Facts blend with flavors on Maine Food for Thought’s tour of some of Portland’s best restaurants. Sarah Hach runs the year-old company with her husband.
Sarah Kneece Hach leads a pack of hungry people down Commercial Street in Portland. There’s a mother-daughter duo from a Chicago suburb, a pair of empty nesters from Providence, Rhode Island, and even a couple of Maine residents, all in pursuit of both their next course of Maine grown, produced or harvested food and an education about where it all came from.
Hach and her husband Bryce are co-founders of Maine Food for Thought, a tour that serves as a crash course in food systems and sustainability, punctuated by small servings of beautifully crafted examples of what local food means on a plate. It’s upscale tourism, an amble that on this brisk, overcast day, started at Union in the Press Hotel with a small bowl of Asian-influenced clam chowder and ended three hours later with a dollop of an Italian chocolate pudding at Piccolo. There’s no roll meant to fill you up, no overpriced drinks along the way; this is facts blended with flavors.
The couple started giving the tours in the spring of 2018. He is the front man, the one who smoothly delivers short talks on topics ranging from aquaculture to food insecurity to the secrets of the best pesto in the state.
She handles the marketing and logistics behind the tours. And that involves some persuasion. She’s the one who goes to restaurants and asks chefs and owners to let a group come in during a time when the staff might typically be folding napkins or otherwise preparing for a meal. In the last year she’s convinced Scales, Mami, Blythe & Barrows and others, to serve small plates for a revolving group of people. “Many of these places did have to take a chance on us,” Hach says.
But, she said, there is a happy trade-off. The restaurants get a marketing bonus. The Haches’ talks are the kind of education no server has time to deliver, and they get repeat customers in the form of tour attendees who come back for a full meal after the taste and talk.
It’s the first time the couple has ever worked together. “We always wanted to carve something out on our own,” Hach says. She’s poised and unflappable; when you find out she has worked on political campaigns, including John Kerry’s run for president in 2004, it makes perfect sense.
The couple met in a statistics class at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Public Policy and Management. Both were getting master’s degree in public policy and management. They went on to jobs in the nonprofit sector, working at foundations in economic development and education. They moved for school and they moved for jobs. “We lived in nine different states, combined,” she says.
Then they decided to move for a place instead. They were ready to settle somewhere to raise their daughter and picked Maine, which they’d visited on their first anniversary. He took a job at Maine Audubon, while for four years she worked for Focus Maine, a privately-led initiative to boost job growth in the state, which places an emphasis on agriculture and aquaculture among other industries. The more they learned about Maine food systems, the more they wanted to boost public awareness of all that goes into keeping that economy humming along.
In the tours that is spelled out transparently. At Evo, chef Matt Ginn sends out small bowls of spiced potatoes with a Middle Eastern twist while Bryce Hach explains the importance of the potato harvest to Aroostook County. At Solo Italiano, where the tour group samples thick, house-made pasta covered in the lush pesto its chef Paolo Laboa is known for, Hach tells them that the basil in it comes from Olivia’s Gardens in New Gloucester. “It’s pesticide free,” he explains, describing what he saw when he visited Olivia’s (before giving the tours, these tour guides go on a lot of tours). “They use 15 different species of predatory insects instead.” As the group exclaimed over the pesto, he told them that the basil’s journey from farm to table might be as little as two hours.
Solo Italiano doesn’t serve lunch, but Sarah Hach worked out a deal to let the group in right around lunch time, several days a week. What she likes about bring groups in during these off hours is that very often, the tour will see farmers stopping off with their goods or say, an eel farmer dropping by with product or meeting with the chef. “We want people to make this connection,” she says. “To see that the chefs are supporting the broader economy and ecosystem by the sourcing that they are doing.”
The result is an authentic, behind-the-scenes experience. Most who sign for the tour, about 70 percent, are from out-of-state, Hach says. Prices are $79 for two different versions of the tour. One starts in late morning, runs three-hours and includes six restaurants over the course of three hours (it feels like much less) and the other is a little shorter and includes five stops over the course of the afternoon. But this year the Hachs hope to serve more locals. Even a Mainer who considers themselves highly educated on local foods is likely to learn something or at the very least get a new perspective, told broadly but intimately. It’s the big picture, painted one dish at a time, chef by chef, but knitted together to represent the story of Maine food. “We thought this was a way to shine a light,” Sarah Hach says.
Mary Pols wrote about food systems for five years for the Portland Press Herald. She is the editor of Maine Women Magazine. The pesto at Solo Italiano truly is the best she’s ever had.