In the mid-1990s, something highly unusual, possibly unprecedented in the history of Portland real estate, happened in the city’s West End neighborhood.
The Good Day Market, a natural-food co-op established in 1970, moved out of its home on Brackett Street, across from the Howard C. Reiche Community School. The market had occupied what’s known as the People’s Building, a historic, three-story brick structure owned by a community-oriented nonprofit. Instead of renting the ground-floor space to the highest bidder, the organization surveyed neighbors to ask them which of about half a dozen potential tenants they would like to have there.
“The neighbors chose Fresh Approach,” recalled Chet Knights, who owns the little grocery store and butcher shop with his wife, Peg.
One could say this was the second of three occasions when workaday Portlanders collectively willed Fresh Approach into existence.
The first was 30 years ago, when Chet and Peggy opened Fresh Approach Meat Market at its original location, on Hampshire Street in Portland’s East End, in a cinder-block building that’s now home to Tomaso’s Canteen. Decades prior, the building had housed a kosher chicken slaughterhouse that served the Jewish and Italian immigrants who still lived in that part of town. In the 1970s, when an oil crisis wrecked havoc on the economy, another business there sold cheap horse meat to hungry Portlanders.
The recession of the early 1990s hit Maine especially hard, forcing the government to once again increase direct food aid to fend off mass starvation and riots. Chet had been working as a butcher for a supermarket in Bridgton and Peg had recently been laid off from her job with Central Maine Power. In an inversion of the typical entrepreneurial approach, by which one seeks to enter a lucrative new market for goods or services, the couple saw promise in Portland’s deep poverty.
“We basically came to town looking for food stamps, because everybody had ’em,” Chet said during an interview at Fresh Approach’s West End market last month. The dire economic downturn had stifled discretionary spending, but “the neighborhood still had families, people who had to shop and buy food for their kids,” Chet said, then added: “Of course, that’s all kind of changed now.”
“We opened on a wing and prayer,” Peg recalled. The staff consisted of the couple and their son, Chris, a teen who’d just learned how to drive and was beginning to master the butchery trade. He’d wanted to be there the day the shop opened, but had come down with chicken pox, so Chet and Peggy reluctantly left him home with his dog and drove from Bridgton to Portland to begin their new career.
“The day that we hung the shingle and opened the door, we had inventory and the [bank] account was zero,” said Chet. “So if we hadn’t ’ve made it that first week, we wouldn’t have made it.”
It turned out that the neighbors, many of them living in public-housing projects like Kennedy Park, didn’t just want Fresh Approach there, they needed it. “Before we even got the store open, they were linin’ up to wait for us,” said Peg. “And when we did open the doors, they lined up. It was amazing to us.”
The strategy was simple: provide quality meat at the lowest prices around, including “bundle” deals on beef, chicken or pork that could keep a family fed for a week or more. “We came in with thirty-nine-cent [per pound] turkey salami or something that we bought salvage from Hannaford,” Chet recalled with a chuckle. But his skill as a butcher was also crucial, as it enabled him to buy meat in bulk, cut it to size with as little waste as possible, and display it in ways that made mouths water.
The couple also gave away a lot of food — sometimes to promote the store, other times just to keep their customers alive.
“One of our tactics when we first opened Hampshire Street was, ‘You bring us a customer, I’ll give you a pot roast,’” said Chet. “People would leave and, twenty minutes later, they’d be bringing somebody back that’s dumping a hundred bucks, and they’re walking out of there with a pot roast. We did a lot of that.”
“We supported a lot of poor people,” Peg said. “They’d come in and just [say], ‘I don’t have any money, my kids are hungry.’ We’d give ’em some bread and some bologna and some cheese to get through until they had their money.”
“Ten-pound bag of chicken legs — you know, whatever,” Chet added, recalling their informal charity. “We did a lot of that back in the day.”
During its first week, in February of 1992, the fledgling family business also got a boost from an unexpected source: Portland’s restaurant industry. Steve Harris, the legendary proprietor of Ruski’s Tavern, on the West End, and Rosie’s, the Old Port pub on Fore Street, walked into Fresh Approach just days after they’d opened and placed meat orders for both establishments. Harris, who passed away in 2009, was also the head of the local restaurant association, and by the end of the week Fresh Approach had eight or nine restaurant accounts.
“It was huge,” Chet recalled. “I mean, Rosie’s and Ruski’s, their first order was each place got thirty pounds of hamburger, and we just started to rock.” It was only then that the couple realized, “Hey, we can chase these restaurants and build a wholesale business,” said Chet.
When Fresh Approach opened its second location on Brackett Street, in 1995, the plan was the keep the Hampshire Street shop operating as the wholesale side of the business while the West End store grew to include grocery items and a deli in addition to a second meat counter. By then, their son Chris was ably handling the meat-cutting on the East End, but he was “still a kid,” Chet said, “and the restaurants wanted to follow me” to the new butcher shop. West Enders who’d been traveling across town to the original Fresh Approach switched to shopping at the closer one, so the couple closed the East End location in 1998 and Chris rejoined them at the new place.
The year prior, another crucial member of the staff had come aboard, store manager Suzie Milo. Suzie lived in the West End with her two young sons. “At the time I didn’t have a driver’s license or a car, so I was walking,” she recalled. Working at Fresh Approach was “convenient” and “the hours were good” — basically the same hours her kids were in school. But those circumstances alone would not have been enough to keep her working there. The key, said Suzie, has been the “feeling of family” she’s experienced working at Fresh Approach.
“If I needed time off for [my] kids … I knew my job was still secure,” Suzie said. One of her sons had behavioral problems that school administrators didn’t well understand back in the 1990s (the term “on the spectrum” was not yet in vogue), so she’d sometimes get a call from the principal’s office demanding she pick up her child immediately. “I couldn’t work anywhere else and get a phone call — ‘You have to come get your son’ — and leave on a moment’s notice,” she said. But Chet and Peggy allowed her to be both a manager and a mom.
“They’ve become a second family,” said Suzie, whose other son, Ian, also works at Fresh Approach these days. “I’ve worked both corporate and family business and I prefer to stay with a family business, just because you are a person, you’re not a number.”
At first, Suzie ran the register and stocked produce, but in time she learned every new task Chet and Peg could throw her way, from working the deli and meat counters to placing orders for the grocery side of the business. “I think I’ve used every piece of equipment in here except for the band saw” in the meat-cutting area, she said, adding, “which I could do if I wanted to, but I prefer not to.”
The demographics of Portland’s peninsular neighborhoods have changed a lot since Fresh Approach opened its doors three decades ago. The West End is “like a livin’ being,” said Suzie, “it matures … it is always evolving. When I first started working here, especially in the summers, we knew every kid in the neighborhood because they were over at the [Reiche School] playground. They’d come in and use the bathroom, get a drink, get chips, get ice cream. And then that just petered right out. Nobody goes on the playground anymore. They’re all inside playing video games now.… The phones, everything. They don’t play outside anymore.”
High property taxes and skyrocketing home values compelled many Portland families to move away and have kept countless other families from moving downtown. “There’s [still] families, but they’ve chopped up all these buildings, they’re all little apartments, and it’s a younger neighborhood,” Chet observed. “People are gonna see that [comment] and go, That’s not true!, but it is true,” he added with a resigned little laugh. “I’m livin’ it, I see it.”
“They don’t come in and buy a roast anymore,” Peg noted. “The singles or young people come in and have one pork chop or two pork chops. They don’t cook like the older generation did.”
“You used to be able to sell lamb chops, lamb legs, veal chop,” said Chet. “You can’t sell any of that now. The new-age mom just doesn’t know how to cook. And of course it’s not all of ’em, but it’s certainly a pretty good chunk. They can cook a hamburger or bake a piece of chicken. But the neighborhood has changed dramatically.”
To adapt, Fresh Approach has grown the prepared-foods side of the business, offering full meals, made in-house, that are popular with busy young urban professionals and homebound seniors alike. It’s mostly meat-and-potatoes–style fare, but you can also find a selection of Asian and Italian and seafood dishes that changes from day to day. (Pro tip: if you want a really good, and affordable, breakfast sandwich or burger or steak bomb, buy it at a butcher shop that’s grilling its own meat!)
“You’re constantly reinventing yourself,” said Chet. “Right now we’re about to slide back into another recession — you know it’s comin’ — and we’re gonna do what we’ve done before: we’re gonna be the ‘poor people’s store,’ and try and have the good deals on meat, ’cause that’s your big-ticket item, that’s where you spend the most money — except on beer.”
Speaking of suds, no story about Fresh Approach can fail to note that the place is a shrine to Schlitz, “the beer that made Milwaukee famous.” Classic advertising posters, light fixtures and other Schlitz-branded memorabilia are everywhere in the store. “I was weaned on it in the ’70s,” said Chet, who grew up on a farm in Northern Maine.
The beer may also have guided young Chet to his future bride. Well over 40 years ago, while on a cross-country motorcycle trip, Chet ran out of money in Estes Park, Colorado. The managers of a grocery store there offered him a job in the meat department on one condition: he had to cut his long hair. He accepted the offer, “and then I met Peggy,” Chet recalled, “when I dumped my motorcycle in her driveway on the Fourth of July, a tad drunk.”
“Peg’s been in the grocery business her whole life,” Chet noted. Peg said her father managed the first K-Mart (which was then a grocer, not a department store) in Colorado, and later bought his own supermarket. Chet and Peggy will celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary next month.
The Schlitz collection grew gradually over the years. “I think the first piece was a kid’s hat that I took away from him at a keg party in a gravel pit,” Chet said with a laugh. “And I still have the hat!” (“That kid’s still huntin’ him down,” Peg quipped.) Customers have added to the collection by donating their finds, and a similar thing has happened with the collection of old hand-cranked meat grinders hanging above the display case.
The third time neighbors saved Fresh Approach was two years ago, when the government’s catastrophic response to the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered every restaurant in the state. Fresh Approach had been selling meat wholesale to dozens of local eateries, and that revenue accounted for the majority of the store’s income.
“We lost it all overnight,” Chet said. “It was gone.… I gave Fresh Approach two weeks and we were gonna be out of business. [But] the neighborhood said, ‘Hey, we want a grocery store here.’ It was the neighborhood that pulled it off for us.”
Residents of the West End and other parts of the peninsula flocked to Fresh Approach during the pandemic. The store was able to keep in stock many items that the corporate supermarkets were missing. Reliant upon pre-packaged meat from distant slaughterhouses hobbled by the plague, chains like Hannaford jacked up prices and slashed their selection. Chet, being one of the last master butchers in the area, bought whole sides of beef from Bisson Farm, in Topsham, and cut and ground it to keep Fresh Approach’s customers stocked.
The store’s wholesale business has rebounded, but “the city lost more restaurants than people seem to think,” Chet observed. “And we only know that because, well, they were our customers and they’re gone.” Even those that remain had to drastically reduce their orders until just recently, “so I don’t know how most of us really survived,” Chet said.
As public-health restrictions eased and competitors refilled their shelves, many customers who’d gratefully flocked to Fresh Approach flew elsewhere. Earlier this year, the store was dealt another blow by the closure of Mercy Hospital, which has left its West End campus for the new facility on Fore River Parkway. Hospital staff were responsible for a big portion of Fresh Approach’s retail sales, and though construction workers may make up some of the loss with their lunch money, Chet and Peggy are bracing for leaner times ahead.
In point of fact, the neighborhood wills Fresh Approach into existence every day, with every customer who shops at this friendly little market. Don’t expect the old Schlitz posters to come down or the selection to gentrify in tandem with the housing in the area. “Christ, the best compliment I think we got was some guy who called us the ‘dive bar of food,’” Chet said. “My comment has always been, ‘Just look at my [meat] counter.’ It’s always better than everybody else’s. It’s prettier, it’s shiny. So there’s rust on the outside,” he conceded with another chuckle, “but look at what’s inside! … Our stuff is old, but it’s clean.”
Chet’s concerned about Fresh Approach’s future, but he’s also determined to keep it going, and he’s got a true Schlitz fan’s optimistic attitude. He offered this sage advice: when confronted with adversity, “put your head down and drink your way through it.”
Fresh Approach Meat Market, 155 Brackett St., Portland, is open Mon.-Fri., 8 a.m.-7 p.m., Sat. 9 a.m.-7 p.m., and Sun. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. 774-7250. freshapproachmarket.com.