ARUNDEL — Stacy Cooper checked on a batch of biscuits in the oven – “We’ll give them another two minutes and let them get nice and crispy” – then sat down at her kitchen table and re-created a conversation she had with the judges for the Main Street Challenge, a contest for entrepreneurs who want to open their own business in downtown Biddeford.
One of them had asked her if she is truly prepared for the long hours and hard work it will take to run Biscuits & Co., a small batch biscuit bakery she hopes to open with the help of the contest’s $20,000 prize package.
Cooper explained to the judge that she’s worked the before-sunrise breakfast shift at restaurants, and her current work as a corporate trainer involves long hours and 4 a.m. trips to the airport. But the bakery project, she continued, goes beyond simply being prepared for hard work. It is the fulfillment of a longtime dream.
“To me,” Cooper said, “being in the kitchen, up to my elbows in dough and dishes, is really kind of appealing because it’s something that I love.”
Cooper, like other applicants to the Main Street Challenge, had to make it through three phases of the contest. For the first phase, they wrote a simple pitch describing their idea and what their business would do to “enhance” Biddeford. The second phase involved writing a more detailed business plan. Finally, each entrepreneur had to give a 30-minute presentation in front of the judges.
Whether it was Cooper’s answer to the judge’s question during her presentation that sealed the deal, or the box of baked goods she brought along with her to build her case, she discovered Tuesday night that she is one of three winners who will receive a $10,000 forgivable loan, special bank loan rates, and more than $6,000 of in-kind services, including four months of free rent and free website design.
The other winners were Shonee Strickland, who plans to open a craft brewery and tasting room called Micro-Brewery, and Mike Harris, who is opening a handmade leather goods business called Desert Moon Leathers.
This is the second year Biddeford has held a Main Street Challenge to help fill its vacant storefronts. The three-month competition is organized by the Heart of Biddeford, a group dedicated to the revitalization of downtown, and it seems to attract food-related businesses like unattended french fries attract seagulls. Two-thirds of the 27 entrepreneurs who applied last year were food businesses; one of the winners was a vegetarian cafe called “Dahlia’s Delights,” open for business at 137 Main St.
This year, half of the 17 applicants were food- or drink-related businesses, including three of the four finalists.
Heart of Biddeford Executive Director Delilah Poupore says that most of the food entrepreneurs who make it to the second round “talk about dreaming about this their whole life. It’s the financial incentive and creativity behind the Main Street Challenge that really piques their interest, and then they take the leap.”
Cooper, Poupore said, “just really wowed the judges, and also brought in these incredible biscuits that just blew us all away.”
Cooper, 53, says that, initially, she didn’t believe she was ready for the Main Street Challenge – winners must have their businesses open by June 20 – but a friend convinced her to go ahead and apply. It forced her to write a pitch, and by the time she got around to developing her business plan for the judges, she was all in.
“That forced me to think through what this would really look like,” Cooper said, “and to start looking at locations, and to start thinking about a menu.”
The star of the menu will be biscuits. Biscuit-themed restaurants are popping up all over the country now – in New York, Chicago, Asheville, Jacksonville and the other Portland. Food & Wine magazine put biscuits on its list of what’s going to be “Hot in 2014.” Andrew Freeman & Co., a San Francisco-based hospitality and restaurant consultant, says biscuits will steal the culinary spotlight this year from croissants and pretzel buns.
When Cooper finally took her biscuits out of the oven, they were lightly browned and a little larger than shuffleboard pucks, which oddly enough are also called biscuits.
The Pillsbury Doughboy would not recognize these dense, toothsome hunks of homemade comfort food. Crunchy on the outside, soft and moist on the inside, Cooper’s biscuits are made with a mixture of King Arthur flour and 20 percent Maine Grains whole wheat flour, Kate’s Butter, Kate’s Buttermilk, baking soda, baking powder and a touch of sugar.
She made a sandwich with one of them, stacking a halved biscuit with Pineland smoked cheddar cheese, nitrate-free bacon, an over-easy egg, spiced tomato jam and arugula.
Growing up, Cooper made biscuits with her mother and grandmother, but this is her own recipe, developed after innumerable test batches that were donated to friends and the coffee hour at her church.
“I do a jalapeno-cheddar with cornmeal in it that’s really, really good, so there’s lots of flavors that we’re playing around with,” she said. “In the summer, I did a peach-and-plum biscuit. It was really just a plain biscuit with slices of peaches and plums stuck in the top, and they kind of caramelized with a little sugar and got nice and juicy.”
In addition to breakfast sandwiches, Biscuits & Co. will sell lunch-friendly fillings such as pulled pork or chicken, maple barbecue sauce and cole slaw; seafood salad topped with herbs; and ham and cheddar with chutney. The biscuits also will be the centerpiece of shortcakes made with fruit compote and brown sugar creme fraiche.
At least half of Biscuit & Co’s menu will feature the biscuits, but to make the bakery sustainable Cooper also plans to bake some breads, cookies, tarts, scones and hand pies. The same dough used to make the biscuits will be used as a crust for chicken and seafood pot pies, and to make goat cheese roll-ups with sundried tomatoes and herbs.
Also in the works is a bread-and-butter CSA in which members will receive a weekly box of biscuits and accompaniments that include products such as local jams and flavored butters.
Cooper has projected she needs about $45,000 for her startup. The Main Street Challenge requires winners to match its $10,000 loan, but Cooper said she plans to invest about twice that through investors and “creative crowd sourcing.”
“We’ll start out as kind of a breakfast and lunch place,” she said. “I want it to be kind of a community center, too. I want it to be the kind of place where people feel like they can gather, where local organizations can have meetings, where we can have tastings and workshops and classes where people can come to learn about nutrition and handmade food and using grains and all kinds of things.
“So I really see it as more than just a restaurant, although it’s all going to be centered around the biscuit.”
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: