Jarrod Spangler wants to open an Italian-style butcher shop in Kittery. Lisa Laurita and Tom Sigler want to spiff up their Camden restaurant. Gloria Pearse dreams of selling Indian food on the streets of Portland. Arvid Brown and his best friend plan to peddle fish and chips from their Portland food truck this summer. And Anya Heyl just wants to save her waffle business.
Crowdfunding sites allow people to contribute $5 or $5,000 to a project, often receiving a token in return, such as a T-shirt or a gift card.
The sites have grown up as a resource for creative types – artists, filmmakers or photographers looking for ways to raise money for projects that can attract community buy-in but not necessarily grant money or traditional financing.
In the past year or so, Maine has seen an explosion of food projects as entrepreneurs realize the potential of crowdsourcing to tap in to a community of customers willing to support local food culture.
“It’s reaching out and trying to do what you love, and getting people to support that,” said Pearse, who raised more than $4,000 on Kickstarter.com to jump-start her new Indian food cart, Annapurna’s Thali.
She hopes to have it on the street by late May or early June.
The 23-year-old didn’t even consider going to a bank to fund her plates of aloo gabi and channa masala.
She liked the idea of the community participating in her dream.
Others see crowdfunding sites as supplementing their own savings. Arvid Brown and Sam Gorelick raised $14,487 in a Kickstarter campaign that ended in January and plan to use the money to launch Fishin’ Ships, an “ocean-to-table” food truck, sometime in May.
“Taking out a traditional loan can be kind of difficult, especially when you think about paying it back and getting a co-signer,” Brown said.
Crowdfunding, he said, gives young people and first-time business owners the opportunity to pursue an idea that they might otherwise have placed on the back burner for years because of lack of funding.
Food-related projects aren’t always food trucks or brick-and-mortar restaurants.
Jarrod Spangler, the former butcher at Rosemont Market in Portland, is trying to raise $50,000 on Kickstarter to open his own whole-animal butcher shop in Kittery called MEat. As of Monday, he had nine days to go and had raised $12,380 from 113 backers. (Watch his video here: http://kck.st/OtdZMQ.)
In return for their money, Spangler’s backers can receive packages of cured meat or a spot in a butchering class.
If he makes his goal by 1:49 p.m. April 17, Spangler will use the money to buy deli cases, freezers, slicers and band saws. He is building a curing room for Old World Italian salami, pancetta, prosciutto and coppa. (He also plans to sell local produce, dairy and eggs to fill a niche he’s discovered on the Maine-New Hampshire seacoast.)
Like a lot of other crowdfunders, Spangler is not relying completely on fundraising to make his dream come true.
His $50,000 goal is a little less than a third of what he needs to create the butcher shop; the rest is coming from a few private investors.
Similarly, Brown and Gorelick have been squirreling away money for a year. They estimate their food truck will be funded half by their backers, and half by themselves.
‘NOT ASKING FOR A HANDOUT’
Lisa Laurita and Tom Sigler, owners of Comida Latin Kitchen in Camden, are raising money on foodstart.com to spiff up their restaurant. They launched their project a week ago and have until May 1 to raise $20,000. As of Monday, backers had given them $960.
With foodstart.com, existing businesses that don’t make their goal but can still honor their rewards get to keep whatever money they make.
That was attractive to Laurita and Sigler because they are raising the money to fund a variety of improvements, including a new kitchen floor and repainting the building.
They’ll be happy if they can get even one or two projects done and, so far, have enough to afford the new floor.
In return, their $10 backers get a margarita the next time they come in. Anyone who pledges $50 or more receives a 5 percent discount any time they come into the restaurant.
“It’s almost like pre-purchasing a gift certificate,” Laurita said. “It’s certainly not asking for a handout. And for us, it’s a lot cheaper for us to finance in that way than traditional debt financing.”
Crowdfunding sites are more complementary than competitive with other forms of funding, such as banks, venture capitalists, film studios, publishers, record labels or arts grant-making organizations, said Justin Kazmark, a spokesman for Kickstarter. An independent film that got its start online, for example, might later be picked up by a studio.
Kickstarter offers an “all or nothing” arrangement.
The site allows people raising money to keep whatever is pledged – minus a 5 percent fee and a credit card processing fee of 3 to 5 percent – only as long as they meet their goal by a specified deadline. Creators keep control, and ownership, of their projects.
Restaurants tend to have high failure rates. Why should donors take a chance on them? Won’t backers grow weary of funding culinary projects if they frequently fail?
Roost House of Juice in Portland is an example of a local food business that was successfully crowdfunded last June; its owners recently announced they were closing.
“If you create a system where there’s zero failure, that’s a system that is so safe it will prevent innovative things from happening,” Kazmark said. “I think you want a system where people take chances and take risks. People understand that Kickstarter is a place where some of the most innovative and imaginative and ambitious ideas can come to life, and that’s a good thing.”
Crowdfunding is a way for higher-risk ideas – those less likely to get bank financing – to take off, said Kazmark, who noted that food falls about in the middle in a ranking of categories that Kickstarter funds.
He said most backers give money because they are interested in the “behind-the-scenes look at the creative process.”
Others want to live vicariously through project creators or simply do something that will be good for their community, said Lucas McNelly, a filmmaker who writes an online column called “Crowdfunding 201” and works as a marketing strategist at Dream Local Digital in Rockland.
McNelly recalled a project in a small coal mining town near Pittsburgh where a top chef was planning to build a restaurant.
“The whole community got behind it, and the mayor was promoting it because it’s a nice thing to have in your area,” McNelly said.
HURDLES ARE JUMPED
Of course, sometimes things go wrong. Gloria Pearse originally wanted to buy a food truck for Annapurna’s Thali, but the vehicle she had set her sights on had too many problems. So she decided to scale back to a food cart, but not before asking her backers what they thought about the idea.
“They were more excited about having it sooner than having it exactly what they expected it would be,” Pearse said. “Everything I had promised that would be on the truck is still available on the cart.”
Then there’s the occasional backlash from Internet trolls and others who see crowdfunding as a form of begging.
Lynette Mosher found herself the target of “a lot of snarky, snotty stuff” when she and her husband, Bob Krajewski, started a crowdfunding campaign last year to open a bakery and pizzeria called Community Oven in Rockland.
The couple, former owners of the restaurant Lily Bistro, could not stay in business after the city of Rockland closed the street in front of their restaurant for two months in 2011 while it fixed the water system.
They fled to Boston, where Mosher now teaches at Newbury College and Krajewski cooks at the critically acclaimed French restaurant Aquitaine.
Offered a new space with a wood-fired oven, they hoped to move back to Maine this year and start over.
Almost all of their former employees kicked in money for their new venture, including college kids who had once been their dishwashers. But in the end, they were only able to raise 25 percent of the capital they needed and received some “really nasty emails and phone calls” to boot.
Some of their critics felt that crowdfunding should be the exclusive territory of charity and the arts and accused them of “begging for money,” when Mosher saw their restaurant as an investment in jobs.
Anya Heyl, owner of Wannawaf, a store that sells waffles and ice cream in Boothbay Harbor, decided to expand to Portland last year and opened a new store in Monument Square in June. The new place failed miserably, closing just four months later.
But Heyl had funneled so much of the profits from her successful Boothbay Harbor business into the Portland store that she was going to lose everything.
So she took to gofundme.com to raise money to keep her Boothbay store afloat, a move she says was “a real hail Mary.”
It’s not surprising that some people questioned why they should support a failed business owner. They called Heyl names like “the crazy ice cream lady,” which hurt, she admits.
“I just tried not to take it personally,” she said.
Against all odds, Heyl went beyond her $20,000 goal, raising $22,050. How’d she do it?
Heyl said she made herself vulnerable, posting “very personal, emotional” videos online that told potential backers what her business meant to her.
It also helped that she had close ties to the community, where her annual waffle-eating contest has raised $14,000 for charity over eight years.
The local police chief (a fan of Wannawaf’s peppermint ice cream) offered to embarrass himself by dressing up like a superhero and serving waffles for a night if she hit her goal.
Those kinds of community ties are what make projects successful and create buzz about a new business. The crowd itself can end up being just as important as the money, and the list of backers serves as a built-in address book of potential future customers.
“If you have 500 backers for your Kickstarter campaign,” McNelly said, “then you’re looking at several thousand people who have seen it and are interested in the progress, even if they haven’t given any money.”
That fact isn’t lost on Arvid Brown, who knows his mission now is to make the best fish and chips he can to keep people coming back for more.
“We’ve talked the talk, now we’ve got to walk the walk,” he said. “We’ve got to take this very seriously because there are a lot of people with their eyes on us.”
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: