The Last Year in the Life of Spruce Mill Farm & Kitchen in Dover-Foxcroft
This is the first of 6 articles I have been invited to submit for The Chefs of Maine website which provides a free platform for chefs, restaurants, farms, bakeries, cafes, breweries, wineries, and distilleries to post information about their businesses, including job listings and events at no cost. It is a service designed to elevate and spread the word about Maine’s dynamic and evolving food scene. I have full discretion over the timely topics I choose to write about and am honored to have been given the opportunity.
The Last Year in the Life of Spruce Mill Farm & Kitchen in Dover-Foxcroft
When a paper mill shuts down in Maine- it’s catastrophic. The news of the sudden loss makes the front page of all the papers. It devastates the affected families, other area businesses that depend on it, the local and surrounding communities for tax and other revenue—not to mention the state’s economy as a whole. But, what happens when a small café, bar, bakery, or restaurant is forced to close its doors? Are the adverse impacts and ripple effects of those decisions any less tragic? While the size of the latter is on a much smaller scale than the former–it shouldn’t also follow that it’s any less news-worthy.
By way of example, consider the turn of events, and the confluence of circumstances that resulted in the fall of a beloved local business in the heart of Dover-Foxcroft. Natasha and Dustin Colbry were born in this Piscataquis County town that has faced more than its share of challenges— (not dissimilar to those experienced by other rural Maine communities). However, they had deep roots here, and a vision to start their own farm where they could eventually create a commercial kitchen. They cultivated this dream over years spent learning skills from their family- and gaining experience from other local farms and small businesses they worked at throughout Maine, including Four Seasons Farm in Harborside, The Homestead Restaurant in Farmington, and at Kneading Classes, Natasha attended at Maine Grains in Skowhegan.
The young couple’s dream started to be realized when in 2013, with help from their family, and employing the strong work ethic that’s inherent in Mainers, The Spruce Mill Farm was “born.” They started out by growing their own vegetables using all-organic practices-and selling them at the local farmers’ market, and soon expanded to raising laying hens, pork, and meat birds. Natasha’s freshly baked bread and croissants developed a fast and loyal following to the point where she and Dustin decided it was time to open a storefront to broaden their locally-grown, locally-sourced, and homemade offerings.
The Spruce Mill Farm became The Spruce Mill Farm and Kitchen—and as if it had been waiting for a business like this to open for years, the warm community response was overwhelming. Prior to the Colbrys opening their “brick and mortar” location, there was no similar café or bakeshop in town with a focus on providing customers the ability to purchase locally-sourced foods from Maine producers, nor freshly baked pastries or menu offerings like one can readily find in Portland or the Mid-Coast.
From 2016-2019, in this small, rural town, “a foodie-worthy” destination for breakfasts, lunches and baked goods was thriving. It was during this three-year period, that Iris, an exceptionally talented pastry chef who moved from Iceland to Dover-Foxcroft, was enthusiastically “adopted” into their Spruce Mill Farm and Kitchen family– and Center Coffee— (another small business), approached them about moving in and sharing their space, which also became a great collaboration. This isn’t to say that this was an easy time for Natasha and Dustin—and while they faced similar challenges that other businesses experience, such as transitioning from a farm to a full-scale “brick and mortar” store and restaurant, finding quality employees to hire, and paying their bills during the slow, winter months; they were doing relatively well because they greeted each day with grit, determination, and innovation in order to “make it work.”
For example, in the cold and dark of winter, Natasha and Dustin created a series of “farm-to-fork” monthly dinners that were “sold out” within minutes of posting them—That’s 40 seats, fully booked, in the dead of winter, in Piscataquis County! Allow that to sink in for a moment about its significance. They even held a collaboration event with High Roller Lobster and Bissell Brothers Brewing Company to help them celebrate and promote the opening of their new location in Milo.
The momentum and growth of Spruce Mill Farm and Kitchen was a testament to all that the Colbrys put into their business. And the unwavering support from their community, coupled with the income generated from their success, led to their decision to expand again. By leasing the empty space next door, they were set to launch the next chapter of their growing “micro-empire,” and open a casual fine dining restaurant for dinner service.
They were doing everything right, and all was going well…that was until….2020.
During the pandemic, which wreaked havoc across Maine in countless ways– what was even more emotionally draining and frustrating to small business owners like the Colbrys, (and thousands of other entrepreneurs like them), was having their expressions of fear, stress, anxiety, and concerns about their business’ survival met with “pithy,” canned or dismissive responses from those with job security, and in industries not similarly impacted, like: “well, haven’t you applied for all the grants out there?” And “you need to be flexible and innovative…learn ways to pivot, and it will be ok.” Natasha and Dustin did all that and more, and it still wasn’t enough to save their business in the end.
They applied for, and received, the first round of the Federal PPP- (Payment Protection Program)- grant funds (which had to be spent within 8 weeks); and they sadly had to lay off staff because they couldn’t sustain payroll for all 7 of their employees. In October, Natasha vividly recalls that there were weeks– (not just days), when nobody came in. She explained that “our food is made fresh, not pulled from a freezer. It costs more to maintain that standard of quality we believe in.”
The harsh reality of having to make even tougher decisions soon became unavoidable…so the “tourniquet” they applied to try to stop the bleeding was to reduce their hours of operation. They started by doing away with lunch service, then followed by ending breakfast because they “couldn’t pay staff with no customers.” At that point, they were bare-bones, only offering pastries to go.
They gave every last ounce of themselves, including putting their personal savings into the business in order to save it–to just make it to the end of the pandemic– but the proverbial “light at the end of the tunnel” was too faint and far off in the distance.
When Natasha described the personal impacts and toll this situation has taken on her family, I could feel the emotion and heartache of the experience through the phone. She said “the pandemic was devastating to so many businesses-and in that we weren’t unique, however, in some places in rural Maine-like in Dover-Foxcroft, the way people chose to react to State and Federal requirements related to social distancing, and the wearing of face masks, created rifts in our community. This made an already stressful situation worse.”
Natasha said: “We had elderly customers who felt more reluctant about coming in and putting their health at risk while at the same time, others refused to wear a mask. When the Governor mandated that face coverings be worn inside establishments like ours, and when we put out a post on social media informing everyone that they would have to wear masks if they wanted to come in, we lost business because of it. We were trying to do the right thing and weren’t trying to be too extreme, but we lost customers on both sides of the issue-especially when our town passed an “anti-mask proclamation.”
She continued: “On the one side, those who refused to wear masks, also refused to come in and support our business—and conversely, people from cities where people seemed to rally behind those who were complying with the regulations, commented on social media that they would “rather drive through communities like Dover-Foxcroft (where the county commissioners passed anti-mask ordinances), and not support businesses like ours,” even though we were doing the right thing.”
Natasha said: “We give back, and people don’t see the pain and hardships others are going through…. we have a 3-year old son, and we know he could see and feel the stress we were going through.”
The “slow bleed” started hemorrhaging, and the final straw came when they got their MEMIC (workers’ comp bill) in the mail. It was at that point, when due to a lack of sufficient funds, they had to choose between making payroll, or falling further behind on other expenses that needed to be paid to continue running their “kitchen.” They had no choice. They were forced to close through no fault of their own, and after an inspiring fight to save their once bustling gathering place for their community.
As Natasha emptied their bakery case, she recalled delivering the most beautifully decorated cakes and elegant pastries to the local food pantry so others less fortunate could enjoy them. She remarked that since the start of the pandemic, the line at the food bank has grown so long it now wraps around the block. And this- at a time, when some politicians- and others with anecdotes have the audacity to claim that “businesses in their region aren’t really hurting that badly,” “that everything is getting much better,” and that “we are almost out of this.” While these statements ring true for some, they certainly do not for all.
In January, as a result of their brick and mortar “kitchen” closing, 3 storefronts now sit empty on West Main Street: the space where their café existed; the Center Coffee shop; and the building next door which was going to become their new restaurant. Dustin has since taken a job over 2 hours south in the Auburn area, and is away from his family 3 days a week to help pay their bills.
Thankfully, the Colbrys still plan to run their farm this Spring through the Fall, but they can’t help but wonder where the mothers who always met for morning coffee at their café, after dropping their kids off at school, will go now that they’re no longer open– or where locals will go to buy birthday cakes, homemade bread, and festive pastries for special occasions; and about “the one man who came in every day we were open from the beginning.” Natasha asked, “what is he going to do?”
Wistfully, she said “had it not been for COVID, we would be open and growing….and now, we’re closed.” Unselfishly, Natasha would like to see “someone who has our same vision buy the building and open their own “kitchen.” As she said it, I knew she meant it, but I couldn’t help but think about how soul-crushing that would feel. They created a “shop small,” and “buy local” business model for their hometown that worked well, but still had to shutter their doors.
Whether their experience should serve as a “warning,” to others in rural towns or cities where many small businesses are operating on the thinnest and most fragile of margins, is not for me to decide—but perhaps Natasha’s words “to always care,” can serve as an approach for us to all consider and to aspire to.
If 2020 Had Been A Brighter Bicentennial…
Or if any of the factors that I referenced in this article been different, there may have been no reason for me to write this piece at all. And, were that the case, I could have looked forward to meeting my friends again for lunch at The Spruce Mill Farm and Kitchen, before heading to Butterfield’s for ice cream afterward, and ending the day up at Peaks Kenny State Park for a hike on the trails, and a swim in the lake.
A Look Back At Spruce Mill Farm & Kitchen