BIDDEFORD — Alec Rutter and Kim Chaurette spent last Thursday afternoon with their hands covered in flour, shaping the dough that would become the next day’s bagels. They didn’t plan to stop until they had made 600.

If Friday morning was like most other days, Rutter and Chaurette, the young owners of Rover Woodfired Bagels & Pizza on Elm Street, likely sold out of all eight varieties of bagels they make in their converted gas station/auto body shop/convenience store. They run the only bagel bakery in town and, it seems, the town is hungry for bagels.

A few blocks away, next door to the Biddeford Smoke Shop, 25-year-old Jackie Hardin and her fiancé, Bryan Casale, 28, were readying for their second weekly pasta night at their cozy new trattoria, Yeto’s, which serves a fusion of Southern and Italian comfort food in a funky dining room that includes a custom mural and tables made from reclaimed wood and old auto manufacturing parts. The menu ranges from classic Southern mac-and-cheese to penne alla gin made with locally distilled gin.

At their downtown apartment, Jon Phillips and Briana Campbell, a couple in their 40s who moved to Biddeford from Brooklyn, New York, less than two months ago, planned their new café and coffee roasting business, which they have already named Time and Tide Craft Coffee Roasters. They are searching for space to lease on Main Street, and plan to serve pastries and breakfast tacos, as well as coffee, when they open in early summer.

Things were also buzzing over at the old Pepperell Mill, where Jacqui DeFranca and Jonathan Denton scooped up ice cream flavors like Earl Grey and Brown Butter Crunch at Sweetcream Dairy, one of 16 food-and-drink-related businesses that have moved into the mill’s carefully carved out industrial spaces in recent years.

Make no mistake, Biddeford’s downtown still looks, well, tired. Walk down Main Street and you’ll see a lot of papered-over storefronts with “For Lease” signs in the windows. But things are starting to change, thanks in no small part to the town’s nascent food and restaurant scene, which is slowly but surely growing. As newcomers move into old mill buildings that are being renovated into apartments and commercial spaces, and into upper-floor apartments on Main Street, the demographics are changing in this town of 22,000 – and the community’s tastes are changing, too.

“People know burgers and they know pizza, but now there’s a place in town that has pizza with pears on it and burgers with blue cheese,” said Delilah Poupore, executive director of Heart of Biddeford, a volunteer organization working to revitalize downtown. “You can’t get a seat on a weekend night because they’re so popular, and they’re drawing people from a 25-mile range.”

Bowman Brown, a former Salt Lake City chef and six-time James Beard Award semifinalist who opened Elda, an upscale, seafood-centric restaurant on Main Street in early December, says 15 to 20 percent of his customers come from communities just north or south of Biddeford – business he’ll need if his higher-end restaurant is to succeed. He knows his style of food – small plates with focused, intense flavors – doesn’t appeal to everyone in this former mill town, so he needs to make the restaurant and its menu approachable; the prices range from $3-$7 for a small bite, such as a pair of cod-and-potato croquettes, to $18 for roasted diver scallops with spinach and seaweed. The most expensive plate, grilled duck with apple and celery root, is $22.

Biddeford, he said, is “a little bit more gritty compared to Portland and Portsmouth, but I think the city is making some improvements. I don’t mind being on the fringes. I like the idea of carving out my own little space for myself.”

Brittany Saliwanchik, the beverage director at Elda, sets up a table before service. Elda joined Biddeford’s growing food scene in December. Staff photos by Brianna Soukup

BIDDEFORD, BURGERS AND THE BOOM

Poupore says the city’s culinary shift began about five years ago, when Elements started selling books, coffee and beer. Palace Diner, which has received national attention, opened soon afterward, followed by Biscuits & Co.

Just two doors down from Elda on Main Street is Cowbell Burger Bar, which opened in June 2016. The owners are Alex Markakis, former general manager for the Old Orchard Beach Surge professional baseball team, and Jim Albert, owner of Jimmy the Greek’s in Old Orchard Beach. Cowbell is a kind of microcosm of Biddeford itself, a blend of the old and familiar and the new. Inspired by the famous “Saturday Night Live” “I gotta have more cowbell” skit featuring Christopher Walken, the restaurant serves 25 specialty burgers (including waygu beef and bison) and has 25 beers on tap. Every burger is branded with a C – a horseshoe turned on its side – to make it Instagram-friendly, Markakis says.

“I was looking at my clientele at the (Cowbell) bar one day, and it was all women drinking wine,” Albert said. “The light bulb went off, and I said ‘Hmm, I think a wine bar would work here in Biddeford.’ ”

So, eight months after opening Cowbell, he and Markakis opened Uncorked Wine Bar across the street.

Then, Martini’s on Main, a cocktail bar that stays open until 1 a.m., opened in October.

Still, the city won’t run out of restaurant space any time soon. Mayor Alan Casavant says there’s “a huge hunger for more restaurants here.”

“There’s more to come as people begin to recognize that there’s been a paradigm shift in the community from the old mill town stereotype to something that’s more interesting and diverse and exciting,” he said.

When Casavant eats at a restaurant he likes in another town, he leaves behind his card with the owner or chef and implores, “We’d really like you to come to Biddeford.” When he meets food entrepreneurs, he tells them that if they have a product that people like, “they’re going to make some money here.”

The 16 food businesses at the Pepperell Mill include Portland Pie Co., Sweetcream Dairy, Banded Horn Brewing, Round Turn Distilling, and Big Tree Hospitality, the restaurant group that owns Eventide Oyster Co., which has a commercial kitchen and a business office there. These businesses represent roughly 12 percent of all the commercial tenants in the mill’s buildings, according to Megan Higgins, director of leasing for the mill. Coming soon, she said: a seaweed farming/processing business.

The city’s efforts at urban renewal are attracting other entrepreneurs and artists to the campus as well, such as photographers and a glassblower.

Other factors laying the foundation for the “promising” food scene are a revitalized winter farmers market and an influx of restaurant industry workers, said Don Lindgren, owner of Rabelais, a bookstore in the mill that specializes in antiquarian books about food and drink.

“There are a lot of people who are now living in Biddeford who are people who used to be living in Portland and are now part of the food community – cooks and chefs and other food producers,” he said. “And then there are cooks and chefs who cook in Portland but live in Biddeford because of price and convenience.”

A new local foods market, Part & Parcel, is expected to open soon next to Biscuits & Co., he added.

Jacqui DeFranca makes a milkshake for a customer at Sweetcream Dairy. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

THE STALWARTS? THEY’LL STAY

Even before its mini-renaissance, Biddeford was known for some of its more casual spots, places like Pizza By Alex, a family business on Alfred Street that has been around since 1960; Reilly’s Bakery; and George’s Sandwich Shop on Franklin Street, where you’re guaranteed to get an authentic Maine Italian. The new competition won’t push them out, Poupore predicts.

“These are kind of like religious institutions in town,” she said. “Don’t mess with those. They’re beloved.”

Both old timers and newcomers say more businesses in town will mean more business for everyone.

“We don’t get the frequency we used to get,” Andy Mantis, nephew of the founder of Pizza by Alex, said, “but still the volume is pretty strong.”

Stacy Cooper, owner of Biscuits & Co., says she has noticed a lot more foot traffic recently at her restaurant, and more interest from people living in other towns. “The more people who are walking around eating and playing in Biddeford, the better it is for everybody,” she said. “You can’t eat biscuits every day, you can’t eat pizza every day.”

Darren Case, owner of Round Turn Distilling, which started distilling Bimini Gin in June 2015, says Maine’s beer industry has already proven that competition fuels growth. He views the new Stone Fort Distillery (a maker of vodka and whiskey that just opened last weekend) as “just one more thing to give people a reason to come to Biddeford – or, if they already live here, to go out.”

All the new options are leading to collaborations among the businesses, such as pairing cookies made by Rover Bagels with ice cream from Sweetcream Dairy for artisanal ice cream sandwiches. Biscuits & Co. made brownies for St. Patrick’s Day with Banded Horn Stout.

Case and his wife grew up in the Kennebunks, but moved to Brooklyn in 2009. They didn’t see themselves being “long-term New Yorkers,” but it was a visit to Maine Craft Distilling in Portland that got them thinking about moving back and opening their own place. They explored Portland first, but couldn’t find a space they could afford that felt like a part of the community. And the Kennebunks were out because of high costs and the seasonality of the market there.

On a whim, Case phoned the Pepperell Mill in Biddeford. It was close to where he grew up, and close to the strongest market for his product – Portland. When he saw “all this endless, raw space” zoned for industrial use, and realized he had a built-in market of people moving into the mill’s residential units, he was sold. He has since opened a tasting room that has become “a de facto cocktail bar” that helps boost his bottom line.

MAKING CHANGE

Other newcomers tell similar stories. DeFranca and Denton, the owners of Sweetcream Dairy, moved to Biddeford, Denton’s hometown, from New York a year and a half ago, after exploring potential locations for their ice cream shop in both Portland and Freeport. Rutter, a Maine native, and Chaurette moved their bagel business here from Salem, Massachusetts, because they wanted to live somewhere a lot of other people in their age group were moving.

“We really liked the thought of being part of a community that’s just starting to really change over,” Chaurette said. “We’re hoping that Biddeford will get to the point like Portland, where you can come out, park your car and actually make a day of it.”

Coffee roasters Phillips and Campbell, who spent the last two summers vacationing in a beach house in Saco, moved to Biddeford from Brooklyn in mid-January. They drove around Biddeford one day and were “struck by the potential of it,” Phillips said. “We wanted to be somewhere where there’s a lot of room to grow.”

They knew they’d made the right decision when they walked into Pop’s Tavern one day, a little apprehensive about how the locals would react.

“They were super warm to us,” Phillips recalled. “Frankly, one of the things that swayed us to move here was how friendly people were when we went to have a beer one afternoon.”

Poupore said she wouldn’t have thought that a place like Pop’s Tavern would be attractive to newcomers, “but it shows that the people who are drawn here, it’s not just for what’s new but also for the authentic. This is a working-class town that has built itself on its creativity, on its ability to survive, whether that’s Reilly’s Bakery – they’re on their fourth generation of owners – or a super innovative chef like Bowman (Brown). Both exist here, and it’s that combination that’s drawing people.”

The city has plenty of room for more diversity in restaurants. Cooper thinks Biddeford needs more middle-of-the-road places, neither too casual nor too upscale. She has been trying to fill that niche herself, offering monthly three-course, fixed-price dinners at Biscuit & Co. that usually sell out.

“In the next five years,” Cooper said, “I think we’re going to see just a surge of interesting places.”