Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Building a hub for food: Behind the scenes with a community project to feed bellies and souls

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Exploding out of the mind of Portland idea-man Eli Cayer, 39, and with financial backing from his Urban Farm Fermentory, is the conversion of a former East Bayside taxi garage into a home for food processors and preparers right on the Portland peninsula.
With his eye ever fixed on the Next Big Thing for the Forest City (he's had his hand in everything from public transit to community engagement to booze), Cayer is not only projecting the February 1 opening of the yet-to-be-named new space, which will house an expanded space for Bomb Diggity Bakery and an all-natural fruit-popsicle maker — he has also offered the Portland Phoenix a behind-the-scenes look at how ideas like this one arise, develop, change, adapt, get wrecked, get salvaged, and ultimately, if the stars align, actually happen.
It's a peek at what goes into bringing great new businesses and ideas to Portland. More often, as Cayer observes, "you see what worked" — at a grand opening or community open house. "Sometimes it doesn't work," he says wryly, and with personal experience.
Cayer has started businesses in Portland for many years. There was a DIY bicycle-repair shop called the Hub, which led to cycle-rickshaws (predating by a decade the ones we saw this summer), and then an unfruitful plan to install a downtown refueling location for biodiesel vehicles. He founded the community group MENSK to bring together like-minded creative people in hopes of cross-pollinating great ideas. He co-founded Maine Mead Works, and then left to help start the Urban Farm Fermentory, which makes mead, hard cider, and a rapidly expanding line of kombucha drinks. Not all of these endeavors have worked out as planned, and others ran their course, after which Cayer moved on.
Now, with the UFF growing strong, another Cayer notion is taking shape.
"I've been dreaming about this space for a while now," he says, standing in the vast open cavern that used to be the garage home to ABC Taxi. It's another part of the same 200 Anderson Street building that houses the UFF, which is how Cayer heard, last June, that the taxi company was moving to a new space off the peninsula.
He signed a lease in August, based on commitments from a couple of prospective tenants, and started submitting permitting applications to the city for different uses as well as renovations.
When he did, Cayer admits, "I unfortunately worded it in a way that scared" city officials scrutinizing how the building would be divided for various tenants. An initial potential tenant was a man who would be making countertops; also interested was Bomb Diggity, seeking to expand both its bakery business as well as the social mission of its nonprofit parent Momentum (which works with people who have intellectual disabilities) out of the space it presently shares with Local Sprouts on Congress Street. Cayer soon found out that city rules governing spaces with multiple uses (like manufacturing and food preparation) meant different permitting and building requirements than Cayer was used to from his experience with single-use spaces, like the UFF.
That led to delays, which meant the countertop-maker dropped out, but ultimately that change made life easier; he found a beginning cheesemaker who wanted to rent some space — which put the entire building back into just one use (food prep) and on familiar regulatory ground.
But even that confusion wasn't as bad as the mess Cayer found in the space itself. "I pressure-washed the floors like six times," he says with a grimace, recalling a six-inch-deep mess of grime, oil, and other disgustingness piled up in the back corner after the first round of pressure-washing. After all, it had been a taxi garage. "Cars parked here for a decade," Cayer notes, pointing to areas of the concrete floor that have been worn down by traffic and eaten away by chemicals. "It was gross."
After the second pressure-wash, it was time for a degreaser. And then, yes, more pressure-washing. It was not the only work needing doing: the roof needed some repairs and a paint job; old electrical and phone wires snaked through the open rafters overhead (Cayer got $200 from a scrap-metal yard when he'd finished yanking it all out).
Nevertheless, by September Cayer had the bakery and cheesemaker tenants committed and permitting under way. "Then it was sort of figuring out the layout and trying to find contractors" to build out the space.
In October, another snafu arose. The cheesemaker, Rachel Lauriat, learned she couldn't actually work in the new space. A creamery needs intensive plumbing (you'd be surprised at how much liquid is involved in making tasty solids), and those requirements were more than was available on site. Adding the pipes would come at a huge cost Lauriat was hoping to avoid.
And then there was the ventilation. Beyond working with huge kettles and steam systems that require good air flow, the product itself can be picky. The final step in cheese-making is ripening, working with live cultures that require specific ranges of humidity, temperature, and air circulation speeds. Not surprisingly, advanced ventilation control like that wasn't already installed and waiting in the former industrial warehouse and loading dock (along a disused railroad bed) — and the situation was complicated by the potential for other live organisms to be in the air from the bakery (live bread yeasts) and fermentory (fermenting yeasts and related bacteria).
Without direct access to a window, and without the landlord's permission to ventilate through the roof, Lauriat was out of luck. She calls the decision "quite disappointing," and is still looking for a workable space in Portland. The bakery, and the popsicle-maker who would eventually come in to take her place, she says, "need way less plumbing and ventilation than I do." And even though she won't be an immediate neighbor, Lauriat is still working with Momentum to plan some cheese-making workshops for that agency's clients.
With Lauriat out, Bomb Diggity decided to revamp its floor plan to save some money, which delayed construction some more. And Cayer had to network like crazy to find someone to fill the empty spot.
That person, found after a couple weeks of searching, was Tanya Rosenberg, a bartender and commercial painter whom Cayer had known for more than a decade. Last July she had started a company that would become Pure Pops, making organic, all-natural popsicles in two-dozen crazy flavors like Apple Cranberry Crisp, Avocado Lime, and Pumpkin Pie.
She has been based near her home at Sugarloaf and selling them in sports/outdoors businesses from Scarborough to the Forks (and, obviously, Carrabassett Valley). But with a new contract bringing her pops onto the Bowdoin College campus later this month, and a mobile vending license from the city of Portland, she's moving the operation to town.
By the end of November, with yet another plumbing reconfiguration, "things really started to kick into gear," as Cayer puts it.
After dealing with "old dead pipes that led nowhere," the rough plumbing was laid in the floors. The plumbing was done by pros, but the less-skilled labor (concrete work and epoxying) were handled by Cayer and other volunteers. Rosenberg brought her spray-painting equipment in so that she, Cayer, and others could repaint the ceiling of the space, which has great all-day light and lots of windows.
Between Christmas and New Year's, wood was dropped off and framing began, finishing in the first week of this year. As a volunteer work party began Saturday morning, Momentum executive director Dennis Strout was on his knees spreading cement across a pockmarked section of floor near the entrance to Bomb Diggity's space.
Other folks scraped old paint off a huge brick wall and primed it, before lugging in most of the baking equipment Bomb Diggity has purchased for use in the new space. Workers included Jonah Fertig and Abby Huckel from Local Sprouts, who are keeping ties between the two community-minded organizations strong, while looking forward to expanding the Local Sprouts catering business with the space being vacated by the bakery.
Next will come some more electrical work, sheetrocking of new walls, and finishing the epoxying of the floor. "Every day something more is happening," Cayer says eagerly, his eyes lighting up with excitement that this idea is ultimately coming to fruition.
The bakery is certainly the anchor tenant, and sees great opportunity to grow in this new space, says Lindsay deCsipkes, Momentum's program administrator. Beyond supplying several small local markets with baked goods, Bomb Diggity also provides Hannaford and Whole Foods Market with English muffins. Capitalizing on more square-footage, the company plans to expand its wholesale accounts, and will also work toward having a separate, certified gluten-free kitchen.
While commercial baking will occupy the mornings (starting early, as bakers do) the larger area will also be more conducive to afternoon workshops for Momentum clients learning culinary skills, deCsipkes says.
"We're psyched about what can happen here," she says, talking not just about the business and learning potential but also community collaboration. Bomb Diggity will still retail its baked goods at Local Sprouts, and keep its art program there, where "our participants feel so at home," says deCsipkes.
But with the new space, the Bomb Diggity may try to piggyback on the Fermentory's existing distribution network to also carry its products. And deCsipkes is already talking with local artists, including some Momentum clients, about making murals to decorate the walls inside the industrial-looking exterior.
It's that sort of synergistic potential that gets Cayer truly excited. Whether there are more classes (which the UFF used to hold until production demands required more space), or partnerships with renewable-energy companies, or opportunities for collaboration with food-truck owners as that business type develops in Portland, Cayer has no shortage of ideas about how to use the space inside the building, as well as the 5000-square-foot parking lot outside it. (In fact, he overflows with such ideas, many of which are not yet ready for publication; watch this space.)
Not to mention that the warehouse bay between the former garage and the existing Fermentory is now available for rent. Though nothing is finalized, Cayer definitely has his eye on that, both as a connection between the UFF and these other businesses, but also to help with a much-needed expansion of his own production and storage space.
It's all part of his effort to grow community throughout Portland, even in a place like East Bayside, which is a place Portlanders are just starting to think of as an exciting neighborhood. "People are coming down here now" Cayer says, pointing to the little drink-related cluster of Rising Tide and Bunker brewing companies and Tandem Coffee. That's not to leave out other parts of the East Bayside revival, which includes eco-businesses like Washboard Eco-Laundry's Greener Cleaner dry-cleaning and Freeman's Bicycle Service, community groups like the Maine Muslim Community Center and the Compass Project youth-building non-profit, and arts groups Running With Scissors and Zero Station.
People are already attracted to the area. "We just need to create more reason for them to come a little further," he says. He hopes that's where this new food hub will come in.
YOU CAN HELP• Volunteer work parties will happen on Saturdays from 10 am to 2 pm through the end of January — so show up and contribute your sweat and equity too!