It’s unlikely that anyone has ever overcome the specific set of obstacles placed in the path of Steve and Johanna Corman, who founded Vena’s Fizz House in Portland’s Old Port eight years ago. Those roadblocks include the deep snobbishness of modern cocktail culture, skyrocketing rents caused by gentrification, and the divinely inspired edicts of late 19th century Portland church fathers.
Yet here they are, embarking on the renovation of a former church on Congress Street, near Maine Medical Center’s future main entrance, that promises to be one of the coolest places in town to grab a drink, meet friends and celebrate events.
When Vena’s Fizz House opened on Fore Street, in a building that had housed a string of failed ventures, their success was hardly guaranteed. They were a cocktail bar missing what most drinkers consider the key ingredient: alcohol. Instead of making cocktails, Vena’s served mocktails which, given their quality and complexity, were not much cheaper than the booze versions.
“It always amazed me what these two guys have done, in terms of not knowing anything about the bar industry,” said Mary Jo Marquis, Vena’s Fizz House’s director of business development. “They plopped themselves down in the bar industry and created something completely different, in terms of starting out with the mocktails. And they took a lot of flack from the industry. I don’t think they were looked on as valid mixologists with that.”
About five years ago, Steve Corman got another bright (and seemingly unprofitable) idea: craft bitters. As Marquis noted, back then, the only bitters bars stocked were Angostura and Peychaud’s, neither of which is remotely local.
Vena’s got a liquor license several years ago and began serving cocktails as well as mocktails in their small but cozy upstairs bar. Meanwhile, the downstairs retail section of their business grew in tandem with their expanding selection of craft bitters, syrups and cocktail accessories.
“Two years ago, all of a sudden mocktails started to trend, and we were getting calls from the Dublin Times in London because mocktails were now moving across the world,” Marquis recalled. “Now all of a sudden it came back to little Vena’s Fizz House in Portland, Maine, and they started it. [People were] like, ‘How did you know and how did you do it? We want to set up a mocktail program.’”
“It’s just lovely to see that get validated, and that these guys stood their ground in the middle of this industry that was like, What? Mocktails?” Marquis continued. The Cormans were “always preaching, ‘This can be as good as a cocktail. You will never know, sitting at that table, which one is the mocktail or the cocktail, because they’re crafted with as much complexity, flavor and love as the other ones are.’”
Then, around the time the pandemic swept the globe, bitters followed suit. “It took the world by storm,” said Marquis, “and all of a sudden everybody’s using craft bitters and it’s become a thing, and these guys were on the forefront of it long before it happened. … They’ve established themselves as the leaders in this and it validated them, in terms of the bar industry, because it just went against every grain of what [the industry] stood for. They did it in a different way.”
The couple leased a large space in Westbrook to fulfill online orders and, having outgrown their Old Port location, began looking for a new home for the Fizz House. In the meantime, with the bar shuttered due to the government’s inept response to COVID-19, Steve Corman, now affectionately known as The Bitterest Man in the World, taught mixology classes online, via Zoom, to customers who’d already received the company’s signature cocktail ingredients by mail.
When the Cormans first opened Vena’s, the lease was $2,800 a month, Steve Corman recalled, and over the years it only increased by $500. However, as Vena’s proved, this location — in Boothby Square, across from Rosie’s and Dock Fore — was no longer cursed. “People used to say to us, ‘Oh, this is a great spot, but it’s too bad you’re so far away from the Old Port,’” Johanna Corman recalled with a laugh (Boothby Square is at the eastern edge of the Old Port district).
Early this year, when the couple began looking for a larger location in the Old Port or downtown Portland, they were shocked to discover that rents ranged from $6,000 to $9,000 a month. And that’s assuming the commercial real-estate agents were willing to negotiate in good faith. The Cormans quickly realized those agents were not — negotiations dragged on and on, and terms would change at the last minute in ways unfavorable to the renter.
In other words, the heart of Portland is effectively closed to entrepreneurs — even those, like the Cormans, with years of experience running a successful business there — unless you’re already awash in cash. (The high-priced locations they looked at last spring are still empty.)
The Cormans were starting to lose hope when, one day last summer, Johanna, who already knew all the spaces available for lease, saw a listing for an old church at the corner of Congress and Weymouth streets, in Portland’s still-gritty Parkside neighborhood, that was for sale. The asking price was just under half a million bucks, and the mortgage on the property (less than $2,000) would be a fraction of the cost to lease a similarly sized space just a few blocks away.
Johanna had lived in Parkside decades ago, including at a place on Weymouth, and had fond memories of the neighborhood — she recalled going to the since-defunct Sportsman’s Grill, near the old Greyhound station on Congress, with her father. The couple have always considered their bar a place to build community, not to just get intoxicated, and were excited to host events with the more ethnically diverse residents of this part of town. They jumped to acquire the building and the underwriters at their credit union crunched the numbers. It looked like everything would work out fine.
Then the will of God made itself known — or, at least, some long-dead holy men’s interpretation of divine will. The original deed for the church, which was built in 1889, included a provision prohibiting its use for “the inventions and devices of uninspired men,” such as “instrumental music, choir concerts or festivals.”
The Church of Christ congregation that erected and had long used the building sold it to a Baptist group in 2015 for the nominal price of $1, but the credit union’s underwriters were concerned the old handwritten deed provision could come back to haunt the Cormans. “Our lawyer said it’s very broad, and anyone with the Church of Christ could come along and say you didn’t follow the deed,” Johanna Corman said.
“I could foresee myself in court for the rest of my life, but I would always win,” Steve added. “But I don’t want to even spend one iota of a minute in court when I don’t have to, because time is money.”
“It basically came down to this perpetuity clause,” said Johanna. The 19th century churchmen had decreed that the use restrictions would remain in effect “so long as a worshipping congregation of the disciples of Christ exists in said city, even unto the coming of our Lord if men and women of the pure faith of the apostles of Jesus Christ so long remain in our city.”
Luckily, the Cormans’ lawyer was able to prove, using claims by prominent conservatives in rural parts of Maine, that Portland is now indeed a modern-day Sodom devoid of any godly inhabitants.
Just kidding. It was actually that bit about the restrictions remaining in effect until the Rapture that no longer passes legal muster. So, after four more months of wrangling, the Cormans finally secured the building this fall. As they’d done to launch the original Vena’s Fizz House, they’re using the equity in their own home to pay for the renovations. These include the conversion of the main worshipping space into a bar with room for events and retail products. The classic church basement, with its kitchen and inspirational messages on the walls, will be used for Steve’s cocktail classes.
The Cormans hope to have the doors open next spring; they and Marquis are already planning several themed events for next year. And the old church will still be available for weddings — Steve Corman is a notary who’s already performed ceremonies as “The Marrying Bartender,” a much better nickname for such occasions than The Bitterest Man in the World.