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In an effort to cut the distance from farm to fork, a vegetable farmer and a butcher shop owner decided to set up a year-round store selling fresh, local foods closer to the people who buy them.
Now closing in on its first anniversary, The Farm Stand in South Portland sits in a rejuvenating neighborhood once known for its strip mall and the heavy traffic going to and from Portland over the “Million Dollar Bridge,” which closed in 1997.
“The Mill Creek area is in an upswing now,” notes Penny Jordan, co-owner of The Farm Stand on Ocean Street along with butcher Ben Slayton and former Rosemont Market and Bakery manager Joe Fournier.
Located in a former Zumba studio, and sharing space with Heirloom Consignment Maine, The Farm Stand is nestled among three other grocers: Hannaford Supermarkets, Shaw's and Legion Square Market.
“People shop at multiple places,” says Jordan, who is a fourth-generation farmer at Jordan's Farm in Cape Elizabeth. She says upwards of 130 customers come through her store daily.
Jordan works on the farm as well as the store, which opened in August 2014 in 2,400 square feet of space. The shop aims to have hours similar to supermarkets, so it is open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. from Monday through Saturday and 10 a.m. through 6 p.m. on Sunday.
“We wanted to have an impact on local foods and are dedicated to local business. We steered clear of farmers markets. We needed to be more convenient and accessible,” says Slayton, who works in the store and runs Farmers' Gate Market, a meat farm and shop in Wales. He says the stand tries to keep prices competitive with other food stores in the area.
The Farm Stand is getting good reviews from its business neighbors.
“They have brought in a lot of foot traffic here on Ocean Street,” says Jim Gailey, South Portland's city manager. “They're bringing buzz to the area. I've gone into The Food Stand and purchased vegetables. They've created a unique and eclectic store niche here.” The Farm Stand is across from City Hall.
That part of Ocean Street did not have much foot traffic when the old bridge was still there. But with the different location of the Casco Bay Bridge, more businesses are sprouting up in the neighborhood. Gailey says that coincides well with the Mill Creek Master Plan to rejuvenate the area, which city councilors passed unanimously on July 6.
South Portland is Maine's fourth-largest city, with a population around 25,002, according to the 2010 census. Mill Creek runs between Broadway and E Street and abuts the waterfront Knightville neighborhood.
“They came at a time when the neighborhood was growing,” says Melissa Coriaty, owner of nearby Verbena café, which has been in the neighborhood for seven years. “It's made a great impact. There are lots of good restaurants here, too.”
Coriaty says she and The Farm Stand collaborate on some projects, such as a Valentine's Day dinner.
“The Food Stand is a great addition,” says Coriaty. Notably, she already was buying from Jordan's Farm, and now that produce is closer at the stand.
Jordan says she and Slayton were both independently looking to open a market in South Portland, but decided to join forces after Lindsay Weld of Slow Money introduced them. Fournier, a purchaser at Rosemont Market who also had his eyes on South Portland, joined them.
Fournier declined to comment on what percentage of The Farm Stand each co-owner holds. Each invested in The Farm Stand, along with three private investors, for a total of $70,000. Another $70,000 came from the Agricultural Marketing Loan Fund through the Finance Authority of Maine.
The stand has 11 employees, including the owners, six full-time staff and part-time workers, and hopes to add staff as it grows.
“We're beginning to settle down and find a rhythm,” he says. “Positions are becoming more defined, so as we roll through the first year we are getting a better idea of our staffing needs.”
Fournier says he expects $1 million in sales in the stand's first year, and says it will be profitable. He projects 5% annual growth, which he says is conservative and excludes any expansion. He expects single-store sales to be around $1.3 million within five years.
Slayton adds that each co-owner contributes a percentage of sales from their own goods to the store for overhead, but declined to comment on how much.
The group, which says it still is figuring out seasonal fluctuations in food availability and purchasing, is nonetheless thinking broadly toward its future.
“We have a lot of irons in the fire,” says Fournier. That includes a potential second store, more diverse foods, a big kitchen to process its own foods and possibly an eatery.
Adds Slayton, “We're trying to figure a rhythm and size ourselves appropriately. We don't want to overinvest.”
The Farm Stand is looking to get the most out of everything it sells, and aims for zero waste, says Fournier, who on the day Mainebiz visited had just finished making a batch of salsa from aging tomatoes. That also goes for currently unused parts of an animal.
“We are creating foods that used to go into the compost,” he says, such as sauces and ketchup.
The diversity includes Slayton's salumi (cured meats) project now underway to get more value out of a pig. The stand hopes to be selling sausage and other value-added foods within the year.
Slayton says his meat comes from 100% grass-fed animals, most of which are slaughtered by the L & P Bisson and Sons Meat Market & Farm in Topsham, which then ships whole carcasses to his Wales shop, where the meat is cut. All meat is from Maine. He has 24 different farm partners for sourcing meat.
Jordan works with 8 to 10 different farms to get vegetables, plus her own farm. She also buys through Crown O' Maine and Farm Fresh Connection, which extends the network to another dozen farms. The store also buys from six cheesemakers and other purveyors of products it doesn't make, like pasta.
Having two outlets to sell both fresh and aging produce helps, Jordan says, as she can shift extra tomatoes or broccoli from her farm to the store.
“Like any small business, we need to run lean,” Jordan says. “With farming, every season is a startup. [With the stand], we had to grow into working as a team and managing two businesses and product availability.”
Having available products requires a different way of thinking about the definition of “local,” she says. “We need to help people move beyond the 'local' term and think regionally to get a continuous supply.”