By Morgan Rogers and Ramona du Houx
September 27, 2013
On a typical sunny afternoon, Monument Square is full of people enjoying local food and beverages, perusing work from local artists, and carrying bags full of artisan products from around the world, much of which is due to the Public Market House — a key ingredient to the economic revitalization of the square.
Upon entering Public Market House, you are immediately swept up into the buzz of conversation and laughter as patrons explore a wide variety of artisan foods and products, many of which are locally sourced from vendors proud to share their products. You will be greeted by the smell of fresh baked bread from Big Sky Bread Co., your mouth will water as your eyes take in the 150 varieties of cheese that K. Horton Specialty Foods has to offer, and if you are a craft brew fan, you will not be disappointed once you see Maine Beer & Beverage Co.’s selection of fine wines, beers, and drinks.
Kris Horton of K. Horton Specialty Foods is one of these energetic vendors who serves up fine cheeses and gourmet foods. Since the market was founded in 1998, Horton has worked hard to bring the public market culture that is common in Europe to Portland. She is part of the original four who saved the Public Market House from disappearing in 2006. Their solution was to move the venue to its current location at 28 Monument Square and create a new vision of what a public market can be in a community.
“Our public market is one of the oldest and biggest on the Eastern seaboard,” said Horton. “It has been a real nice synergy. We feel very good about it.”
Public markets by definition are markets held in public spaces where independent merchants sell their products. Typical products sold at public markets include fresh produce, baked goods, locally-raised meats, fish, and dairy products. Public markets often emphasize foods and artisanal products reflective of the ethnicities in their respective regions. Public Market House does this and goes a step further by becoming a space to incubate small businesses.
One of the major goals of Public Market House is to provide a space for small businesses to develop and thrive.
The structure of the market is set up in such a way to allow someone with an idea to get started with little investment, and as they grow, they can expand into a more permanent space.
As a new business, you can rent by the day one of twelve available “day tables” with the requirement that the products are Maine-made or -grown or produced by the person using the table. The business will be given a space either on the second floor or in front of Public Market House in Monument Square — a great low-cost way to test a business idea. There is also a community kitchen in the basement with commercial equipment that business owners can rent by the hour.
If the business starts to prosper and the owner wishes to expand, they can move to the more built-out semi-permanent spaces on the second floor and sell their products four to five days a week. As time goes on, it becomes easier for small businesses to move into the Public Market House as the previous businesses have already built out the spaces, explained Horton. Permanent spaces are found on the first floor where patrons enter.
“Spartan Grill actually started with us, which is right next door, and Local Sprouts started with us, it is up the street. It is a very nice little ripple effect,” said Horton, proudly.
Increasingly, people are looking for opportunities to buy local products made by local businesses, which continues to create a community-backed climate for small businesses to develop in Portland.
“Our customer base really likes the sort of homegrown feel that we have here,” said Horton as she held up a blueberry-infused cheese made by a Maine artisan cheese maker. “Each business is very eclectically unique, and we really thrive on that as small business owners ourselves.”
Public Market House is comprised of three floors. The first floor holds the permanent staples in the public market such as K. Horton Specialty Foods, Maine Beer and Beverage Co., and Big Sky Bread Co. The basement is the community kitchen where all the businesses cook up their tasty delights for the public. The third floor is unique in that it holds an array of semi-permanent businesses and is a space for patrons to gather, sit down, and enjoy great food.
The second floor invites visitors to relax in a sunlit room that has many tables for family members and friends to enjoy good eats and drinks from the local vendors lined on either side of the room. You can grab a delicious soup from Kamasouptra, a delightful cupcake from Y-Lime’s Gourmet Desserts, or energize with a fresh-squeezed juice from Maine Squeeze Juice Cafe. The atmosphere is so inviting that you’re tempted to grab a cup of coffee from Market House Coffee and stay awhile.
One of the new vendors on the second floor is La Cocina Dominicana, owned by Dali Costoso, who cooks Dominican food.
“She is a typical example of one of things that it is so awesome about having a public market. She is Dominican, she is a single mom with three or four children, and she works another job and she creates all of her products in our community kitchen,” said Horton.
Public markets span across the United States, offering a space for patrons to gather and local artisans to sell their products. The Milwaukee Public Market even has a floor dedicated for patrons to sit down and enjoy the products from the market. They too have a kitchen, but instead of being a community kitchen for the vendors to create their products, it is used for private parties and cooking demonstrations and classes.
Public Market House seems to be the first of its kind in offering an infrastructure to develop small businesses, which in turn revitalizes the community. This could be a model for communities across the United States looking to grow a stronger small-business culture and give their community members the opportunity to shop locally.
The market has been a tremendous resource to the community, but there are still challenges as some regulations have not caught up with this type of entrepreneurship.
“The business environment is still conservative,” said Horton.
Although Public Market House is community-driven and a low-cost small-business incubator, it is legally a for-profit limited liability company (LLC), making it difficult to obtain loans.
The community kitchen has been a helpful resource for small businesses getting off the ground, but according to Horton, it has been a financial drain on the overall running of the Public Market House.
Typically, commercial kitchens are inspected every two to three years, but the Public Market’s inspection happens up to seven times a year, explained Horton.
“Anytime somebody uses our kitchen, they get inspected in our kitchen and so we have had to steadily upgrade. Whereas other kitchens will upgrade and that is it,” said Horton.
The Public Market House also pays three times more taxes than when it first started because their building was set up legally as condominiums. As a result, they need to pay separate taxes for each floor. Horton explained, “Not one floor can operate without the other; they are all support floors, but there is just nothing that can be done.”
At one point, they tried to buy the building, which would have lowered the costs by 40 percent, according to Horton. However, the Public Market House was turned away by three different banks due to the high operational cost.
Despite these setbacks, the Public Market House always strives to help small businesses succeed. When Horton was asked whether they considered getting a loan from CEI, a private nonprofit for community development that offers financial assistance, Horton responded, “This is a very low-overhead way for a business to get started. So we went to CEI before we got going and said, ‘How can we help the people coming to you?’”
Unfortunately, the Public Market House itself was unable to obtain a loan to help with the operational cost as it is a for-profit LLC.
Without any official outside help, the Public Market House struggled, especially during the recession, but Horton never lost hope because the community patrons never gave up on the market.
“As much as we felt so discouraged,” said Horton, when commenting on the financial hurdles, “When we sort of dug back into the roots, we felt like all of sudden we had come home.”
The original market house was built in 1825 where the “Our Lady of Victories” monument is located, which is right in front of the current market house. Betty Noyes, a philanthropist, wanted to revitalize downtown Portland by bringing back the public market. The idea was to get farmers indoors.
Horton had visited a very old market in Athens, Greece, that had inspired her to bring the farmers indoors but made her realize the challenge of bringing the same model to Portland. She explained that Athens has a warmer climate and the back of the building had rolling doors so, when the farmers came to town, they could roll their products right into the building off their trucks, allowing them to extend the season.
“A farmers market is an extremely seasonal operational and it is once a week and in Athens they are there four to five times a week, but that is a huge metropolis compared to us. It really didn’t work to get the farmers down there,” said Horton in regards to the Portland Public Market House.
To resolve this issue, instead of asking the farmers to come to the market, they decided to bring the public market to them, according to Horton.
Bill Milliken, one of the co-owners of Maine Beer and Beverage Co., and Horton pretty much manage everything for Public Market House.
“We sweep the floors and do the recycling and we do all the administrative and volunteer for six and a half years now,” said Horton.
And on top of that, they both have their individual businesses to run.
Public Market House has helped create a stronger local community in Portland by connecting patrons to small businesses that are featuring Maine-made products.
When asked what she sees in the future for the Public Market House, Horton said, “We are working now on, in our heads, figuring out how this can exist beyond us. I think that my biggest dream is that it continues.”