CANAAN, Maine — Heather Kerner pulled her disposable shoe covers on and walked through swinging doors into her company’s sparkling kitchen. She stopped to point out the 160-quart spiral dough mixer, a new piece of equipment at The Good Crust that makes 350 pounds of dough at once.
Kerner’s business, which produces the only commercially available pizza dough made from 100-percent Maine-sourced grains, recently relocated to a manufacturing facility at 210 Main St. in Canaan.
The Good Crust’s move from a shared space with The Miller’s Table restaurant in Skowhegan to a freshly renovated facility along Route 2 in Canaan marks a big moment for the small business. Since its founding in September 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, the company has produced 61,000 pounds of pizza dough — and it has plans to increase its manufacturing capacity nine-fold, Kerner said. Her plans include expanding her product line to takeout pizzas and bialys. Projects involving the community are in the works, too. The facility will hold its grand opening on Friday.
“With this facility being a former restaurant, we did inherit a full cooking lane that includes a pizza oven,” Kerner said. “We are learning that the customers here in Canaan and the people who pass through on Route 2 are really looking for a high-quality pizza to go.”
A launch date to offer takeout pizzas once or twice a week hasn’t been set, but it should be shortly after the grand opening. The Good Crust will source pizza ingredients from local farms, and maybe some from Kerner’s homestead, such as onions, garlic and chicken.
Kerner — who has been involved with entrepreneurship programs over the last two years, including Dirigo Labs’ first accelerator cohort — knew early on that she would have to expand her company’s kitchen space and freezer capacity, she said.
The new facility, located about six miles from the gristmill where the ingredients are sourced, recently replaced its receiving door to fit the spiral dough mixer, and purchased other equipment such as several dough divider and rounder machines. She replaced the interior cooler with a walk-in freezer, and the company will install a large freezer in its shipping garage in July.
The Good Crust needed a manufacturing space that didn’t rely on another restaurant’s kitchen. Now the team has more flexibility and independence, which it needed to take on new, larger customers, production manager Shawn Duffy said. The company now can build more of its own identity and culture among employees, he said.
Kerner’s initial goals were to stock her freezer with a pizza dough that made for quick dinners for busy mothers like herself and to support Maine farmers and millers. Her twin sister is Amber Lambke of Maine Grains, and Kerner used The Miller’s Table on that property as a space for recipe trials and as a pilot for her business.
Kerner also saw a dough company as a platform for workforce development, and she thought it could be a solution to labor force issues that businesses are experiencing. She works at Regional School Unit 18, the China and Messalonskee school district, and uses grains while working with her students to teach them life skills.
“Having worked as an occupational therapist in pediatrics for my entire career, I was seeing individuals graduate and go on long waiting lists for prevocational experiences,” she said. “I really felt it was a waste of their potential.”
Using her nontraditional business model, Kerner has hired 12 people since she founded The Good Crust, including four who began as apprentices and connected to the company through Goodwill Northern New England and Manpower Maine. Some of the staff have physical and cognitive disabilities, including autism, cerebral palsy and a worker who suffered a traumatic brain injury. Others are recovering from addiction.
“We’re kind of like a small family in this business,” said Samuel Tierney, who was hired as the company’s first apprentice while he was in high school. “As we’re all individually growing, so is the company. Before I got this job, I didn’t really have anything.”
Tierney’s special education teacher got him involved with Manpower Maine, which then connected him with The Good Crust, Kerner said. Tierney also personally knew Kerner. It was a big opportunity for him to acquire work experience and start making his own money, he said.
Kerner works one-on-one with employees who need extra direction, which sometimes means providing accommodations, such as limited work shifts or clear instruction on where the brand sticker belongs on a plastic bag, she said. She also offers training in soft skills, including professional behavior and the use of timecards.
“As we grow, we have mapped out roles for the company that will likely be filled by social workers or occupational therapists who will be like job skill trainers,” she said, noting the company will accept apprentices again once the move-in process is complete.
Clockwise from left: Samuel Tierney packs pizza dough into a box at The Good Crust’s new manufacturing facility in Canaan on Thursday. Tierney was the first of four apprentices at the company; The Good Crust sells 16-ounce portions of pizza dough at health food stores and farms in Maine and nearby states; Aidan Clark packs frozen pizza dough into plastic bags. Credit: Valerie Royzman / BDN
Along with introducing takeout pizzas, The Good Crust is working to bring 4-ounce dough balls to market for bialys, Duffy said. Bialys are bread rolls similar to bagels, only with a deep well and seasonings in the center. Plans for a dry pizza dough mix that could be shipped and pre-stretched pizza rounds for hospitals are also in the works, Kerner said.
She is working with state leaders in school nutrition to learn how The Good Crust can be used in cafeterias while meeting whole-grain requirements, she said. Some of the partners are exploring how Maine universities can begin offering the pizza dough. Taste testing and data collection took place at 11 campuses earlier this year.
You can find The Good Crust’s pizza dough at health food stores, farms and other places in Maine and in nearby states. Visit the website for information.