By Will Bleakley
Photographs by Kristin Teig
Local (food) hero, owner of Rosemont Market. He helped create a mecca for local food in Maine, and if that’s not saying enough, he’s hungry for more.
Try asking John Naylor a question and the answer you get back will likely be peppered with a dozen names of close friends and associates. He’s not showing off, but rather offering a glimpse into his philosophy of life and business: we are nothing without the relationships we forge. What he’s done with his three Rosemont Market and Bakery stores is bring Maine’s expansive but close-knit world of talented local farmers to a larger audience by fashioning a true community-based enterprise. The lettuce you purchase is no longer an anonymous vegetable—it comes with a face and a story. It’s courtesy of Penny Jordan of Jordan’s Farm in Cape Elizabeth, which, according to Naylor, has the best lettuce-growing conditions in the world.
Rosemont’s employees, hired for their
love of Maine food, are eager to show off their favorite olive oil, or let you in on the secrets of their green curry paste. It was Naylor’s audacity to imagine a store driven, not by price, but by intimate connections, that allowed him and his partner Scott Anderson to set the bar for quality local produce, meats, cheese, and wine.
From growing up on a farm with 12 siblings in Massachusetts to his job at the Portland Greengrocer, Naylor’s life has revolved around large families and fresh food. “I grew up on a farm, so I was around this culture my whole life,” Naylor says from his office in the middle of the Brighton Avenue store, where the aromas of fresh produce comingle with those emanating from the kitchen in the back. Possibly due to the admittedly underwhelming cooking of his mother, Naylor did not come to truly appreciate the sophistication of food until his early 20s, when he started working for the Village Fish Market in Connecticut. Running to Fulton Street during all hours of the night to pick up the fish was when, according to Naylor, “I first started to learn what good fish and good foods taste like. What was in season, what to look for—you eventually get an eye for it.”
As he began to refine his palate, he was influenced by the appreciation and respect for food that are deeply embedded in the Italian and French cultures. He mentions how his friend Lou’s Italian-immigrant family taught him the value of locally grown produce. “Dinner would be straight from their own garden, and they made their own wine—it was really Old World. Stuff like that to me was eye-opening.” In addition, trips to France showed him how seasonality and provincial specialization made for superior-tasting produce. “When you travel through France, Provence is olive oil; Normandy is butter and lamb; Alas is apples and sausages. These places all have particular soils, and flavors, and I think it’s great to have that diversity in the food web.” These international experiences led him to question the foundations of American culinary traditions, and what our modern experience of food has become. “Where had the art of food gone?” he asked himself.
While hosting a French exchange student named Jean Baptiste, Naylor was able to see firsthand the chasm that separated French nd American appreciation for the culinary arts. “When my wife first picked up Jean at the bus station, she went to get a cup of coffee and he’s sitting in the car with her going, ‘What are you doing drinking coffee in the car?’ The French don’t do that; neither do the Italians. They sit and they drink their coffee, and they take time to absorb it and to talk while they’re eating. Americans just want to jam something in their mouths and not spend a lot of time with it.”
After his stint with the Village Fish
Market, Naylor never left the food industry. He started a catering company in Westchester, New York, where he found imself serving oysters on the half shell to artists such as David Hockney and Helen Frankenthaler. He built on this experience when he started a successful restaurant in Westchester’s Mount Kisco called the Grouper Café. The restaurant lasted for ten years until Nick Witte, the owner of the Portland Greengrocer, lured Naylor and his wife, Molly, to Maine, in 1993, by offering him a job managing the store. Naylor had been coming to Maine for several years, and he and his wife always stopped by the Greengrocer and visited Witte when they were in town. Over time, Naylor recalls, “My wife and I would just turn and say, ‘Wait, why are we leaving Maine again?” It was when he took the Greengrocer job that Naylor learned the ins and outs of Maine’s local food scene, an experience that directly led to the creation of his Rosemont stores.
When Portland Greengrocer closed its doors in 2003, Naylor recognized that there was a hole in the Maine food market. He partnered with Anderson—a former colleague from the store who also happens to be a talented chef from Back Bay Grill in Portland and possibly an even more talented baker—and together they pooled their resources to open the first of their three Rosemont Market and Bakery stores. “When we moved into Brighton Avenue, I wanted it to be more seasonal and more local than what came before.” The local food movement was already growing in Portland, but it was a largely fragmented community at the time, according to Naylor. “I think it was happening before we came around, but when we started to do it, it really picked up speed,” he says. “We’re really surfing this crest right now that’s just incredible. We just did the right things at the right time when there were enough people to support it.”
If you walk into any of the Rosemont stores, they feel more like a chef’s ideal pantry than a business. Each item has been hand-selected, and while the stores are small, they somehow contain everything you need. In addition to offering some of the best vegetables and locally raised meats in the state, they also sell freshly baked bread, have a discerning selection of inexpensive and higher-priced wines, and serve a selection of gourmet foods from the same local vegetables and meats they carry. “I
always use salsa as an example,” Naylor says,
“We only carry the salsa that we make—I don’t have an aisle of it. We make our own pesto, artichoke pesto, salad dressing. So we don’t carry any of that stuff.”
In any discussion of local food, price always seems to set off a debate. Yes, local foods can be more expensive than those sold in big-box grocery stores, but Naylor would argue that, in one way or another, you end up paying in the end. “Right now, we might be paying lower food costs, but we’re paying higher medical bills and higher social costs.” Naylor believes we “should pay more for food,” since slightly higher costs at the register end up reducing hidden costs throughout our society and economy. But how much more does the average consumer actually end up paying? As a test case, let’s consider a recipe given out by Brad Nessier, one of Rosemont’s chefs. His version of “adult ramen” produces four servings, with more than enough ingredients left over to make several other dishes…well, except for that last item, of course.
Green curry paste
Bottle of olive oil
+ Bottle of red wine (while not necessary, is essential)
If you take out the wine and the olive oil, your shopping bill decreases to $14—or roughly $3.50 for each of four meals, not including the leftover ingredients. And when you shop at Rosemont, the money you spend represents a direct investment in Maine’s economy, people, and culture. “The best possible economic engine that’s available to us is to buy and sell local,” Naylor believes. While he will leave it up to you to weigh the costs and benefits of buying local for yourself, he has big plans for the future that might help sway you, including an expansion into Rosemont Pharmacy across the street from his Brighton Avenue store—a move that will entice customers with an even greater variety of locally sourced foods.
While the local food movement is undeniably gaining in popularity, the Rosemont stores have been able to stay ahead of the competition by developing strong relationships not just with suppliers but with the communities and neighborhoods they serve. Naylor and his managers cater up to 40 percent of their inventory to the demands of the area, be it lasagna for the more family-oriented Yarmouth or sushi for the younger crowd on Munjoy Hill. And Rosemont’s employees are hired not just for their warm personalities but for their devotion to Maine food, so they are always eager to recommend a favorite condiment or help with recipe suggestions.
Yet there is still one area of neighborhood integration that Naylor would like to see Rosemont’s operations expand into: education. While he’s trying to find ways to get healthier food into schools, he’s also hoping to get the practical science of food taught at the elementary level. Naylor says he’s looking at a school in Cumberland where he could teach cheese making and butchering. His goal is to make education less abstract and more relevant. He sees the food industry as a great way to teach kids about science. As evidence, Naylor describes how one of his beef suppliers has used his knowledge of microbiology to create better fertilizers and stronger, healthier cows. Label making can be used for graphic design—even silverware placement builds organizational skills in younger students. Naylor’s long-term vision is to use his stores to help shatter the esoteric anonymity of contemporary food production and foster a deeper connection to the things we eat. If Naylor is able to accomplish even a tenth of these ambitions, he will not only help lead Maine to a more sustainable future but create a unique food culture that even Jean Baptiste would appreciate.
88 Congress St. | Portland | 207.773.7888
559 Brighton Ave. | Portland | 207.774.8129
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