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“Hang on, I've got to pull a rack of chips from the fryer,” says Kelly Brodeur — co-owner with her husband Scott of the startup Vintage Maine Kitchen — before settling into a recent phone interview.
Celebrating their first year in business on Aug. 1, it seems the Brodeurs are pulling countless racks as their small-batch, hand-made potato chips soar in popularity. From a first run of 12 cases produced from 100 pounds of potatoes for a local store, they are today producing chips for about 100 locations in Maine and beyond, and enjoy robust online sales.
They decline to cite revenue, but say their sales figures are twice the start-up loan amount they received from Coastal Enterprises Inc., the Brunswick-based nonprofit that assists with rural business development.
The Brodeurs have carved a niche for themselves producing potato chips using natural, mostly Maine-sourced ingredients — potatoes, sunflower oil, sea salt, maple syrup and other flavors.
Located at 491 U.S. Route 1 in Freeport, Vintage Maine Kitchen is in a 1,300-square-foot suite formerly occupied by Mom's Organic Munchies, which moved to larger quarters elsewhere in Freeport. Equipment is basic — two fryers, a packaging machine, slicing machine, sinks, pans, racks and frying utensils.
Kelly Brodeur, a Lowell, Mass., native, comes to the enterprise with a culinary arts degree from Johnson & Wales University. She's spent years in the food industry and worked in restaurants from Massachusetts to Ireland. Scott, from Dracut, Mass., served as an Army medic.
The couple moved to Freeport 10 years ago. Scott worked at L.L.Bean; Kelly worked for the former Wild Oats Market in Portland and later became an assistant manager at Freeport's Bow Street Market.
When their daughter Merrill was born, the couple decided it was time to start their own business. Being able to set their own work schedules would help make their daughter a priority. And the couple had long daydreamed about making potato chips.
“Scotty and I grew up near a small-batch potato chip shack,” says Kelly. “There was nothing like those fresh, small-batch potato chips. It was something we talked about as a nostalgic food memory — 'Boy, we should bring back that kind of flavor.' It was our 'someday' thing.”
They took the leap and started test batches in the fall of 2014. They established some parameters. They wanted preservative-free, non-GMO, primarily Maine-sourced ingredients and small-batch production for the freshest product. Local sourcing and re-used fryer oil for bio-diesel would be environmentally responsible.
Kelly experimented in her kitchen, with Merrill and Scott as taste-testers. The learning curve took months. Then she landed on the right potato, preparation, cooking process and seasoning.
During this time, they contacted CEI for a business loan to augment their personal investment. Brad Swanson, an adviser with the Maine Small Business Development Centers at CEI, provided business counseling.
Small businesses often have great ideas but don't understand how to commercialize them, Swanson says. That's why the nation's Small Business Development Centers — funded by the Small Business Administration, plus state matches and sponsorship by entities such as CEI — are key to helping businesses start and grow.
“Everything we do is confidential, and there's no cost to clients for our services,” says Swanson. “That was one of the important factors when the SBA started this. Small businesses just couldn't afford consultants, but they needed assistance. We help people identify clear and measurable goals that are attainable and feasible, and to put together a plan, including the marketing, management and financial components, that allows them to chart how to achieve their goals.”
In the first half of 2016, Swanson's clients came from businesses in various stages, including salons, boat builders, cabinet makers, wood product manufacturers, sustainable energy and construction companies, convenience stores, markets and a high-end eldercare facility offering memory care services.
“Whatever business comes in the door, we'll help them. And if we cannot, we will help them find the technical expertise they need,” he says.
Sometimes the issues go beyond business, to lifestyle.
“When clients start a business, one of the things we talk about is the time it takes,” he says. “Let's say you're working a nine-to-five job, you have a salary, health benefits, paid time off. We talk with them about what's going to happen when they no longer have a salary, when 40 hours a week at work turns into 80 hours. We open the lens to look at the big picture.”
Swanson has seen some trends among Maine's small businesses, which he says generally fall into one of two categories — people creating jobs for themselves, and people creating companies to grow, merge or sell.
Another trend is the growth of agriculture-related small businesses.
“Maine last year was the only state that was a net positive producer of agricultural jobs in the country,” he says. “That's a trend that probably started back in the mid-90s. It grows out of people's desire to have fresh, local food, and food security. Maine has great land and a long history of agriculture, and a lot of young entrepreneurs are saying, 'This is the lifestyle we want and the business we want to be in.'”
Which leads to the Brodeurs, who leveraged the Maine-grown potato.
“She came to me with 'the big idea' that, like many entrepreneurs, didn't have quite the right fit in the market,” Swanson recalls of his first discussions with Kelly. “As we talked, she refined her idea. One of her strongest qualities is that she's committed to what she's doing.”
The idea around the product itself was fine, says Swanson, who was delighted to gain first-hand knowledge of Brodeur's products during the testing phase.
“One of the great things about working with food companies is that I get to sample their products,” Swanson says. “That's a lot of fun.”
Discussions were more about market penetration. Initially, Brodeur envisioned farmers markets and retail. Swanson helped her run the numbers and they landed on wholesale distribution as more cost-effective.
“Kelly was great because she's good at figuring out how to be economical with startup costs but also get the quality of product she wanted,” he says. “She saw there was a good profit margin, depending how much she sold, if she went into wholesale distribution.”
The couple placed their first run of chips at Bow Street Market, which supports local vendors. The business evolved with accounts in Portland and that led to contacts at other markets and restaurants.
“It took off,” says Brodeur. “We started with two flavors, Ordinary and Maple. And we just finished our launch of three new flavors.”
Those are Thankful, inspired by Thanksgiving stuffing; Cookout, with applewood-smoked Maine sea salt and black pepper; and Plain Maine, a no-salt chip that was a popular request when the Brodeurs made chips on demand at farmers markets.
As they tested products, the Brodeurs gravitated to certain suppliers. It found that Keuka Gold potatoes from Bell Farms in Auburn have the ideal starch content and cook to a nice golden brown. Maple syrup comes from Kinney's Sugarhouse in Knox. Salt comes from Maine Sea Salt Co. in Marshfield. Spices come from Gryffon Ridge Spice Merchants in Dresden.
Scott Brodeur is instrumental in business operations.
“He's got a background in everything from customer service to warehouse, and he's also an Army veteran, so he's great at trouble-shooting and at building systems,” says Kelly.
In addition to the Brodeurs, the company now employs two part-time workers. Their distributors truck about 50 cases per week — 3,000 to 5,000 1.25-ounce bags—throughout Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire; they hand-deliver to local accounts; and ship direct for website and Amazon sales. Eventually, they plan to add equipment and employees, and increase output.
Small businesses like this are vital to Freeport's economic well-being say, says Economic Development Director Keith McBride. And there's been a lot of development specifically around specialty food products over the past three or four years.
“We're seeing more and more choose Freeport because it's a place they can make and showcase products,” McBride says.
Freeport is an ideal setting for small producers because it already attracts high visitation as a center for national retail outlets such as L.L.Bean, he says.
“The specialty food production niche thrives on being able to bring customers into their space, where they make the product and can show the care and high quality of the ingredients they're putting into it.”
He cites Maine Beer Co., Wilbur's of Maine Chocolates and Mom's Organic Munchies, all in Freeport, as good examples.
The importance of small business to Maine's municipal and state economies can't be overstated, McBride says.
“The reason our economy as a town does well is not only because of the larger, national brands, but because of the smaller businesses that are here, too,” he says. “The national retailers are important to us. But it's also important for us to diversify and have a full range of businesses.”
And it's important for the town to support small businesses, he adds.
“The national retailers have their teams in place,” he says. “But when it comes to somebody like Kelly and her husband, that's when my phone rings. She needs that extra support, and sometimes all it is, is somebody says, 'Hey, let me bounce an idea off you.'”