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Earlier this year, Mainebiz honored Amber Lambke as one of its Business Leaders of the Year.
Lambke was at the center of Skowhegan’s downtown revitalization, converting the former Somerset County jailhouse into a grist mill for Maine Grains Co.
Maine Grains’ growth has, in turn, spun off other businesses. Visiting with Lambke at the Maine Grains site, it was clear she’d helped propel the growth but is now watching as other small businesses grow around her.
A decade into Maine Grains’ tenure in the former jail building, there is now the grist mill, a community radio station; a retail store selling Maine Grain products, cookbooks and cooking related products; the Miller’s Table cafe, which sells loaves of bread, pastries and pizza cooked in a wood-fired oven built by Maine Wood Heat Co. of Skowhegan; and a cheese maker and shop, Crooked Face Creamery. A maker of pizza dough, the Good Crust, recently outgrew the space and moved to nearby Canaan.
Combined with what’s going on along the Kennebec riverfront, Skowhegan is gaining momentum.
In recent days, Mainebiz returned to Skowhegan to meet with some of the other people who are contributing to its growth.
Crooked Face Creamery has been making specialty cheeses for more than a decade, but the company defined its identity in the past three years with its move into the Maine Grains building, at 42 Court St. in downtown Skowhegan.
Founder Amy Rowbottom, who grew up on a dairy farm in Norridgewock, was working at a publishing house in Vermont but longed to get back to Maine. At first, she worked for Maine Wood Heat Co. (more on that company below), and eventually drew on her dairy farm background to start making cheese, specializing in ricotta.
She was selling the ricotta at local farmers markets, but longed for a greater reach — at first, shooting for Whole Foods and other retailers. As she says, she had “to scratch and claw to get an equipment loan” to make cheese. And even then it was a slow process to make any money.
“Ricotta paid the bills for 12 years,” she says.
It was in 2018, as she was having coffee with Amber Lambke at the Miller’s Table at Maine Grains, that her fortunes changed direction. She asked Lambke how to garner more business.
“Amber said, ‘Why don’t we go look at something next door.’”
Next door was an empty space — also part of the former jail, a basement-like space with thick granite walls.
“Amber was thinking about putting in a tap room, but shifted gears” to welcome in Crooked Face Creamery.
The building is part of the downtown Tax Increment Financing district, which would help defray expenses.
Rowbottom spent more than a year outfitting the space, which required clean rooms for processing raw milk and making cheese. Working in the fortresslike space, she worked with contractors to drill holes for wiring and pipes, install drains and amp up the electrical service.
“I designed it from scratch. There was no turnkey plan. It was all custom,” she says. “I’d have an electrician come in and shake his head. I’d have to say, “We’re gonna have to think outside the box on this one.’”
Fit-out took over a year.
But now the space has the production area and a tiny, but attractive storefront, where customers can buy the original smoked ricotta but also a range of artisan cheeses. She evolved from wanting to be in supermarkets to being happy having a cheese shop.
“I’m known as the Cheese Lady,” she says.
When she was growing up in the area the prevailing thought among young people was “Get out.”
Now, with Skowhegan’s revival, Rowbottom says, “I’m surrounded by motivated people.”
Another natural fit with the grain-and-flour making business is pizza dough. Amber Lambke’s twin sister, Heather Kerner, has been making pizza dough now since September 2020.
The Good Crust, her business, has continued to grow. The dough is sold frozen in Rosemont Market and other shops. The company claims to have “the only commercially-available pizza dough consisting 100% of Maine-sourced, freshly-milled grains.”
In May, Good Crust moved into a 1,200 space on Main Street in Canaan, about 6 miles from Skowhegan.
Kerner bought a building that once housed a restaurant and spent a couple months fitting it out with a kitchen and heavy duty Univex Silverline Spiral Mixer, a mid-five figures investment that can process 350 pounds of dough at a time.
“We use 100% Maine Grains,” says production manager Shawn Duffy, an Oklahoma native who worked at Maine Grains before joining the Good Crust.
With a team of a dozen part-time employees, the dough is shaped into dough balls, each of which is enough for one pizza. The dough is bagged and frozen, then distributed to 45 health food and farm stores, breweries, restaurants and caterers in New England
The Good Crust could still be considered a side hustle for Heather Kerner. She still has her day job as an occupational therapist with the area school system. Like many people in Skowhegan and Maine itself, she wears several hats. The signature on her emails describes her role as “Occupational Therapist, Dough Shaper, Ambassador of Regional Grains.”
Her workforce includes employees who have what she characterizes as unique circumstances, including brain injury, cerebral palsy, autism and addiction recovery.
The Good Crust “allows me to use my unique skill set, as an occupational therapist in special education, to grow jobs for underserved populations,” she said at the time of the move to the Canaan site.
“The Good Crust is a great example of the type of mission driven work CEI is excited and honored to support,” says Sarah Guerette, director of the CEI Women’s Business Center. “Heather’s commitment to supporting Maine’s local grain economy, providing good jobs for individuals with unique needs, and investing in her local community in Somerset County are all values that deeply resonate with the work that we are doing at Coastal Enterprises.”
About 2 miles from downtown Skowhegan, in a small industrial park, Maine Wood Heat Co. is producing a range of custom wood stoves.
It may be best known for its wood-fired pizza ovens — which can be 5 feet around with copper domes, capable of cooking pizzas at high temperatures.
The ovens can be seen at the Miller’s Table at Maine Grains, at Maine Beer Co. in Freeport, at Oxbow Brewing, at Cushnoc Brewing, at Flight Deck Brewing on Brunswick Landing, among other places. The ovens can sell for $50,000 to $55,000.
Maine Wood Heat was founded in 1976 by Albie Barden and Cheryl Barden Kemper. Albie, who left the company in 2020, was known for building elaborate masonry wood-burning ovens and fireplaces. Today, led by son Scott Barden (with mom Cheryl Kemper managing the business side), the company has shifted slightly to focus on the pizza ovens and custom metal work.
It is based in a 12,000-square-foot industrial building, situated on four acres, which might allow for eventual expansion.
Aside from Scott Barden and Kemper, there are just four employees. The company had sales last year of $1.2 million.
On a recent rainy day, one of the pizza ovens was burning firewood, a black Lab was wandering the floor and a forklift was humming, moving materials.
Barden said taking over the family-owned business was “messy” at times, but he’s now focused on expansion. The company is growing its custom metal working services, and sports some beautiful examples with its exterior signs.
He’d like to expand into more furniture, and has a full woodworking shop ready to go. And there’s talk of how they might expand the production area on the four acres the company owns.
Back at Maine Grains, Lambke is also planning an expansion that, in its first phase, will include a building to house Maine Grains offices and dedicated space for the year-round farmers market. A second phase will include apartments.
The portion of downtown that borders the Kennebec River is also poised for upgrades.