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UMaine Today Magazine

Spreading success
Back to Pleasing Palates-]

Carla of Portwine of Maine
Carla Portwine of Portwine of Maine

Every year around the holidays, Carla Portwine's friends received a rich, edible gift a delectable, amber-colored spread made with five cheeses and assorted spices. Friends would ask her to make extra for them to give to their friends. It was that good.

"I love to make people happy and you can do that with food," says the Millinocket, Maine native.

But the last big batch Portwine made for friends and family was in 2002. Dec. 27 of that year, more than a thousand workers lost their jobs at Great Northern Paper Co., and life as most Millinocket families knew it was never the same. Many employees had worked at Great Northern all their lives. Portwine's husband, Peter, was one of them. 

"When the mill went down and my husband lost his job, the only thing I knew how to do was cook," says Portwine.

Portwine describes herself as a positive thinker who is no stranger to life's challenges. She points to her difficult childhood growing up in poverty as "a huge blessing," because it forced her to focus on problem solving in the face of adversity.

Portwine launched her company, Portwine of Maine, with $58 and the help of seven friends who shared her vision and volunteered their talents in accounting, finance, shipping and cooking. The women, who like Portwine are in their 50s, helped to convert an abandoned downtown building into a small processing facility, complete with a licensed kitchen containing some equipment donated by members of the community.

"It's a real Maine story about helping each other out," Portwine says.

In spring 2004, Portwine took her cheese spread to UMaine's Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition for the process review needed to commercialize the product. The state and federal review required for the manufacture, processing and packing of low-acid and acidified foods focuses on food safety in small commercial or home-based kitchens.

"They tasted (the cheese spread) and said I had one problem. It's addictive," says Portwine, still tickled by the initial reaction of UMaine food scientist Al Bushway. "That day in March, I had so many questions, but Al was such a mentor.  Even just his encouraging words made a difference. He was the biggest influence (on my success).

"When I'm on Oprah's Favorite Things and being interviewed, Al will be sitting right beside me." 

That fall, the company was gearing up to sell cheese spread to retail and wholesale shops. Portwine even began exploring the creation of granola products; one made with banana puree and mixed with pumpkin seeds, another with tart cherries, based on a friend's recipe.

Then Portwine's husband became seriously ill, requiring two open-heart surgeries within six weeks.

The result was that Portwine of Maine faced the threat of closing like so many small businesses do within their first year.

"We were in fear of losing the building," says Portwine of her Aroostook Avenue shop. "We were to the point of thinking that if we lost the building, we could still bake granola and make the nutrition bars at the house."

Portwine's eldest son, Brandon, left his job at a seafood import company in Connecticut to return to Millinocket to help care for his father and to assist his mother and brother, Bryant, in the family business. By spring 2005, Portwine of Maine was on the rebound, opening a retail shop and taking Internet orders.

"The biggest challenges were marketing and financing," says Brandon Portwine, who received a degree in anthropology from UMaine in 1988. "We gave away hundreds of pounds of cheese samples in the six months before sales got going. Everybody loved it, but nobody was buying it. We overcame that by getting our name out there."

Today, wholesale is the primary outlet for Portwine of Maine products. Upward of two-thirds of the business in the company's retail shop is tourist based.

During her busiest sales seasons, Portwine makes nearly 120 pounds of cheese spread a week. Her workdays begin at 4 a.m.

"This is such a dream come true," says Portwine. "The biggest bonus is that I'm my own boss, in control of my world and the choices I make. And those choices are unlimited.

"The most important thing I've learned in business is that if you speak with honesty, you win." 


UMaine Today Magazine
Department of University Relations
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Phone: (207) 581-3744 | Fax: (207) 581-3776

The University of Maine
, Orono, Maine 04469
A Member of the University of Maine System