The grist mill in Skowhegan, formerly the Somerset County Jail, is a destination spot that houses a flour mill, The Miller’s Table at Maine Grains cafe, the Happyknits yarn store, a radio station (WXNZ), Crooked Face Creamery and the Dry Goods Store. Morning Sentinel file

SKOWHEGAN — Restaurants and other businesses have struggled during COVID-19, but one local venture has been able to adapt, create new opportunities and thrive.

Maine Grains, housed at the former Somerset County Jail at 42 Court St., has hired its first full-time, in-house baker, allowing The Miller’s Table at Maine Grains to expand its cafe offerings.

CEO and co-founder Amber Lambke said her twin sister, Heather Kerner, has also launched a new pizza dough company — The Good Crust — at the grist mill.

Evan Orloff, a baker from of Philadelphia, will be joining the grist mill to expand on its vision of becoming a destination for those seeking some of the “best breads and pastry made from 100% Maine Grains, stone-milled flours.”

Orloff attended the The University of Vermont and eventually moved to Northern California, where he started baking sourdough bread at Brickmaiden Breaks in Point Reyes.

“The unique opportunity to work with freshly milled flour right off the millstone here in Skowhegan is a thrill,” Orloff said.

Kerner is an occupational therapist specializing in pediatrics. In her work at Regional School Unit 18, the Messalonskee school district, Kerner has used local grains from Skowhegan in dough production in a virtual student-run business. The OT Enterprise Group provides job skills training to students with special needs while producing fresh pasta, dog biscuits and frozen pizza dough kits for sale within the district.

The Good Crust, launched by Kerner, makes ready-to-bake frozen pizza dough that features 100% local grains. Beginning this week, The Good Crust will be featured on the pizza menu at The Miller’s Table and will be available for retail sale to home bakers.

“Retail sales of baked goods and take-out meals for families to enjoy at home is one way we can continue to serve our community and support Maine farmers as we get through the pandemic together,” Lambke wrote in a statement released to the news media.

Maine Grains has seen a 4,000% increase in online sales of flour since the pandemic began in March, which increased pressure on the business and its employees, according to Lambke.

Workers adapted to this success. They figured out how to have equipment ready and enough workers on hand to quickly mill grain into flour and package it in retail-size bags to meet demand.

Months later, sales stabilized, but the business is still seeing an increase in sales as many Americans have shifted their eating habits from dining out to staying and eating at home.

Maine Grains was featured recently in a New York Times opinion piece, which emphasized the success of its business model based on the revival of grains. The company’s success is grounded in its statewide commitment to collaborate with other businesses.

“This is a new model that could be showing promise for rural areas, and is challenging this notion of, ‘Why would you run a business that cannot scale at the cheapest possible cost and make the most amount of money,’” Lambke said in August. “That’s how we build business.”

Maine Grains operates out of the former Somerset County Jail, built in 1897.

The business was begun in 2007 with the first Kneading Conference, where the idea of a Maine Grain Alliance first evolved.

Maine Grains Grist Mill also houses a radio station, yarn shop and full, sit-down restaurant that serves wood-fired pizza and beer made from the grains milled on site.

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