For summer, businesses expand in, and into, Belfast
BELFAST - Whether you’re stretching your legs after a long winter’s hibernation or riding in from somewhere warmer, you’ve likely noticed some new businesses around the city. We visited a few of them in recent weeks to find out more about what they do and why.
Greenville gourmet wholesaler tests retail on the coast
In the lower-than-street-level space recently, North Woods Gourmet Girl manager Amanda Carnes was occupying that liminal quiet of a new business awaiting the arrival of summer residents. Shelves were stacked with canning jars of mixed berry jams, jalepeno relishes, carmelized balsamic onions, mustard pickles. When asked about the store’s specialties, however, she crossed the small shop to some swingtop bottles filled with red stuff.
“We have Ketchup,” she said.
Ketchup was the flagship product for North Woods Gourmet Girl when the company started in 2005; a half-dozen varieties. But according to founder and chef Abby Feethy, the company has branched out a lot since then. Today, there are 24 products Feethy calls “gourmet package pantry staples.” The store also stocks a variety of “lifestyle stuff” — glasses from a local glassblower, a few pieces of furniture. soy-based candles, a line of clothing, and later this summer, flatware.
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“The ketchup gets a lot of attention,” she said. In her opinion, however, all of her recipes are equally good, and any could stand out from the competition if given the chance. The challenge, as for any small-scale food entrepreneur, is getting people to try them once.
North Woods Gourmet Girl headquarters in Greenville is primarily a wholesale production facility with a small, seasonal retail outlet. The company’s products can be found in over 100 stores in Maine.
Opening a standalone shop was a way to become more visible, she said.
“We’re trying to create a brand rather than just be a a food company,” she said. “I think it creates a foothold for you. It solidifies a business.” New products can be tested on a small scale, she said. And as visibility goes, having an eye catching sign like the one outside the new shop, doesn’t hurt.
Belfast had been on Feethy’s mind for several years as a possible location for a retail store. “The business community is so strong and really welcoming and very positive,” she said.
A science lab among shops
Several months after local landmark Weaver’s Bakery closed last year, signs of life began to appear behind the windows of the vacant storefront. At first there were cardboard boxes and desks; later, microscopes, assorted lab equipment, aquariums and — standing like a sentinel atop a low partition wall — a yellow Power Ranger action figure.
Today a sign on the door reads: Lotic, Inc. The company specializes in water testing, according to owner John Tipping, specifically: toxicity tests for wastewater treatment facilities and bioassessment of surface waters, which means measuring the density and diversity of living organisms in rivers, lakes and other fresh water ecosystems. The work is typically done for state and federal environmental agencies, either directly, or through companies looking to stay on the right side of regulations.
The company started up in Unity in 1991. Tipping started working for Lotic after moving from Wisconsin with his wife, who had been hired for a teaching job in Maine. Tipping had no prospects and a highly specialized area of expertise when he arrived. Landing the job, he said, amounted to “dumb luck.”
“Like most aquatic entomologists I figured I would graduate from school and become a car salesman,” he said.
Four years ago he bought the company. On the move to Belfast, he said: “It was available, it was the right size, it was cheap and it was close to home.” Tipping lives in Waldo and currently works at the Belfast office with one part-time intern. By summer he said he hopes to bring in another intern and have one paid position. For now, he often he works alone, moving between several stations of microscopes and other equipment set up for specific tasks.
A recent project involved samples from Newtown Creek, a New York City estuary with a science-fiction-caliber legacy of pollution from the petroleum industry. While sifting through a sample of mud from the creek bed, Tipping said his wife found a plastic leg, then an arm. By the time she was done, she had all the pieces of a yellow Power Ranger action figure.
Street clothes, made-to-measure, tuxes and underwear
In its three years, City Drawers has always carried an impressive selection of men’s underwear behind its lingerie store facade. According to owner Dee Bielenberg, a lot men were hip to this and didn’t mind shopping alongside women, but for others, getting in the door was too much of a leap of faith.
“As it became more of a bra shop, some men didn’t want to cross the threshold,” she said.
Enter Man on Main.
Located one door down from City Drawers, Bielenberg’s new store is unambiguously a place for men. The logo shows the name cast into the metal of a manhole cover, and the overall appearance tones down the playfulness of the original store.
Man on Main carries a range of everyday menswear, and offers tuxedo rental through an outside service. There are men’s accessories, “and obviously a wonderful underwear selection,” Bielenberg said.
A unique offering of the new store is custom-tailored shirts, pants and suits, through Texas-based clothier J. Hilburn. Bielenberg is a stylist for the company, meaning she can take measurements on site and help customers navigate a thick binder of style and fabric options.
As someone who has spent the last three years telling women about the transformative effect of properly-sized bras, Bielenberg speaks similarly of the benefits of made-to-measure menswear. Adjustments to the slope of the shoulders, the length of the torso and other areas in which men have long settled for one-size-fits-all, might cost a little more (shirts range from $99 to $169), but she said the difference is worth knowing about.
“People aren’t really that dressy [in Maine],” she said, “but occasionally you have to go to something.”
In which an old house is reclaimed from slum and blight
The building at the corner of Cross and Federal Streets in Belfast has been a work in progress since early 2013 when Seth Thayer bought it as a prenuptial gift for his then-fiance Greg Tinder. The couple had renovated properties before and quickly set about the unglamorous work of tearing down an adjoining barn, shoring up the foundation and gutting the place. Over the winter, work was sporadic, but this spring the building seemed to turn the corner, from a dilapidated old house in need of work, to a place with potential anyone could see. Dormers on the upper story and a covered porch and balcony on the front added to this seemingly new identity. Though, according to Thayer, these touches were more about reclaiming an old identity that had been lost.
In a renovation blog chaptered like a Victorian serial novel (“In which we have walls, but we are still sore!” “In which we have encouraging visitors, some interesting discoveries, and the stairs come down,” “In which I get a little pissed off”), Thayer and Tinder documented the small triumphs, hassles and occasional big unveilings of the undertaking. Originally called “Slum and Blight,” after the designation that the city bestowed on Cross Street and the surrounding area in order to make it eligible for a federal infrastructure grant, the blog was rechristened “Ocean House,” after the building’s earliest known occupant, the Ocean House Hotel.
Little of the original structure remains, but Thayer and Tinder have taken pains to highlight those spots, like the original, wide-clapboard facade, and rebuild new sections to reflect the original as much as possible.
The ground floor and basement are slated to be retail spaces — Brambles, located just up the street, will be moving into the first floor space in September. The top two floors are being converted to a duplex apartment with views across the bay toward Castine. That’s the Ocean House part. The graffiti covered trailers and a dilapidated cold storage building right outside the window recalled the old slum and blight, but Thayer said he didn’t mind.
“I call it ‘industrial chic.’” he said. “We’re ok with having Penobscot [McCrum] there.”
Thayer and Tinder hadn’t picked a tenant for the basement space yet but Thayer said there had been a number of many inquiries.
As of late May, workers were going at a furious pace. Scaffolding had recently come down from the north side of the building new clapboards and pane windows. From the second floor, Thayer pointed to a location across the street that he said offered the best view — the one from which it was easiest to imagine the building completed — then quickly went through the building closing all windows to give the best impression. It was a gesture of pride.
“It’s like our baby,” he said a few minutes later, standing outside. “It occupies our lives.”
Seafood take out business in business park
Over the past two years, Maine Maritime Products has been looking for new angles on a stubborn wholesale seafood market. After flirting with investing in high-tech equipment for separating shellfish meat locally to capture some of the market lost to Canadian processors, the company has hit on a more homespun plan: takeout.
It took an ordinance change to allow prepared food at MMP’s location inside the Belfast Business Park, but the city obliged, and on May 1 Off the Hook Shuckin’ Shack opened in a wing once reserve for raw seafood retail sales.
Today, the haddock filets, tuna steaks and clams are still there, but MMP has added a kitchen, loads of decorations for ambiance and a half-dozen picnic tables on the grass between the building and Route 1.
The menu is tried and true roadside fare, with a few modest tweaks by chef Wayne Cousins, including an unusually light batter for deep fried clams and a two-lobster sandwich called the “Lobster Bomb.”
During regular hours, workers can be seen processing shellfish through windows behind the takeout counter.
“I don’t want to call it dinner and a show,” Cousins said, “but they can see the process, and they love it.”
Not all of the raw ingredients for the kitchen come directly from the prep tables behind the glass, but Cousins said all of the seafood on the menu is either MMP or its parent company, Ipswich Maritime Products.
Off the Hook is easily visible from Route 1, but a hidden entrance through the business park, people have apparently managed to find it just fine. On a recent Friday afternoon there was a steady stream of customers. Cousins said Mother’s Day, which fell just over a week after Off the Hook opened, was the busiest he’s seen in 25 years.
“It’s a trial to get here,” he said. “But once you figure it out the first time, you’re all set.”
Belfast to have bowling again
The long vacant Jed’s Restaurant on Searsport Avenue has been the object of enough false starts that residents could be forgiven for wondering about last year’s announcement that Waldoboro-based All Play Family Entertainment Center was opening a branch in the landmark building. Cast all doubts aside. Last week, workers were installing six candlepin bowling lanes, making interior modifications for a redemption arcade, pool tables, a kitchen and dining area, a room for private parties, and other attractions.
All Play owner Don Benson said he hopes to open the Belfast location in early June. The branch will be similar to the one in Waldoboro, he said, but less reliant on word of mouth publicity than the original, off-the-beaten path location.
Unless you’re going to Friendship, there’s nothing [that direction]. You really have to advertise and get the word out and let people know you’re there,” he said. “Here, we can catch all the tourists headed up to Bar Harbor or Bangor or anywhere on Route 1.”
Mini golf, pottery, froyo
Almost across the street from All Play, on the northeast corner of Route 1 and Swan Lake Avenue, a miniature golf course is under construction. The Wicked Fun Putt has been posting photos of the course as it comes together on the company’s Facebook page.
Fresh Cup Gallery, which features pottery by two local artists, recently opened in the space behind Wanderbird/Northern Lights Gallery on Lower Main Street. The space, notable for the spiral staircase outside, was last occupied by Eat More Cheese, which is now up the hill on Main Street near the traffic light.
A branch of Richmond, Virginia-based frozen yogurt retailer Sweet Frog is slated to open in Reny’s Plaza. The company has 335 stores in 25 states, four in the Dominican Republic and one in London.
Ethan Andrews can be reached at email@example.com