Creating Change and Locally-Sourced Brews in Portland, Maine
A strange intersection of events led to the success of Urban Farm Fermentory (UFF), a Portland, Maine, business that’s been producing and selling kombucha, hard cider, mead, and gruit-style beer made from Maine-sourced ingredients since 2010.
First, owner Eli Cayer had a bicycle courier business, through which he got to know the city and its residents. Then he randomly took up beekeeping, which became his gateway to brewing: excess honey led to fermentation experiments. Within a few years, this hobby grew into a full-fledged business with 13 employees and a production space plus public tasting room in Portland’s East Bay Side neighborhood.
In 2015, UFF received $250,000 in convertible debt financing from Fair Food Fund, a program of Fair Food Network. This investment allowed it to purchase equipment, boost production, increase marketing and distribution, and build out a bigger tasting room—which, though UFF now distributes across New England and the East Coast, remains the heart of its business.
Cayer knew the tasting room’s margins were good, but it wasn’t until he met with Rob Chatfield, a financial consultant provided through additional support from Fair Food Fund’s Consulting Corps program, that he knew just how good: upward of 85 percent. Chatfield recommended growing UFF’s day-to-day operations team and worked with the business to get an accurate look at its financials. This included helping the team determine how much its products cost to make and how to grow strategically.
“[UFF] would’ve been opportunistic and successful,” Chatfield said. “But now they can be strategic and successful.”
The experience helped UFF set up a budget and longer-term financial vision.
“My background is not finance, so there were definitely areas that were not as strong as they needed to be,” Cayer said. “And, at the end of the day, if you don’t know what’s going on with your money, you’re pretty much going to fail.”
Once UFF saw just how profitable the tasting room was, for instance, the team focused on driving more business into it. That turned out to have ramifications beyond glasses of cider: increased tasting room sales allowed UFF to expand its work with farmers because the team was buying more locally-sourced ingredients and experimenting with new products. It also changed the East Bay Side Portland neighborhood as the tasting room became an anchor destination.
Historically industrial, East Bay Side was an isolated corner of the city just a few years ago, but as a courier, Cayer went there all the time. Rent was cheap when UFF set up shop there in 2010. Two years later, other breweries caught on that the area was an ideal home base: an affordable industrial district already zoned for their work. Today, the neighborhood’s density of fermentation businesses has earned it the nickname Yeast Bay Side, and it’s common to see bus and walking tours.
“It’s a huge destination now,” Cayer said. “The city just redid all the sewers, water lines, and streets and put in full-size brick sidewalks. It’s a major investment in the city.”
Growth continues for UFF, too. Thanks to the hard work Cayer and his team have put in and with the help of financing and business assistance from Fair Food Fund, Cayer is now launching distribution in places such as Washington, D.C., and New York.
He’s also planning to “double down” on the tasting room: even though business tends to drop in winter, UFF recently had its biggest Saturday ever.
Courtney Balestier is a James Beard-nominated writer based in Detroit.
Federal funding for Fair Food Fund Consulting Corps work was provided by Local Food Promotion Program of the Agricultural Marketing Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture.