You may be used to going shopping and being offered a cup of not-so-fresh coffee while you browse.
But what if you could munch on freshly popped popcorn while shopping for a new hedge trimmer at the hardware store – then pick up an artisan loaf of bread on your way out the door?
Skip breakfast? No worries, the owner of a local bike shop will make you a breakfast sandwich and pour you a cup of Fair Trade organic coffee to go with it while you wait for your ride to be repaired. Grab a red snapper while you’re trying to decide on that new dining room table, or pick up a six-pack along with a surfboard before you head to the beach. Out for a night at the theater? Spend intermission devouring a slice of still-warm homemade blueberry pie, topped with hand-crafted ice cream, then pick up some bison steaks or Mangalitsa pork at the on-site farm stand.
These are just a few examples of Maine businesses that aren’t restaurants or delis or markets, but sell more than bikes, surfboards, coffee tables, hot water heaters and theater tickets. They are unexpected places to find something delicious to eat or drink.
Most places admit that yes, this can be a good marketing move that brings more people into their businesses, and brings in more repeat business, especially in a food-loving town like Portland. But it’s also more than that – it’s a way to connect with customers by offering them an experience, and, in some cases, tapping into “hanging out” culture.
When Thaddeus St. John, the owner of the 93 Main Electric Bike Cafe in South Portland, and his business partner, Doug Watts, were first thinking about opening a retail shop, they talked about how much they like to have a cup of coffee in the mornings before going for a ride or while watching their bikes being repaired. So they decided to put a couple of couches and a coffee table into their solar-powered retail space, and sell coffee, bagels and breakfast sandwiches as well as electric bikes. They even have a takeout window. “We looked it up, and there are these bike cafes around the world,” St. John said. People congregate at these cafes, he said, to hang out and talk about their favorite pastime – riding bikes.
The South Portland bike cafe has only been open for a few weeks, but it’s already won an award for best iced coffee from the website Portland Old Port. The shop, which is licensed as a commercial kitchen, serves Fair Trade organic coffee from Harpswell-based Moses Dyer Coffee Roasters. Its bagels come from Bread + Butter Catering Co. in South Portland. St. John grills the breakfast sandwiches himself.
The cafe’s tagline? “Hot bikes, fast coffee.”
MULTI-TASKING AND RELAXING
Switch out the bikes for surfboards, and you have the Maine Surfers Union, a surf shop on Free Street in Portland. When the shop had to close temporarily during the pandemic, the owners decided to add a coffee bar. They partnered with Speckled Ax, which made them their own signature coffee, called Dawn Patrol.
“Dawn Patrol is a nod to getting up super early to go surfing,” said Charlie Fox, who owns the shop with his wife, Kristina Grimaldi. “At that time, a lot of surfers will have a cup of coffee to help them wake up and get going.”
Nitro cold brew coffee is available, as well as nitro cold brew yerba mate. “Sometimes yerba can have a bitter bite to it,” Fox said, “but putting nitro into it actually smooths it out and gives it a smoother, buttery taste.”
The coffee bar has three stools at the counter where customers can enjoy a cup while they watch surf movies on a nearby television. Or they can sit at one of three picnic tables outside. Fox recently added bagels from Rose Foods to the menu. “We might add some more food down the road,” he said. “We’re just kind of having fun with it right now.”
Fox has also partnered with Austin Street Brewery and sells several of its beers in single cans or six-packs – another nod to surfer culture. In the spring, the brewery released a collaboration pale ale called Free Friction, which refers to surfing with a finless board – “an ancient Polynesian way of surfing,” Fox explained. The beer was so popular it was rereleased about a month ago, Fox said, and a third release is planned for September.
Fox’s customers like to hang out as well as hang ten. They come into the shop both before and after surfing, which is what makes coffee and beer the perfect beverages to sell – although they can’t yet drink beer on site. Fox is working on getting a tasting room license so that people will be able to drink beer at the picnic tables next summer.
Both Fox and St. John have surprised customers, as well as city and state officials with their business models.
“It’s not your typical business,” Fox said. “I know working with the state of Maine, they were a little confused at first that we were a retail clothing store selling surfboards and trying to sell coffee and beer at the same time. It’s something that hasn’t really been done here yet. It’s definitely been done in other states. New York City and California have shops that have a coffee bar inside of them.”
St. John also plans to add a tasting room in his bike shop at some point, so he can sell cocktails made with the vermouth he produces at his winery in the back of the building, called Lincoln & Main. He wants people to go for a bike ride, then stop in for a vermouth spritzer and talk shop. And he has plans to expand his menu to include more sandwiches and charcuterie boards. (“Even my mom has said, ‘You need a fidget spinner,’” he joked.)
All of the 28-year-old’s obsessions will then be for sale under one roof. But is it three different businesses, or one business selling three different things? St. John said he’s currently awaiting a special exemption license from the city of South Portland because “when you apply for a bike-coffee-winery tasting room, the planning board members kind of look at you like you have three heads.”
A common thread among these unusual food oases is that they provide a memorable experience that goes beyond just pulling out a credit card. Jordan’s Furniture in South Portland comes right out and says it with the motto that it’s “not just a store, it’s an experience!” Families shop for furniture before or after trying out the store’s ropes course, which comes complete with zip lines and a concession stand that sells hot dogs, popcorn and ice cream. It looks like a concession you’d find in a movie theater.
“We provide entertainment along with furniture shopping to enhance the entire store visit for all customers,” said Heather Copelas, a spokeswoman for the store.
Maine Hardware in Portland has given out free popcorn for 23 years, and it’s become so much a part of the shopping experience there that customers begged for it to come back after store manager Tim Currier suspended the perk during the early stages of the pandemic. Customers – and especially their children – were so disappointed when the popcorn disappeared that Currier removed the popper from the sales floor because the empty machine “was just crushing the kids’ hearts.”
“I didn’t realize what it meant to everybody because honestly, I would have been fine not bringing it back,” he said. “I’ve been smelling it since 1998.”
Now the popcorn has returned, and the staff is back to making several batches in the morning, and another several batches in the afternoon. “It feels like it’s part of Maine Hardware, and we have to keep it at this point,” Currier said.
This year, Currier introduced another food item, although this one isn’t free. The store now sells Mainly Grains bread, including Portuguese and Italian loaves, and English muffin bread. The owner of the bakery is a customer, Currier said, and the idea came to him one day when they were chatting. Now the hardware store gets bread deliveries three or four times a week, and it’s sold several hundred loaves since March, Currier said.
Go out for a night at the theater, and you’re mostly likely to find cookies, candy and other snack foods at the concession during intermission. Hackmatack Playhouse in Berwick, founded on Hackmatack Farm 50 years ago, has always done things a little differently.
“We used to go pick corn and serve corn on the cob,” said Michael Guptill, whose family has lived on the farm since the 1600s.
The farm no longer grows corn, but the summer theater’s concession stand often begins the season with homemade strawberry shortcake, then switches to homemade blueberry pie during blueberry season. The pie, made by Guptill’s wife, Gayle, is sometimes still warm from the oven. The treats are topped with artisan ice cream made by their daughter, Lauren, owner of Rococo Ice Cream in Kennebunkport.
“My son started raising bison here 10 years ago,” Guptill said, “and for a while during intermission, he was serving bison burgers and bison kebabs.”
Gayle Guptill also has an artisan chocolate business called Azul Chocolates, and she sells the candy to theatergoers. Sometimes it’s in animal shapes, so you may get a chocolate bison. And if you want frozen bison meat to take home, the family will accommodate you.
The playhouse went dark last year because of the pandemic, and its shortened season this year began Aug. 6 (with “The Spitfire Grill”) and runs through Aug. 28. Michael Guptill said the family business used some of its Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) money from the pandemic to build a farm stand, which he said will probably be open on at least some show days this year. The farm stand sells bison meat, Mangalitsa pork, chicken, eggs – all kinds of local farm products.
“When people come here they never quite know what they’re going to get for intermission,” Guptill said. “It is a little bit quirky, and we try to keep it very homey, very friendly.”
Now that sounds like an experience.