CAPE ELIZABETH – College freshmen are notorious for being foodies, especially of the take-out variety. But a pair of young men from Cape Elizabeth have found a way to convert the dreaded “freshman 15” into a new business venture.
Ben Berman and Jack Barber, both 2011 graduates of Cape Elizabeth High School, have founded Mainely Burgers, offering gourmet creations out of a brand new food truck. Even more impressive, the fledgling entrepreneurs have started strong, winning a contract to provide the concessions at Scarborough Beach State Park, starting Memorial Day and running through Labor Day.
“I have a lot of respect for these two and I think they’ll be very successful with their efforts,” said Seth Sprague, owner of the Sprague Corp., which manages the park. Sprague said that, based on the presentation made by Barber and Berman last winter, he decided to close down the park-run concession stand in favor leasing out the food service.
“They just showed up on doorstep and sold the heck out of us,” said Sprague. “They presented well enough that despite their age we were convinced they had the drive and the enthusiasm to pull it off.”
Both young men have a history in the food business. Berman worked in the kitchen at Terra Cotta Pasta Co. in South Portland, while Barber’s grandfather founded Barber Foods – a fact Sprague admits did not escape him.
“The Barber family had long history of the food business,” he said, referring to the Maine-based frozen foods packager sold last summer to an Ohio-based firm. “I just thought it was great that he was interested in continuing that.”
But it was while meeting in downtown Boston to compare notes on their respective campuses that Barber and Berman got their inspiration.
“We both grew up around food,” recounted Berman, “but then we got to Boston and found these fantastic food trucks serving really creative, innovative food.”
“We were like, why isn’t anyone doing this at home?” added Barber. “Food trucks allow you to try really gourmet food at a cheap cost, and quickly.”
As the pair sampled the wares of more and more food carts, housed in everything from small postal trucks to giant delivery vans, they began to dream about being on the other side of the counter. At first, they admit, their efforts were limited to devising menu items.
“We were in school, adjusting to freshman year, on different sides of Boston texting burger ideas to each other,” said Berman,
“We saw what worked, we saw what we liked, and after a while we thought, we could do that,” said Barber.
Some ideas didn’t taste as good as they sounded, others won the approval of friends and family members pressed into service as taste testers. A few, like “The Maineah” (with cheddar cheese, bacon, sliced apple, maple syrup, mayo and caramelized onion) and the “Beast Burger” (with barbecue sauce, cheddar cheese, bacon, onions and pickles served between grilled cheese sandwiches instead of a hamburger bun) have since become signature dishes.
“I think we surprised ourselves when we started cooking,” said Berman. “We had all these ideas at school and when we finally got in the kitchen and started trying things out, we were really impressed. I think people are going to be really surprised.”
But a successful food business is not made on good food alone. It takes a plan, and that’s when things got serious, consuming 15-20 hours per week of each partner’s time, on top of regular schoolwork.
Berman is studying economics and sociology at Tufts University. Barber, who started at Boston University, is transferring in the fall to Babson College to pursue a degree in finance. Both say the business launch, from preparation of an initial 20-page business plan last fall to delivery last week of their new food truck from a Florida manufacturer, was its own education.
“This has been another course for us,” said Barber. “Just from the number of lawyers and accountants we’ve met with, it’s been an unbelievable experience. It’s been a whole new culture. I’ve learned so much.”
“That’s definitely true,” agreed Berman. “I’ve never applied as much coursework to something in my daily life as this, and I’ve never applied something in my daily life as much to my coursework as I have with this.”
Barber and Berman won’t say how many investors they were able to amass from among their combined circles of family and friends, or what their start-up costs were. Still, both say no one just gave them their starting capital.
“This is a real business,” said Berman. “This is not just a hot-dog push cart, in terms of product or investment. We have some real money in this, so we have to hit a certain quota to make that money back.”
Barber said his father has provided “great advice,” but he and Berman are finding their own way in many areas, including things that can’t be taught, like learning how to be a boss, an effort mildly complicated by the fact that two of their four employees are younger brothers.
“That’s a hard dynamic,” Berman said, with a laugh. “I mean, we do want to remain friends.”
Still, despite the learning curve, Sprague said he’s impressed with what he’s seen so far. Mainely Burgers offerings, priced between $4 and $8, will be a increase from what beachgoers are used to, but, he said, he thinks the corresponding jump in quality will be worth it.
“It’s a more sophisticated product,” said Sprague. “It also represents an upgrade because they are going to entirely focus on making that successful. That’s an attraction to us because, as beach operators, we are pulled in so many different directions.
“We were somewhat limited in what we could do,” said Sprague. “We’ve been interested in ways to provide better ford services to the clientele out there.”
Barber said he’ll never forget when he got the call, advising that Sprague had said yes.
“I was in the middle of class,” he recalled. “I ran out into the hall and was just freaking out. It was incredible.”
“I think a food cart is how his grandfather started out,” said Sprague.
And, as food carts go, what better place to start, Barber said.
“We could not be more excited about the Scarborough Beach location,” agreed Berman. “In terms of a summer job, this is like the coolest thing we could ever do. We get to come home. We get to be at the beach. We get to make food we love. We get to be with our friends. It is an experience that is teaching us more than any class ever has, for sure.”