February 29, 2012

Soup to Nuts: Maine stovetop entrepreneurs share and share alliance

Small operators looking to make it on a larger scale are getting a hand from a group of experienced veterans who have been there, done that.

By Meredith Goad mgoad@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Shannon Bissonnette is living out a food fantasy that a lot of Mainers secretly harbor.

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Lucy’s Granola is made by Lucy Benjamin in East Blue Hill.

Courtesy photo

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Shannon Bissonnette, with guidance from the Maine Food Producers Alliance, is dramatically stepping up production of her Better Than Average Jams.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

Additional Photos Below


HERE ARE SOME upcoming events sponsored by the Maine Food Producers Alliance: 

FOOD FOR THOUGHT FORUM at the Governor Hill Mansion, Augusta, 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. March 20. $25 registration fee. Brings food producers together with grocers, merchants and service providers.

MEET & GREET workshop on financing the growth of your food business at MaineStream Finance in Bangor, in conjunction with Eastern Maine Development Corp., 5 to 7 p.m. April 26. Free. Register at mainefoodproducers.com

A DATE HAS NOT yet been set for this year's summit. For more information, go to



Bissonnette was working in the corporate world when she started making jams and jellies at home, using raspberries, apples and blueberries left over from pick-your-own expeditions with her children. She gave her creations away to teachers, family members and friends, who soon begged for more.

"I had businesses come up to me and tell me they wanted more, and farms in the area saying 'Can we please sell your product?' " Bissonnette recalled. "And that's how it really took off."

Four years ago, Better Than Average Jams, Jellies & Sauces was born. The company specializes in making jalapeno and habanero jams and jellies that can be used as marinades and glazes.

About a year and a half ago, Better Than Average moved from Bissonnette's to a commercial kitchen in downtown Mechanic Falls. Now Bissonnette's homemade products – she still makes everything herself, at least for now – are being sold in 80 stores all over the country. Sometime this year, they are expected to go into Whole Foods' Portland store, a couple of Maine Hannaford stores, and 169 Shaw's stores, potentially quadrupling production.

Bissonnette did not do all of this alone. She had the help of the Maine Food Producers Alliance, a three-year-old group of Maine food and beverage businesses that mentors budding food entrepreneurs and helps connect them with manufacturers and the marketplace.

The alliance holds workshops that teach up-and-coming stovetop businesses all the practical things they need to know, from picking out the best packaging to the do's and don'ts of approaching major retailers. The group includes businesses of all sizes, from Stonewall Kitchen – whose owners started out selling their products at local farmers markets – to smaller ventures such as the Perfect Peanut Brittle Co. in Saco.

"There are a lot of people who have got great ideas, who have obviously been encouraged by their neighbors and friends to produce products that they believe should have an opportunity to be marketed throughout the country," said Mike Cote, president of Look's Gourmet Food Co. in Whiting and chairman of the Maine Food Producers Alliance board of directors. "But they don't really have the wherewithal and the know-how in order to connect the dots, so to speak, on how to do all of that."

The organization tries to keep its members a step ahead on trends, and hopes that by getting food and beverage businesses to band together, they will make the Maine food industry more visible.

There is also, among some of the group's more established members, a sense of social responsibility to help others succeed.

"We think that's a really good thing for the entire food industry in the state of Maine," Cote said.

Waite Maclin, founder of Pastor Chuck Orchards and a member of the alliance's board, now offers the kind of advice he wishes he'd gotten when he started his apple products company.

"When I started getting into this stuff, I just kind of had to feel my way," Maclin said. "And now we've got all of these people within the alliance who have this experience, and we have connections now with large supermarkets, with the Maine Grocers Association, so we can put people in touch. Someone the other day wanted to know about UPC codes, so I was able to put them in touch with the company that I use."

Maclin has also answered questions about pricing and how to find a good fulfillment warehouse.

The alliance holds regular "Meet & Greet" business development workshops that focus on some of these topics. One recent workshop was held at Volk Packaging in Biddeford.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Shannon Bissonnette had guidance from the Maine Food Producers Alliance to step up production of her Better Than Average Jams.

click image to enlarge

Lucy Benjamin’s granola is now sold in 30 to 40 stores in New England; Washington, D.C.; and New York.

Courtesy photo


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