SKOWHEGAN — When the pandemic hit in mid-March and panic sent shoppers rushing to the grocery store to buy flour, employees at Maine Grains buckled down, working to keep their products in stock and available to their distributors. Online retail sales have skyrocketed, and the flour mill’s business model has been praised in the New York Times recently as representing a “radical vision: the return of true agricultural localism.”

Since COVID-19 struck, Amber Lambke, the founder and CEO of Maine Grains and co-founder of the Maine Grain Alliance, said her business has seen a 4,000% increase in online sales. The spike turned the business on end for a few months. Workers adapted. They figured out how to have enough equipment and workers on hand to mill grain into flour and package it in retail-sized bags quickly enough to meet the demand.

Now, months later, sales have stabilized, but the business is still seeing an increase in sales as many have shifted their eating habits from mainly dining out to staying and eating at home.

“With restaurants closing, that meant an immediate loss of some restaurants,” Lambke said, “and was quickly filled by online orders that came rushing in from people who couldn’t find flour in the grocery store or were quarantined, staying at home, home-schooling kids, having time on their hands to bake and practice the projects that they want to put some time into for a while, like sourdough bread.”

Some of the bakeries that Maine Grains sells its products to also began purchasing retail-sized bags for those who could not find them at the grocery store at the onset of the pandemic.

“That part of the business surged in early April,” Lambke said. “It has come down a little bit, but everyone has stabilized at levels that are higher than going into the pandemic.”

Many have shifted from eating out to making food at home, Lambke said, adding that food industry analysts, who once suggested that consumers spend around 60% of their food costs eating out and 40% on groceries, now say that model has flip-flopped.

“We are spending far more of our food dollar staying home,” Lambke said.

Food Science Innovation Coordinator and Facility Manager Rob Dumas of the University of Maine, right, leads a discussion Wednesday in the kitchen of Maine Grains in Skowhegan. With Dumas is Maine Grains founder and CEO Amber Lambke, left, and Maine Grains Sales & Marketing Manager Hunter Clark. Containers with grains and other ingredients are in the foreground. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

Maine Grains, which operates out of the former Somerset County Jail built in 1897, started in 2007 with the first Kneading Conference, where the idea of a Maine Grain Alliance first evolved. Maine Grains Grist Mill also houses a radio station, yarn shop and a full sit-down restaurant that serves wood-fired pizza and beer made from the grains milled on site.

The company has grown continuously since the formation of the Maine Grain Alliance in 2012 and has thrived even more during the pandemic.

Maine Grains was featured in a New York Times editorial recently, which emphasized the success of its business model based on the revival of grains. The company’s success is grounded in  its statewide commitment to collaborate with other businesses.

“This is a new model that could be showing promise for rural areas and is challenging this notion of, ‘why would you run a business that cannot scale at the cheapest possible cost and make the most amount of money,'” Lambke said. “That’s how we build business.”

She pointed out that this new Maine economic model is different from the larger industrial scale flour mills that produce the likes of Gold Medal. Those larger mills function on a highly automated system that is controlled in a control room and employs two people. Using a manual system, like at Maine Grains, allows her to have 20 people on staff.

“If we’re selling enough grain to create more jobs, I would rather create more jobs in an area like this,” Lambke said. “One of the reasons why Maine is such a model right now for the revival of grains is the commitment to collaboration.”

Laurel Bushey fills bags with polenta, a course grind of corn meal, in the mill of Maine Grains on Wednesday in Skowhegan. Bushey is framed by bars that are part of the former jail. Maine Grains took over the jail building. Maine Grains staff said the cell was used as a drunk tank. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

This includes connecting with farmers, working alongside the University of Maine, which has been a key player in getting the money to focus on grains and their trials, and the brewing community, whose main ingredient is grain, which can be sourced locally.

“Brewers have come to realize that their primary ingredient can be locally grown,” she said. “The strength of our craft brewing industry really helps the grain industry. When you have a grain economy in place in the state, you have grain for bread, grain for chefs, grains for beer, but part of the cycle here at the mill is that byproducts of the cleaning process here become available to backyard livestock producers at very affordable rates.”

“There’s a cyclical ecosystem that forms around the grain economy,” she said.

At Maine Grains, Lambke is proud of her staff and their ability to adapt and learn, especially since stone milling is not a skill that people can formally learn anymore.

“People being hired here to do the milling are learning to do it on the job,” she said. Several of her employees, she added, have shifted to different positions in the company since they were hired.

“We’re all learning new things as we go,” she said. “We’re assessing the pinch point at any given point in time and continuing to solve those pinch points, which will just keep advancing us down the path of doing a better job over time at making flour and running our business and reaching people. I think that story inspires people.”

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