With business acumen, cooking ability and a deep fondness for barbecue, Lorna Dee Nichols has a taste for sizzle.
And for challenges, such as trying to run a specialty restaurant and food production business out of a roadside location in rural Maine.
Nichols, a former executive director of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce, says she had no experience in either industry when she launched her New Sharon company last year.
"I thought it might be easier than it was," she says, admitting to a long litany of stumbles. "But I know what small businesses go through. We're willing to do whatever it takes to be successful."
It also helps if you love what you do. "We all have something we enjoy, and cooking is my thing," she says. "I like preparing something for someone and have them leave really happy."
With $50,000 in startup funds, Nichols last year purchased and renovated the Top of the Hill Grill, a well-known local diner, converting it into a barbecue shrine resplendent in Harley-Davidson black and orange.
After scraping together some cash, she set about expanding the place, adding another restroom, meeting code requirements, passing inspections and obtaining a liquor license. Then she threw open her doors in June 2011 — and noticed a little culture shock.
"If people are used to something, and you change it," she says, "they're not happy."
There was some churn. Nichols, 47, says it wasn't long, though, before she began attracting Farmington residents, faraway barbecue fans and the curious. Customers started requesting her sauces to take out.
On a lark, Michele Nichols, Lorna Dee's daughter-in-law who works in the business, sent a sauce to organizers of the Daytime Emmy Awards in Los Angeles. It was selected, and they were asked to send several bottles of Maine Maple Chipotle barbecue sauce to be included in event gift baskets. Suddenly, her Maine barbecue had gone Hollywood.
This year, Nichols formed Festive Foods Inc. to scale up commercial production of 15 barbecue sauces, including a line of Maine flavors like Smoky Apple, Blueberry Zing and Cranberry Blast, marketed to promote the state's burgeoning small food industry.
She also started Road Hog Catering to deliver pulled pork, cornbread, mac and cheese and other comfort food to customers' events, complete with a catering truck purchased and designed as a mobile retail site.
Hewing close to her roots — she grew up in Jay and moved to New Sharon in 1986 — she relies on family for labor, bartering food for services and promoting what she sees as local Maine cuisine. Nichols hopes to see $25,000 in sauce sales by the end of the first year and 15% growth in the years after that. Initial sales have been encouraging, she says, with some of her first wholesale accounts coming from festivals and events such as the New England Products Trade Show.
Her company has developed multiple sales channels for the goods: online through topofthehillgrillonline.com; the Western Maine Market and Amazon.com; and in small food stores from Stratton to Deer Isle. This summer, she'll open accounts for stores in Waterville, Old Orchard Beach, Portland, Washington, Deer Isle and Holden.
The product line is developing, too. On a recent afternoon, Nichols was preparing to launch a packaged corn bread mix, with dry rubs and refrigerated dressings also prepped for direct sales by the end of 2012.
And she is working on a promotional "barbecue trail" website to promote the joys of the marinated cooked meat in Maine, with an interactive map of barbecue pits throughout Maine, techniques, resources and, naturally, retail products.
Nichols is trying to capitalize on two potent food trends: barbecue and anything "local."
According to the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade, total sales of specialty foods in 2011 were $75.14 billion, with $59.74 billion retail sales. Three-quarters of retailers surveyed by the association said "local" is the most influential product claim today and two-thirds report the claim will grow the most in the next three years.
And perhaps, most impressive, in 2011, 41% of specialty food manufacturers reported a more than 20% increase in sales.
The trend hasn't gone unnoticed in Maine. In February 2009, momentum around specialty food products and the notion of building economic development clusters around burgeoning industries led to a $460,000 cluster grant from the Maine Technology Institute and the subsequent creation of the Maine Food Producers Alliance.
At the time, it was estimated that the value-added food industry in Maine supported more than 200 food manufacturers and employed over 6,000 workers throughout the state, typically through family-owned, small businesses. Today, the Maine Food Producers Alliance offers programs to help Maine food producers enter commercial markets, and expand into larger retail, wholesale and distribution markets.
Locally, it turns out there's some nearby precedent for making it big in the sauce business.
In 1990, Frank Carr and Garth Vdoviak started CV Foods in Winthrop with eight employees.
The company's mission was to create sauces for people who were looking for unique, high quality, easy-to-use flavors, according to the website of Mizkan Americas Inc., the Japanese-based holding company that now owns the brand.
Renamed World Harbors, the company developed an array of marinades, sauces, dressings, oils, mustards and cocktail sauces that catered to consumer desires for quick, easy ethnic food. In 2000, the company was sold to Angostura Holdings; in 2002, it moved in to a facility in Auburn.
Nichols has that type of ambition, and says she envisions building a manufacturing facility in three to five years. Meanwhile, it's her and just two employees turning out small batches in the restaurant kitchen, bottled and labeled by hand.
"I wouldn't outsource production," she says. "I'm a control freak. I want to know that it's done right."
Nichols, a twin and the youngest of six kids, served five years at the helm of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce, where she assembled the annual welcome guide for visitors, scheduled a number of promotional events and saw the inner struggles for owners of small businesses in central Maine.
She grew up "reading cookbooks like most people read regular books."
Buying the Top of the Hill Grill restaurant was meant to satisfy Nichols' love of cooking and diversify the food scene in the Farmington area, she says, while also feeding her entrepreneurial spirit.
"Everyone seems happy with the quality of the food," says Richard Fotter, a well-known local restaurateur who set up and advised successful Franklin County restaurants such as The Rack in Carrabassett Valley and the Porter House in Eustis.
After she expressed interest in going into business, he mentioned his credentials in the food business and his history in the area: His first job was bussing tables at age 10 and, decades earlier, his grandmother sold some of the first food ever on Sugarloaf Mountain, pitching hot dogs and hamburgers out of a hillside wagon.
Fotter helped set up the restaurant, advised the company on menu planning, bottling and other production logistics, and trained the younger Nicholses to cook in quantity.
"They are very, very hard working people and have put together something that has a quality product that's consistent," Fotter says.
Based on her experience with the chamber, Nichols knows sometimes it takes a while for a business to get traction. She expects the same for hers.
"I think it will happen as more people learn about us," she says. "We're different."
54 Farmington Falls Road, New Sharon
President/CEO: Lorna Dee Nichols
Product/services: Retail and wholesale food products
Projected revenue, 2012: $275,000
Contact: 779-0973 www.topofthehillgrillonline.com