Economic engine: Wheelhouse Cafe in Harpswell serves more needs than hunger

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HARPSWELL — The Wheelhouse Cafe is many things to many people.

To the boat owners who come to the Great Island Boat Yard, it is a convenient place to grab a lobster “panino” or a cup of chowder while taking a break from tending their vessels.

To the Leeman family, which owns the cafe, it’s a chance to work together and display their foodie credentials.

To many local food producers, it’s a potential outlet for locally grown produce, seafood, and even locally roasted coffee beans.

And to the Maine Small Business Development Center, it is one more potential success story among the hundreds of small businesses that it helps to launch and grow every year.

Beth Leeman planned to open the Wheelhouse Cafe at 419 Harpswell Island Road early last year. But construction lagged behind schedule, and she was only able to take advantage of a short trial run from August to September. This year, she opened on April 19.

The cafe is truly a family affair. Leeman’s husband Alden, an offshore commercial fisherman, supplies some of the seafood. Daughter Chelsea learned marketing skills while in college, and works with her mother full-time. Son Zachary is a sous chef at a four-star restaurant in Minnesota, and he often shares his knowledge with Beth.

“He helps with ordering and how to store things,” Leeman said. “The tricks of the trade.”

Chelsea said that the Cafe is helped by the family’s enthusiasm for fresh and local ingredients.

“Our family has always loved food,” she said. “We’re complete foodies. We plan vacations out based on where we want to eat.”

The heart of the Cafe’s menu, Chelsea said, is her mother’s creative culinary talent.

“She’ll wake up and say, ‘I’m going to put pear in my chicken sandwich,'” Chelsea said.

The Wheelhouse Cafe seems to have a lot going for it. It has a great location, enthusiastic individuals driving its decisions, and a brand that has one foot in the American tradition of seafood-by-the-sea eateries, and the other in the burgeoning slow-food movement, which embodies an appreciation for local ingredients.

But scores of similarly bright-eyed entrepreneurs have gone to rack and ruin because they lack one other vital ingredient: good business sense.

Leeman and her daughter admit that they have a difficult time managing their goals.

Sourcing local foods isn’t easy, Leeman said.

“It’s difficult to keep it under cost,” she said. “Trying to keep the cost down is really hard.”

And Chelsea said that her mother’s creative impulses need a check, if the books are to balance.

“If someone wasn’t here reining her in, there would be 50 million different sandwiches,” she said.

This is where the SBDC comes in.

After being approved for a loan by a local bank, the lender recommended that the Leemans visit the Bath office of the SBDC, one of several such offices around the state.

This began a series of meetings with Brad Swanson, Maine-certified master business counselor, who helps 70 or 80 businesses a year by giving them insight and direction into their problems and opportunities.

Some of them are established, and looking for a chance to grow or a way out of a crisis. Others, like the Wheelhouse Cafe, are just getting started.

“A lot of time, we see people who just have a passion for something, and they really don’t have any business experience,” Swanson said. “We help them understand the game of business.”

Swanson said the Leemans were a step ahead of many start-up entrepreneurs, but that he was still able to help them.

“What Beth really needed was a budget that reflected her advertising costs and managed her expenses,” he said. “Projecting your cash flow is probably the single most important financial consideration for a small business.”

While meeting with the Leemans, Swanson also picked up on the potential marketing power of a lobster “panino.”

“I had never heard of that,” he said of the grilled, flatbread lobster sandwich. “I said, ‘Well then, that’s unique. You can use that to differentiate your business.'”

Thanks to Swanson’s advice, Beth is now marketing herself as the original home of the lobster panino, a distinction that helps her to stand out from the highly competitive world of seasonal seafood businesses along the coast.

“What we try to help them understand is that from a marketing perspective, it’s important to stand out in a different way,” Swanson said.

Swanson said that he hears one thing over and over again from small business owners like the Leemans.

“It’s just really helpful to have an objective, certified professional to talk shop with,” he said.

Leeman said that she was initially surprised to see the range of services she could get from the SBDC.

“He helped to put together projections, a business plan, finances, where to get advertising, … pretty much every aspect of business that a small business would need. It was all free.”

The expense of providing the services is justified, Swanson said, when a business like the Wheelhouse Cafe takes root and begins to help anchor economic development in its community. As the Wheelhouse Cafe grows, it will employ people, pay taxes, and help draw tourists to the area.

In addition to her daughter, Leeman already employs three other workers, and hopes to expand over time.

This, Swanson said, is what economic development in Maine is based on.

“Maine has always been entrepreneurial,” he said. “A lot of people create jobs in this state.”

Swanson said that he sees a brightening future, both for the Wheelhouse Cafe, and for small businesses in Maine as a whole.

“I see existing businesses starting to grow a little bit and trying to manage that growth,” he said. “There’s definitely an upturn in the works.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or Follow him on Twitter: @hh_matt.

Sidebar Elements

The mother-daughter team of Beth, right, and Chelsea Leeman have high hopes for the Wheelhouse Cafe in Harpswell. A state-certified business consultant said that family enterprises like the Wheelhouse Cafe keep the Maine economy growing.