New small business owners bring entrepreneurial energy to their beloved community.
Damariscotta has long boasted a thriving downtown, with an appealing mix of shops and restaurants, a movie theatre, a library, and picturesque waterfront on the oyster-rich Damariscotta River. Most merchants and restaurateurs stay open year round to serve residents, as well as visitors who appreciate the town’s easy accessibility from Route One. In the last few years, however, a new mix of small businesses has made Damariscotta even more of a draw. Owned by a diverse group of local entrepreneurs, these newcomers are making a positive impact in the community.
“The old, conservative view of Damariscotta is changing,” says Pennington (Penn) Way IV, owner of Sea Smoke, which offers an attractively displayed variety of glass pipes—most of them artisan-made—and vintage items at 95 Main St. In 2017, he and his wife, Jamie Way, bought and renovated the building that houses Sea Smoke and Wicked Scoops ice cream shop. Run by Jamie (the third generation of her family in the ice cream business) from May to October, Wicked Scoops features 30 flavors of Maine-made Gifford’s Ice Cream and is known for its gourmet frappes and sundaes made with locally sourced ingredients such as the tea in her chai frappe. “A generational shift is bringing a new energy, and people who appreciate and want to see local, handmade, and craft,” says Penn, who grew up in South Bristol, moved to the southwest for a number of years, and returned with Jamie to raise their son in Damariscotta. Because he buys directly from artisans, he knows the story behind the products he sells, and compares smoking from a handmade glass pipe to drinking wine in a high-quality glass. “It’s about function and an expression of personal style,” he says. With “new lifeblood” in Damariscotta, Penn sees opportunities to tap into the activities that draw visitors to Maine. “As Portland expands, we want to capitalize on that and get people up here to shop and eat.”
A short distance away down “Taco Alley,” another couple is bringing something new to Damariscotta in the form of authentic Mexican food. At tiny, cheerful Que Rico, business owner Sara McKenzie and her partner Michael Castillo, a first-generation Mexican-American from Los Angeles, are introducing their neighbors to soulful dishes such as guisado, a stew-like blend of tomatoes and onions served with greens, Spanish rice, and queso fresco to scoop into soft, white corn tortillas. They opened the restaurant last spring after three years of operating a popular food cart. Michael does all the cooking using recipes he learned from his mother and grandmother and local ingredients whenever possible, including haddock from the nearby fish market for his fish tacos. Their customers range from construction workers on their lunch break to high-schoolers stopping in for churros and Jaritos sodas after school, as well as couples and families eating in or taking out for dinner. “We want to be welcoming to everyone,” says Sara, who works the front of the house, often with the couple’s baby daughter, Bella, in tow. “We know we have to be all in because we want people to feel our involvement and energy.”
As a community, Damariscotta has been open to new ideas and industries. In 2018, it was among of the first towns in Maine to “opt-in” under the new state marijuana statute, and Greenport Cannabis Co. has operated since August of that year in an historic house next to the library. “The town was very willing to work with us,” says co-owner Mark Ferrero, who along with his business partner Ryan Ellis, has been working with patients as a cannabis caregiver for a decade. “We wanted to establish a brick-and-mortar business in a community we felt we could serve.” The atmosphere at Greenport is subdued, and Ferrero, who has lived in Nobleboro for 20 years, says that his customers are predominantly professionals and retirees, more than more than 50 percent of them women. “We match an array of bespoke, high-quality cannabis to each patient’s unique needs,” he says. “Damariscotta is a place where people know each other and where there is time. You can go into a shop and the purveyor will take time to talk with you.”
Friendly, knowledgeable, personal service is the common thread running through these newer Damariscotta establishments, and they are in longstanding good company. “In these days of the internet you need to you know your product and your customer,” says Way. “This is what has made Damariscotta such a destination, and we want to build on that.”