The Maine Meal Thrives on Local Connections | August 2017
By Maria Landry
For Skowhegan business the Maine Meal, local connections are numerous.
In creating gourmet, frozen, boil-in-bag meals, owners Mark and Kelly LaCasse use a bevy of local ingredients in a lineup that includes beef, chicken, seafood, pasta, and whole-grain entrees; side dishes; soups, chowders, and chilies; and, the most recent additions, fresh pasta and frozen ravioli. They also craft gourmet popsicles.
“It all starts with high-quality ingredients from local Maine farmers and fishermen,” Kelly said on a sunny August afternoon in Skowhegan. “We work mostly with farms and fishermen who are in the farmers’ markets we are in. These are the folks we have built relationships with, and these relationships have resulted in a deeper understanding of the land, the sea, the power of good food, and how we all have an obligation to support sustainable practices.”
She and Mark started the Maine Meal seven summers ago as a way to use the skills they had accumulated during many years in the hospitality and culinary fields and to follow their passion for local food.
“We wanted to stick with a commitment to local food and to being a part of the viability of it,” she said. “Through college we both worked in the hospitality industry. We always moved up very quickly to supervisor and manager roles. Mark attended culinary school in California and in New York [and graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.]. It’s what we were good at and had the most experience in, but not necessarily the passion for. It was the local food side that was our passion, and we really wanted to capitalize on that.”
The couple—together for 20 years this month—came up with the concept for the Maine Meal before the food-safe bags they now use were even available.
“We knew what we wanted to do,” Kelly said, “but we needed the industry to catch up. A fully cooked, vacuum-sealed and frozen food item also threw food code for a loop here in Maine.”
Seven years in, they have successfully navigated the food code and offer their frozen product line at farmers’ markets in Waterville (Thursdays 2-6 p.m.), Belfast (Fridays 9 a.m.-1 p.m.), and Skowhegan (Saturdays 9 a.m.-1 p.m.).
“The braised beef chuck with a Cabernet Sauvignon demi-glace with caramelized onions and mushrooms is by far the best seller,” Kelly said. “The second best seller is the squash and apple bisque. We have a family in Belfast that buys nine per week.”
Their pasta is available at farmers’ markets as well. Kelly noted, “Every week we offer plain, whole wheat, and a green—it could be spinach, or it could be basil, or it could be kale. The whole-wheat option uses the Maine Grains emmer flour.”
The Maine Meal also has wholesale accounts for their pasta with restaurants, bakeries, and markets including the Miller’s Table and the Pickup CSA in Skowhegan, Hello Good Pie in Belgrade, Maine Huts and Trails in Kingfield, Tradewinds Market in Blue Hill, and Portland’s Rosemont Market (Brighton Ave. location) and Union Restaurant—whose executive chef, Josh Berry, happens to be the Maine Restaurant Association’s 2017 Chef of the Year.
The Maine Meal’s products will soon be available to anyone in Maine with Internet access and an address. “We launched our website two months ago.” Kelly said. “We plan to open in-state shipping within the next four weeks. We hope to have national shipping as soon as we possibly can.”
They’re also looking to get into more small, privately owned grocery stores like Tradewinds.
“As we scale up, we’re really analyzing what menu items work well,” Kelly said. “It’s a very large menu to think about scaling up, and to do the volume that we’ll be doing with shipping, we’re going to need to simplify a little bit. We’re probably going to focus on the pastas, the soups, and the proteins—and the sauces that can go with all of that.”
While both Kelly and Mark have a host of culinary experience, Mark grew up in the restaurant world right here in Skowhegan. His grandmother Florence Sterns owned the beloved Village Candlelight Restaurant at 4 Madison Ave., in the building where the Maine Meal now operates and Mark’s brother, Jesse LaCasse, crafts bats and has his River Run Batting Cage.
“Being in the building, being in the farmers’ markets, being a part of the community, we get to hear stories and stories and stories,” Kelly said. “I think [Florence Sterns] employed the entire town at different points. So many people I’ve met had worked for Florence. So many people just adored that restaurant.”
The LaCasses have a strong family history in the area. Last October Mark, Kelly, kids Eben (age 7 and a second grader at the Cornville Regional Charter School) and Tucker (age 3), and their two dogs moved into a house originally built by Mark’s great-great grandfather.
“Our kids are the sixth generation of LaCasses in the house,” Kelly said. “We’ve been out and about in the world, in California for four years, then New York for four years, abroad for four years, and then back here. I was a little nervous to settle down, but it’s amazing. It’s amazing. It means a lot to be in a place where people are so committed to community. We’re excited to be a part of it.”