BIDDEFORD — For anyone who needed still more proof that we’re living through a golden age of Maine food and dining, Food & Wine magazine’s latest issue names Biddeford as one of four American “small cities with big food scenes.”
Grouped with Bozeman, Montana; Charlottesville, Virginia; and Greenville, South Carolina; Biddeford is described in the magazine as Portland’s “quiet older sister with great taste.” Food & Wine editors, who compiled and ran the list in tandem with a story on 11 of America’s “next great food cities,” called out six Biddeford food businesses in the writeup, including Magnus on Water, Night Moves Bread, Jackrabbit Cafe, Elda, Palace Diner and Lorne Wine, along with the town’s treasured food and drink bookstore, Rabelais, and The Lincoln Hotel, scheduled to open this summer in one of the town’s renovated mills.
Maine food is absolutely on fire these days. Some obvious examples: Five Portland chefs and restaurants earned finalist nominations for the James Beard Foundation awards this summer, Lakin’s Gorges Cheese won best in class at the World Championship Cheese Contest last month – first time ever for a Maine cheesemaker to win at the prestigious international competition – and Tandem Coffee + Bakery was included in a recent Financial Times roundup of “the best independent coffee shops in the world.” And just last year, Food & Wine included three Maine bagel shops on its list of the best bagels in America, including Biddeford’s Rover Bagel.
The fawning is nothing new. Bon Appetit magazine named Portland its restaurant city of the year in 2018, making mention of Biddeford as an up-and-comer, calling the town “the best reason to drive 18 miles south” of Portland.
But now it seems Biddeford has arrived, ready to share Portland’s spotlight and step out as a dining destination in its own right. In the summer, about a third of the restaurant customers in this small city of about 22,000 come from out of state, said Delilah Poupore, executive director of Heart of Biddeford.
“We’ve had pretty cool food scene building for several years now, so it’s very gratifying to get this attention,” Poupore said. “We’ve got food here that you’d usually have to go to a large city to find.”
BUILD IT AND THEY WILL COME
“A lot of it is like the movie ‘Field of Dreams.’ Build it and they will come,” said Anna Brown, who owns Jackrabbit Cafe and the tasting menu-based Elda, its upstairs sister restaurant in the Pepperell Center, with her husband, chef Bowman Brown. He is no stranger to acclaim, after six James Beard nominations and being named by Food & Wine as one of the country’s best new chefs in 2009.
The Browns first opened Elda on Main Street in 2017. “We probably wouldn’t have had the courage to do it if Palace Diner wasn’t here before us,” Anna Brown said.
Chad Conley, co-owner of the Palace Diner since 2014, said, “We’ve seen Biddeford change a lot since then. We came in at the right time. There’s been steady growth ever since, and I don’t see it slowing down any time soon.”
Conley and others also credited the city government for buying and then demolishing the Maine Energy Recovery Co. trash incineration facility that had plagued the town with noxious smells and roaring trash trucks since 1987. “It wasn’t possible to take potential businesses on a tour of downtown when it smelled the way it did,” Poupore said.
“When you look at Biddeford and what really made it start to get its energy back, you have to talk about Elements,” said Don Lindgren, owner of Rabelais, referring to the town’s Main Street gathering place for books, coffee and beer that opened in 2013. “Elements was central to that. It’s undeniable.”
Lindgren believes that Elements served as an unofficial staging ground for many of the entrepreneurs who opened restaurants or other businesses in town over the last several years, and he’s not alone in this thinking.
“You have to give Elements credit for putting Biddeford on the map,” said Morgan Brockington of Portland, a customer at Jackrabbit Cafe on Thursday. “They brought good coffee to Biddeford, and paved the way for (coffee shop) Time & Tide and Jackrabbit.”
Elements co-owner Michael Macomber said when Elements first opened, it was the only bookstore in town, as well as the only shop for premium coffee or craft beer. He said the Food & Wine praise for Biddeford “isn’t surprising, given the way the momentum in town has been (building). There’s a good collection of business owners who see an environment here that welcomes new and exciting ventures.” He added that he’s seen foot traffic in town increase dramatically in the past few years because of more places to live.
YOUNG, HIP AND HAPPENING
Today in downtown Biddeford, where 300 new apartments have opened in the past six years, the median age is 29, which is 16 years younger than the statewide median, Poupore said, pointing to one of the clear reasons for the town’s recent revitalization – the city is young, hip and happening.
“I couldn’t rave about Biddeford more,” said Hannah Gauthier, another customer eating lunch at the Jackrabbit Cafe Thursday. She was drawn to live in the nearby renovated mill apartments largely because of Biddeford’s extraordinary food offerings. “The town has everything I need for food and more. I’m very proud to live here.”
“If I had to live anywhere else but Portland, it’d be Biddeford,” said Brockington, who commutes to work in Biddeford from Portland.
Kerry Hanney, the celebrated baker behind Night Moves Bread, said glowing write-ups like Food & Wine are wonderful news for the town and can lead to further economic development, but could bring challenges as well.
“Sometimes this kind of attention that can make the circumstances that made it possible in the first place just kind of diminish,” Hanney said.
SEEKING GREATER DIVERSITY
Indeed, even the business owners riding the current wave of good publicity bemoaned rising rents in town. “We’ve found it’s a struggle for people who want to work for us, because they can’t find an affordable place to live. And I think it’ll be a continuing issue,” Anna Brown said. “We want the town to continue to grow. We want everything from food trucks to fine dining here, and there’s enough room to accommodate all of it.”
“We’ve always known Biddeford was poised to be one of the great food centers of Maine,” said Brittany Saliwanchik, co-owner of Magnus on Water, which opened in January 2020. “There’s this intangible entrepreneurial spirit here, and businesses that have so much heart and soul in them.”
Saliwanchik said the Magnus ownership team chose not to open the fine-dining restaurant in Portland, where it would be “one more restaurant in a city with loads of good restaurants already. In Biddeford, you have the opportunity to help a community grow, and make a real impact on the town’s economic development.”
Like Brown, Saliwanchik hopes Biddeford continues to draw more culturally diverse restaurants and food outlets. To that end, Poupore said a shawarma shop, a taco restaurant, a vegan restaurant and an “elevated” Irish pub are slated to open in the next couple of months. Poupore said the town needs to rebuild its dinner and brunch offerings after losing local favorites like Biscuits & Company and Yeto’s last year, at least in part because of the pandemic. Also, by the end of this summer, Biddeford will host five breweries, Poupore added.
“There’s still so much more room to grow,” Saliwanchik said. “That’s what’s so exciting about Biddeford.”