Cheryl Wixson works in the kitchen of her Bangor home to produce hand-crafted prepared foods, such as pasta sauce, applesauce, ketchup, relish, jam, etc., in small batches using all Maine ingredients.
By Avery Yale Kamila
Cheryl Wixson is a businesswoman on a mission.
After just one year, Wixson has a growing company that offers a unique way for Mainers to eat locally-grown food in the winter.
"My goal is to help the farmer get the best price and help the customer eat local all year," said Wixson, who founded the prepared food company Cheryl Wixson's Kitchen with her husband, Phil, last year. "I want to help Maine farmers and feed Maine people. I call this an economic development strategy for the state."
The company, with a test kitchen in Bangor and production facilities at Coastal Farms Food Processing in Belfast, buys vegetables and fruits from farmers, cans them and sells the resulting products to subscribers in the winter months. Many of the products feature organically-grown produce. A recent addition to the product line includes cake and bread mixes using Maine-milled flours.
"The products are very versatile," said Patricia Bixel of Bangor, who began subscribing last year. "They can be used with a lot of different main courses. It's very easy for them to be vegetarian or be applied to meat or fish. And just in case you can't figure it out, she always gives you recipes each month."
EVERY MONTH during the winter, subscribers pick up a box filled with nine products.
Customers can elect to go with that month's standard selection, or they can swap five of the products for other offerings. All subscribers receive four limited edition products being test-marketed that month.
In December, the limited edition products are cranberry chutney, chili dill spears, Maine orchard juice and black bean salsa. In addition, subscribers can opt to receive the Genovese basil pasta and pizza sauce, puttanesca pasta and pizza sauce, Jack's organic ketchup, strawberry rhubarb jam and Liberty applesauce, or substitute other products instead.
So far, Emily's taco salsa has proven to be the most popular offering, with organic Maine cranberry ketchup a close second.
The company's current line-up includes 32 products, and some of them are also sold at local markets and health food stores. All the products are vegan, and many of them are gluten-free.
"It is things that I would have bought in jars anyways," said Nichi Farnham of Bangor, who started subscribing last year. "It's like Christmas every time you get an email that a box is ready. I can't wait to see what's in the boxes."
A six-month subscription costs $300, a five-month subscription in Portland (which is a newly added drop-off spot) costs $250, and a mail order subscription in Maine costs $325.
Using the same CSA model employed by small farmers gives Cheryl Wixson's Kitchen the cash to buy from farmers during the growing season.
Last year, the company sold shares to 48 subscribers. This year, that number jumped to 69, with 30 shares reserved for the newly added drop-off spot at Rosemont Market's store on Brighton Avenue in Portland.
Wixson hopes to increase her customer base to 200 next year, which she feels is the maximum number the company can handle and retain its hands-on touch.
"We don't want to have a factory," Wixson said. "We don't want to sell to Boston or New York."
Even though larger metropolitan markets would be more lucrative, the company remains focused on helping local people eat food grown in Maine.
Chris Hallweaver, who is the general manager of the Northern Girl root vegetable processing company in Aroostook County, anticipates the creation of more Maine food processing businesses in the coming years to meet the growing demand for local food. He said the key to their success will be finding niches to fill.
"Cheryl is focused on the tomato products and canned food," Hallweaver said. "Her cranberry ketchup is meaningfully unique. And it pairs very well with our potato wedges."
The cranberry ketchup contains cranberries in the place of tomatoes and offers a tangy alternative, but with a similar flavor profile, to traditional ketchup, which the company also offers.
FEEDING ALL THESE FAMILIES every month entails a lot of cooking and canning, which is all done by hand.
"We've tripled from 10,000 to 30,000 jars this year," Wixson said. "I'd like to triple again if we can get the farmers."
Right now the company works with more than 35 farmers and food producers, mostly in midcoast, Down East and northern Maine. Wixson hopes to increase that number next year.
Because all the produce the company buys is cooked, the fruits and vegetables do not need to be picture perfect. This can help farmers find a market for produce that wouldn't sell at farmers markets or farm stands. Still, Wixson said she's constantly searching for new farms to buy from.
"Our challenge is to get enough farmers to grow the food," Wixson said. "We can never have enough tomatoes, because that's a hard crop to grow in Maine."
Wixson said dedicated locavores should aim to have their diet made up of about 80 percent locally-produced food and 20 percent food from other parts of the country and world, such as citrus fruits and olive oil.
As a 10th-generation Mainer, Wixson's interest in eating locally stems from a lifetime spent around food and farms. She grew up on a dairy farm in Winslow and is a certified master composter.
Twenty years ago, she owned a Bangor restaurant called Cafe Nouveau that specialized in organic international cuisine. For years, she's taught cooking to school children.
More recently, she's worked as an organic marketing consultant for the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, which is where she developed the Maine Local Twenty. This guide features 20 categories of food products that Maine has the capacity to produce in enough quantity to feed the state's residents year-round.
In addition to networking with farmers and food producers, Wixson said one of her favorite aspects of the job is developing new products. Right now, she's working on a butternut squash pasta sauce, a roasted onion jam and a hot pepper jelly.
"I'd spend all my time playing with food, if I could," Wixson said.
And customers such as Bixel hope she continues to churn out new products and help fill their pantries in winter.
"With a company and a product like this, it's sort of half about the food and half about the politics," Bixel said. "The food is sound, and I know I don't have to worry about BPA or additives or preservatives. I know it's helping support a Maine farm and likely a Maine organic farm. It's really appealing at both those levels."
Staff Writer Avery Yale Kamila can be contacted at 791-6297 or at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Cheryl Wixson’s daughter Laurel in what used to be the living room.
Kitchen apprentice Damien Brooks processes applesauce at Cheryl Wixson’s Kitchen.
Cheryl Wixson’s husband Phil labels jars of applesauce. Last year, he labeled 10,000 jars of Cheryl Wixson’s Kitchen foods; this year, the output is 30,000 jars.