Building a hub for food

Behind the scenes with a community project to feed bellies and souls
By JEFF INGLIS  |  January 9, 2013


Exploding out of the mind of Portland idea-man Eli Cayer, 39, and with financial backing from his Urban Farm Fermentory, is the conversion of a former East Bayside taxi garage into a home for food processors and preparers right on the Portland peninsula.

With his eye ever fixed on the Next Big Thing for the Forest City (he's had his hand in everything from public transit to community engagement to booze), Cayer is not only projecting the February 1 opening of the yet-to-be-named new space, which will house an expanded space for Bomb Diggity Bakery and an all-natural fruit-popsicle maker — he has also offered the Portland Phoenix a behind-the-scenes look at how ideas like this one arise, develop, change, adapt, get wrecked, get salvaged, and ultimately, if the stars align, actually happen.

It's a peek at what goes into bringing great new businesses and ideas to Portland. More often, as Cayer observes, "you see what worked" — at a grand opening or community open house. "Sometimes it doesn't work," he says wryly, and with personal experience.

Cayer has started businesses in Portland for many years. There was a DIY bicycle-repair shop called the Hub, which led to cycle-rickshaws (predating by a decade the ones we saw this summer), and then an unfruitful plan to install a downtown refueling location for biodiesel vehicles. He founded the community group MENSK to bring together like-minded creative people in hopes of cross-pollinating great ideas. He co-founded Maine Mead Works, and then left to help start the Urban Farm Fermentory, which makes mead, hard cider, and a rapidly expanding line of kombucha drinks. Not all of these endeavors have worked out as planned, and others ran their course, after which Cayer moved on.

Now, with the UFF growing strong, another Cayer notion is taking shape.

"I've been dreaming about this space for a while now," he says, standing in the vast open cavern that used to be the garage home to ABC Taxi. It's another part of the same 200 Anderson Street building that houses the UFF, which is how Cayer heard, last June, that the taxi company was moving to a new space off the peninsula.

He signed a lease in August, based on commitments from a couple of prospective tenants, and started submitting permitting applications to the city for different uses as well as renovations.

When he did, Cayer admits, "I unfortunately worded it in a way that scared" city officials scrutinizing how the building would be divided for various tenants. An initial potential tenant was a man who would be making countertops; also interested was Bomb Diggity, seeking to expand both its bakery business as well as the social mission of its nonprofit parent Momentum (which works with people who have intellectual disabilities) out of the space it presently shares with Local Sprouts on Congress Street. Cayer soon found out that city rules governing spaces with multiple uses (like manufacturing and food preparation) meant different permitting and building requirements than Cayer was used to from his experience with single-use spaces, like the UFF.

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Related: A chat with MENSK about those mobile shows, A look at Portland's graffiti history, Young activists explore police department, More more >
  Topics: Food Features , Forest City, Eli Cayer
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