As the local, artisan food movement has taken shape over the past several years, the spotlight has largely been on the places where it’s received the warmest welcome: urban areas with a highly educated population flush with cash and ready to spend extra dollars for handcrafted products incorporating local ingredients.
But for more rural states like Maine, which are primarily made up of small working class towns, artisan bakery owners face a set of challenges unique to their geographic location and the demographics of the population.
“If you look at income levels, it’s certainly not a wealthy demographic. It’s a rural area so it’s a meat-and-potatoes ethic when it comes to food,” says Jim Amaral, owner of Borealis Breads in Waldoboro. “But over the years, there has been increased emphasis in the marketplace on appreciating locally produced foods.”
“One thing I heard early on about Maine is there are lots of small bakeries hidden around,” says Dara Reimers, who moved to the state in 2003 to open a bakery. “Maine is like what France used to be; we have little artisans everywhere. There are still a few places on the coast where the customer can drop $5 in a tin and just grab a loaf of bread.”
The Bread Shack’s whole wheat sourdough is a signature item.
When Reimers launched The Bread Shack five years ago, the bakery was among the first artisan retail bakeries to open in the primarily blue-collar, inland town of Auburn. Nearly 60 percent of sales come from Bates College, a local liberal arts school. The product line focuses on long fermented sourdough breads, handcrafted pastries and sandwiches, but Reimers has since added “middle range,” soft white breads to appeal to more people.
Among the area-specific obstacles she faces is a strong contingent of home bakers competing for sales. Despite her reluctance to offer muffins or coffeecakes, local home bakers do fairly significant business in these types of products, so she added both to the product line. “I try to focus on products people can’t make at home, but customers don’t see the difference of what it takes to make those things,” she says.
Twenty-year-old Borealis Breads in the coastal town of Waldoboro (with additional locations in Wells and Portland), was among the first artisan bakeries in the state and has been producing breads with local grain since 1996. About half the business comes from wholesale accounts, supplemented by a strong retail customer base and an influx of tourist dollars during summer. Waldoboro is situated near Route 1, which snakes along the Atlantic coastline, so the bakery attracts a lot of tourists who are fairly affluent, adventurous and looking to taste what Maine has to offer.
“In winter on a busy day, I’ll sell about 1,100 breads in the Waldoboro bakery. In the summertime, with all the additional traffic, restaurant and seasonal wholesale accounts, we average 2,000 loaves of bread a day,” Amaral says.
Reimers adds that food and travel websites like Yelp and TripAdvisor bring in a lot of customers from out of state who rely on reviews when deciding on local eats. “If I put the word lunch or sandwich on my marquee, it always draws people in,” she adds.
One of the biggest challenges of producing time-consuming, handcrafted products in a rural area is determining what to charge. “I can tell instantly when I price something too high,” Reimers says. “Our almond croissant is handcrafted with quality ingredients and it costs $2.95. I could easily get $3.50 for that in the city. But here people say, ‘I don’t care what you did. I’m not paying that price for it.’”
That’s partly why customer education is important for both bakeries. Reimers samples frequently to encourage customers to try products outside their comfort zone.
“(Customer education) for us was sort of a matter of force,” she says. “People know what they are dealing with. I don’t want anyone who’s never been here to walk out of here without trying something. People have to try things; it’s my best form of marketing.”
Borealis Breads sells product at seven different farmers’ markets. “It’s a great way to have face-to-face communication with customers,” Amaral says. “We’ve got well trained staff, and they are really good about telling our story and different ways customers can use our bread.”
He adds that despite Maine’s distinct obstacles, the locals keep his bakery viable. “I see some of the same people walking in through the door as I saw 18 years ago. We’ve become part of their family tradition of bread on the table. We do get a lot of tourists, but for me to be able to say I’m doing 800 to 1,000 breads a day in a rural area in Maine, that’s a testament to support of the local population,” he says.