SKOWHEGAN — A cheese cave with glass lockers, a brew tank for local beer, wood-fired pizza oven and a name change at the popular Pickup Cafe are all part of expansion plans this spring and summer at the Somerset Grist Mill inside the converted 1895 steel and stone former county jail.

“There is some restructuring afoot at the Pickup,” said Amber Lambke, co-owner of the grist mill, president of Maine Grains and executive director of the Maine Grain Alliance. “The exciting thing here is we’re pulling together all of the successful pieces that have been started to form a more complete picture to make this place a destination.”

The Pickup Cafe and Community Supported Agriculture food-shares program was recently granted a $76,500 Local Food Promotion Program Grant to pay for consultants and studies within the business to expand the sale of locally produced food, Lambke said. A video of the plans was one of the results of the study. Studies have concentrated on the indoor/outdoor cafe, a large storage room next to the cafe, a courtyard and space in the basement of the old jail to become a cheese-aging room.

Amy Rowbottom of Crooked Face Creamery has been spearheading the plan for a cheese cave with new doorways cut into the stone and glass doors on “cheese lockers” for visitors to see the aging process at work, Lambke said.

“The cheese cave will have some additional seating, glass-fronted cheese lockers and brew tanks,” she said. “The basement under the oldest section of the building is about 30-plus feet from floor to ceiling. It has huge granite foundation stones for the entire wall with a brick vaulted, arched ceiling with very tall steel posts down the center of the room.

“Gutted out, that basement is going to be gorgeous. We just think it’s going to be beautiful,” Rowbottom, of Norridgewock, said, adding she has been researching how best to use the space for aging cheese.

“I’ve been heading the research on it, working with consultants on both the overall design and business models,” she said. “It’s an exciting opportunity, but much work is needed to go about it the right way.”

The two-year plan for Pickup renovations also includes cutting new doorways through the brick and granite of the old jail to better use a courtyard as an outdoor dining area. The courtyard was once an open air recreation area where jail inmates could play basketball and exercise.

“The courtyard has been underutilized to date, but we want that to become more of a social space where people can sit and eat,” Lambke said. “We have another wood-fired out there that could be utilized for pizzas. The storage room will be developed as a tasting room for not only the cheese and cafe food, but for locally brewed beer using our grains.”

She said Bigelow Brewing of Skowhegan has been using Maine Grains in some of their beers. The company has expanded brewing tanks at the brewery on Bigelow Hill and will move their original, smaller tanks down to the old jail to brew specialty beers using Maine Grains that can be sampled only at the grist mill.

Along with weekly food shares, the CSA program also buys food from area farms for wholesale deliveries to about a dozen summer camps, hospitals, institutions and schools.

“It’s all part of The Pickup umbrella business,” she said. “The CSA is like your family grocery bags. The wholesale part is institutional size orders. The business is working with about 60 producers in the area.”

The CSA started in 2011 and the cafe opened in 2012 with a farm-to-table focus inside what was the fenced-in parking area for the jail, which closed in 2008 and moved to a new facility on East Madison Road in Madison. Lambke and her business partner, Michael Scholz, purchased the former jail in 2009.

Jeff Hewett, Skowhegan’s director of economic and community development, said the grist mill has been a catalyst for change in the town since it opened.

“The grist mill, Pickup Cafe, the farmers market all have grown together and supported each other,” Hewett said. “This has given them critical mass for attracting new customers to Skowhegan. They will be a major influence on the future of Skowhegan.”

The Pickup and all three of its facets — cafe, CSA and wholesale operation — is owned by 10 members in the Skowhegan community, including farmers, cooks, people with restaurant experience, bakers, business people and a lawyer.

Lambke said the CSA “maxed out its space” at the 20-by-30-foot cafe, where 150 shares of family food bags and boxes were packed up for pick up every Wednesday. The packing process now has temporarily moved to buildings at Sarah Smith’s Grassland Farm in Skowhegan, but food shares still are picked up at the cafe in town and at satellite locations around the area.

Under the new, more efficient “pack line” system of receiving and packing CSA food shares, the process now can expand to 400 shares over time, once a large permanent location is found, Lambke said.

Smith is the paid manager of the CSA, and Adam and Rose Rosario have been paid to manage cafe operations.

“The changes that are afoot right now are that the cafe needs to restructure its operations and hours,” Lambke said, noting more cafe and commercial kitchen space will be available now that the CSA operations have moved. Under Lambke’s direction as president of Maine Grains, local grains now will be used more on the cafe menu.

Lambke said Maine Grains will oversee and run the cafe starting this summer.

“The Pickup will continue to exist as a business that hones its focus around the CSA and wholesale business only,” she said. “Maine Grains and the mill business will now be managing the cafe as the CSA moves off site.”

Lambke said Adam and Rosa Rosario have not decided what their role will be under the new structure of the cafe, which also will change its name before it reopens, possibly in May. The cafe will be closed for the month of April.

“The cafe will reopen,” Lambke said. “We will change the name to align with Maine Grains. We’re going to do a lot more to feature grains that we produce here in the meals.”

A wood-fired oven from Skowhegan-based Maine Wood Heat will be built inside the kitchen of the cafe so the menu can feature wood-fired pizza, wood-roasted vegetables and other similar dishes.

“Maine Grains’ goal would be to create a destination for people visiting here to see the mill, who want to buy products, learn a little bit about baking, buy baking tools and sit down and have some lunch or some dinner,” Lambke said.

Lambke said two primary positions at the cafe will be put out to bid: a cafe manager and a head chef. Rosa Rosario has been the head chef and her husband, Adam, has been the front-of-the-house manager and cook.

The Rosarios now are in the process of deciding how they want to fit into the future of the cafe. They also have a catering business, and the couple have two young children, Lambke said.

Rosa Rosario said she and her husband are using the cafe’s transitional period as an opportunity to travel to Italy as a family with her mother, Gail Edwards of Athens, who has a home in her ancestral village in the southern part of the country.

“We will spend the time traveling with our children, Mariano and Emilio, working on our cheese and pasta-making skills and getting culinarily inspired by all the wonderful food and farming that Italy has to offer,” Rosa said. “When we return, we plan to continue our work with the local food systems in our community. We have a very busy summer catering schedule lined up.”

Catering functions will include The Kneading Conference, Blessed Maine Herb Farm Herbal Retreat and summer events at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture.

The new cafe will also undergo a name change either to The Mill Cafe or Maine Grains Cafe, but it no longer will be The Pickup Cafe, Lambke said.

Lambke said the business has doubled the number of farmers who contribute to the CSA to now include about 24 farms. The staff at the grist mill, which started with two employees, is now up to eight workers. The Somerset Grist Mill also includes the Happy Knits yarn shop, the Tech Spot computer instruction room, and studio and office space for WNNZ, a low-power community radio station.

“The tricky thing is are we generating a lot of excess cash yet? No, but that’s because we’re still in a growth mode,” she said. “We’re still buying more equipment. We’re hiring more employees. We’re still in that start-up phase that they say takes three-to-five years. We’re making good progress and good products.”

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

[email protected]

Twitter:@Doug_Harlow

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.