PORTLAND — If Tom Ardia had attempted to open a speak-easy-style bar in downtown Lewiston 10 years ago, it would not have worked.

Just seven years ago, when Forage Market first opened, it struggled to define itself as downtown foot traffic was sparse.

But during a panel discussion at the 2019 Chef Summit on Thursday, five recognizable downtown business owners tracked the changes that have come to Lewiston-Auburn since then, as well as the role that food — and beer — has played in the momentum.

Ardia, the bar manager and partner at Sonder & Dram on Ash Street, told the audience in Portland that until a few risk-takers, such as the former owner of Fuel restaurant, opened businesses downtown, there was still a lingering stigma surrounding the area.

“It wouldn’t have worked back then, but at some point if you want to revitalize, someone has to go and do it,” he said.

“So places like Fish Bones and Fuel took a chance in an area that no one thought anything could happen,” said Michael Dostie, chairman of the Downtown Lewiston Association and moderator of the discussion.

The panelists, which also included Luke Livingston, founder of Baxter Brewing Co., Kate Landry, co-owner of Fish Bones Grill, and Allen Smith, owner of Forage Market, recapped the challenges they’ve faced while simultaneously putting Lewiston on the food culture map.

Landry said she’s noticed the clientele start to skew younger.

People, even from older generations, are coming in and are surprised by what they see downtown so many years after its heyday, Ardia said.

Forage has managed to grow after its signature item received national press.

Just a few months ago, Baxter Brewing opened its 5,000-square-foot pub at the Bates Mill complex, solidifying the brewery’s prominence as the first in Lewiston and among the first in Maine in the years before the craft beer boom.

The Chef Summit, founded in 2016, has grown in prominence and now attracts James Beard Award-winning chefs for workshops, panel discussions, chef demos, networking and tastings.

Thursday’s “food town” panel labeled downtown Lewiston a trending area of Maine.

Dostie said Thursday that he chose the Lewiston businesses for what they represent to the downtown but also because of their varying stories. In 2005, Fish Bones was among the first downtown restaurants to move into a renovated mill space. In contrast, he said, Sonder & Dram has been open eight months.

But what they all seem to have in common is a bit of chance-taking upon establishing in Lewiston.

Despite the recent traction, the panelists said it has never been easy. Each of them has had at least some experience in renovating old buildings. Livingston and Smith commiserated over ripping out dropped ceilings, rugs and other junk from their respective locations.

The panelists said it’s necessary for incoming businesses to create something unique, especially as Lewiston doesn’t match the built-in clientele of a larger city or the typical Maine summer foot traffic.

Smith said Forage began as a small grocery market in the same vein as Rosemont, but quickly shifted.

“It was probably too optimistic for Lisbon Street at the time we opened,” he said. “So we followed what people were buying from us.”

What people were buying were Forage’s wood-fired bagels, which are now synonymous with the business and likely the driver behind its recent expansion to Portland.

“It’s the hook that will bring people in. People will brave finding parking for it, and it allowed us to come into Portland with confidence,” he said. “You’ve got to have some kind of a hook that catches people’s imaginations.”

Smith added that he believes some businesses in Portland can get by without having that “hook,” based simply on foot traffic.

“In Lewiston-Auburn, you’re counting on bringing people to you for something they’re excited about,” he said.

At the end of the discussion, a few questions came from members of the audience from different cities.

A restaurateur from Rockland brought up the revival of its downtown years ago, obvious now by its mix of dining options. He said he came to Lewiston recently, and after a trip to Simones’ Hot Dog Stand, stopped in for an espresso at Forage.

“That’s what we all want, right?” he said. “We want all that stuff, and you guys are doing that, too.”

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A panel of Lewiston restaurateurs and brewers convene at the 2019 Chef Summit in Portland on Thursday to discuss how a new momentum of dining and beer options has been a key component in the revitalization of downtown Lewiston. From left are Michael Dostie, chairman of the Downtown Lewiston Association; Tom Ardia, mixologist/partner at Sonder & Dram; Luke Livingston, founder of Baxter Brewing Co.; Allen Smith, owner of Forage Market; and Kate Landry, co-owner of Fish Bones Grill. (Sun Journal photo by Andrew Rice)

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