although other established businesses and startups could apply.

A prize package valued at more than $80,000 includes rent-free space at 120 Lisbon St. for a year — one of the largest donations to the competition. It was made by the property owner, newly elected mayor Carl Sheline.

“Proactive and small-scale focused economic development efforts like the JumpstartME contest are crucial to moving the city forward,” Sheline said in a news release. “Rusty Bus Brewing Co. will be a huge asset adding to the quality of life and to our business center’s vitality.”

Also included in the prize package were accounting services from Austin Associates PA, legal services from Skelton Taintor & Abbott, architectural assistance from Platz Associates, advertising from WGME/WPFO, web development from Dojo Digital, signage facilitation from Marquis Signs, branding/marketing development, as well as membership in the Downtown Lewiston Association, LA Metro Chamber of Commerce, & Androscoggin Network Builders.

“The commitment and support that area businesses made to this program, and to its winner Rusty Bus is a prime example of why doing business in Downtown Lewiston is ideal, and will ultimately support Rusty Bus’s success.” said Shanna Cox, the chamber’s president and CEO.

Choosing a winner

Most contestants were from Lewiston, Auburn and the surrounding area, said Michael Dostie, president of the Downtown Lewiston Association. One was from Massachusetts and another had an established restaurant in Old Orchard Beach. Most were food and brew. One was a wellness studio and another was a “rage room,” a business that allows people to destroy objects in a safe space.

There were a variety of considerations for determining a winner. One had to do with the labor shortage in the food and brew industry and labor and materials shortages in the construction industry, resulting in extended timelines.

Rusty Bus’s application addressed those concerns, said Dostie. As a relatively simple operation compared with, say, a restaurant with a commercial kitchen, the startup would need only a couple staffers for the brewery, perhaps one or two more when the taproom opens, and had a relatively simple build-out.

“The current hospitality sector labor market and challenges with build-out overages were also factors that led us to Rusty Bus,” said Sandy Marquis, treasurer of the Downtown Lewiston Association and member of the JumpstartME evaluation team. “Peter and Nichole were cognizant of the barriers in these areas and developed a business plan to overcome them with a low staff size and room for organic growth as the business develops.”

The Ouellettes were notified Oct. 1 and their lease was finalized this past weekend. In between, the couple has been consulting with service providers and with the city of Lewiston’s economic and community development department.

“The city has been phenomenal to work with so far. Everyone involved has been very supportive and very willing to assist us with advice, available programs, licensing, etc.,” said Ouellette.

Mango IPA

Ouellette grew up in Lewiston and has lived in the area most of his life. For the past decade, he’s been the manager for Hudson Bus Lines in Lewiston, which is the contracted carrier for the Lewiston public school system.

Nichole is a western Massachusetts native who moved to Portland as a youth. She’s taught at Farwell Elementary School in Lewiston for the past seven years.

About five years ago, they started getting interested in the brewing industry. They bought equipment to experiment with recipes at their home, sharing the results with friends and family. They’ve come up with 10 recipes, including an India pale ale made with mango.

“It’s probably the best fruited beer we’ve ever made,” Ouellette said. “That will be one of our staples.”

Several years ago, the couple began discussing the possibility of opening their own brewery.

“It seemed like it was such a fun industry to work in,” he said. “We made a lot of great friends.”

Before the competition and before the pandemic, they had purchased brewing equipment from another local brewery that had expanded and was selling its original system. The couple had also looked at a number of properties around Lewiston and Auburn. 

By March 2020, they thought they had a possible space. Then everything shut down.

“We put our ideas on hold and stored our equipment,” he said.

When they saw notices about the competition, they jumped in.

“We thought, 'Maybe it’s time to try and get things going again,'” he said.

The project will move forward now with interior renovations at 120 Lisbon St., including building out a brewery area and a taproom. That includes installing systems in the brewery including electricity and floor drainage, and amenities in the taproom such as a big screen TV and a lounge in one corner.

The couple has developed a logo with an old-fashioned bus. In the last few weeks, they’ve been working to develop the brand and marketing.

The goal is to be operational by April 2022, with at least six to eight varieties on tap at any given time.

“Since we both have day jobs that we intend to continue for the time being, we plan on hiring a full-time brewer,” said Ouellette. “We will be open Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday.”

The space and services are meaningful.

“It’s a huge, huge shot in the arm for us and our business,” said Ouellette. “This will give us the ability to basically go into it with half the cost that we would have originally.”

Free rent plus free services for a year will enable the couple to invest the money they otherwise would have spent into expanding their brewery system as the business grows, he said. It’s expected that the growing number of restaurants surrounding the location will afford partnership opportunities. 

“Because I grew up here, it means a lot that we can contribute back to the economy and to the community,” he said.

Dostie said he considers the competition to be a benefit to the community.

“It activates a space that has been vacant for well over five years,” he said. “We also looked at the benefits this type of business would have to surrounding business and restaurants. We looked at how they would contribute to a nightlife vibe here in the downtown. They really ticked all the boxes. We’re really excited to have them open and become part of our downtown business community.”

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