"It's a rollercoaster ride, but we’re here and trying to handle this madness. It requires a lot of adapting, which is fun and stressful at the same time.”
Amber Lambke’s words capture a global sentiment, though the Founder and CEO of Maine Grains is, in this case, specifically referring to her own business. As Coronavirus changes the industry drastically – with closures of restaurants and bakeries, coupled with a dramatic surge in homebaking – Lambke has had to make quick and sudden shifts to keep up.
Born in 2012 from a movement to revitalize a rural community which had fallen on hard times – primarily due to a lack of jobs – Maine Grains now finds itself in a unique position amid the pandemic, able to hire even more recently laid off workers. Though sales of quickbreads, pancakes and grain salads – staples of one aspect of the business – might be down, Maine Grains’ sifted organic flour for all-purpose baking, old-fashioned cut rolled oats, and stone ground 100% whole grain flour are three products from the line of heritage grains, wheat, polenta, buckwheat, farro, rye, spelt and more that are being milled and shipped fresh from Skowhegan across the nation.
"Our primary goal is to be a regional mill for bakers, chefs and brewers from Maine to New York City,” says Lambke, though she explains that all but came to a grinding halt with Coronavirus. "When the pandemic hit, we had about a week of nail biting drop-off in sales as restaurants, breweries and bakeries closed. About a week later, we watched the online sales go crazy.”
Amid Coronavirus, tours of the facility were cancelled and dining closed, but that spike in online orders has amped up mill output with new machinery, as Maine Grains navigates the same production issues facing all mills.
"Everyone is wanting flour at home all at once. It’s been a crazy moment in time,” one Lambke thinks will shift the industry forever, underscoring the importance of local and inherent risk in global supply chains.
For Lambke, an average of 12 digital orders a week ballooned into 180 per day by the start of April, leading Maine Grains to hire an additional dozen local employees to fulfill orders and get through the multi-week backlog. In effect, it has provided an economic safety net for the small town.
Since moving to rural central Maine in 2001 with her family physician husband, Lambke has been a proud part of a concerted effort to grow the audience for local food in a hot bed of the ‘back to the land’ movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
“If I was contemplating raising a family here, I felt I needed to do my part to make it the best place to live,” says Lambke. “There just aren’t white knights to come into the community and save us.”
She recognized the assets of the old mill town and maintained hope in local talents and capacity to problem-solve in what was once a rich grain-producing area.
Infrastructure was the major missing piece to bring back food grade grain, Lambke explains, but by 2012, she had acquired the know-how, funds, and facility to launch Maine Grains out of a 14,000 square foot multi-story old jailhouse that is now the gristmill. The anchor project in downtown is also a food hub, community gathering place, and engine of entrepreneurship with a café, yarn shop, community radio station, fresh creamery and more.
Maine Grains is not only a one-stop shop for home-cooking and baking pursuits — with social media channels offering a full education in grains and sprouting, as well as recipes ranging from grain-rich salads, cornmeal biscotti and dehydrated crackers to beer cakes, rye waffles and, of course, banana bread — but also a model for community resilience that invests in local economies, creates and sustains jobs, stewards healthy lands, and provides nutritious grains far and wide. It’s proving that business can most certainly be a force for good.
As of 2019, Maine Grains had purchased over $1,000,000 of Maine-grown organic grain, relocalizing milling to support the health and livelihoods of rural farmers, communities and lands. “Organic is the best farming practice for the soil, for the regeneration of plants and species on the planet, and frankly, for the continuation of human beings on the planet." The positive impact is scaling, as the company improves systems to fill and ship bags to thousands of new doors nationwide, keeping up with the demands of quarantine bakers.
“We're lucky. There is no shortage of grain in America right now, no shortage from local farms with whom we've built relationships. It's been a challenge and a blessing to get this kind of business. A terrific crash course!” says Lambke, who has never stopped working hard to tackle longstanding and unforeseen challenges, like those presented by Covid. Her entrepreneurial solutions are paying off.
“It's wonderful, if you can call anything wonderful right now."