to Pleasing Palates-]
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
"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
"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
"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
"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."