April 18, 2011

Skowhegan stove business expands

Maine Wood Heat makes move into new location

SKOWHEGAN -- Cheryl and Albie Barden started by selling wood stoves out of their Norridgewock dining room.

click image to enlarge

MOBILE HEAT: Scott and Cheryl Barden beside a mobile oven that they assemble and sell at their Maine Wood Heat. The former Norridgewock company has relocated to the Northgate Industrial Park in Skowhegan.

Staff file photo by David Leaming

Now, after 35 years of growth, Maine Wood Heat is finally moving into its own place. The Bardens, along with their son, Scott, closed on the 12,000-square-foot building in Northgate Industrial Park off Route 150 on March 11.

It's a "huge step up," Scott said recently, standing inside the warehouse. It's filled with large boxes that still need to be unpacked. "I'm still pinching myself."

He is a partner in the business, along with his parents, and they have two full-time employees. With the expansion, they hope to hire more.

In the new place, Scott will help assemble the portable wood-fired ovens -- with the recognizable bright, copper domes -- often seen at fairs and festivals. Maine Wood Heat also sells masonry heaters -- a type of wood stove that radiates heat for a long time.

Cheryl and Albie, who are now divorced but still work together, began selling wood stoves out of their home in 1976. After a trip around Europe, with their infant son Scott on their backs, they began selling masonry heaters.

They added wood-fired ovens in 2000 when they partnered with Le Panyol, a family-owned company based in France that has been producing wood-fired ovens since 1840.

Throughout the last three decades, they've worked out of their house, barn and sheds on Father Rasle Road in Norridgewock. The posted roads and mud were a problem in the spring, and there was never enough space. Now, their business has a home of its own.

Part of their success results from re-investing in their company instead of themselves, Cheryl said. "We're constantly seeing ways to improve things and seeing the business grow," she said.

Though the family business is based in central Maine, it reaches across the United States and around the world. The wood-fired ovens, used for baking bread, have been installed in restaurants and homes in France, England, Colorado, Hawaii, Washington, Texas, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York.

Carl Shavitz, founder and director of the Artisan Bread School, which teaches the art of bread-making to classes in Europe and New York, visited the new Skowhegan location recently from England.

These are not normal, every-day ovens, Shavitz said. The three melding temperatures in the oven -- coming from the floor of the oven, the inside of the roof and the air inside -- make it "a serious tool," Shavitz said.

The bread produced is top quality. For instance, because the dough's moisture is retained in these types of ovens, it's able to color and caramelize the crust, he said.

"For this sort of oven, they're the best," he said.

The Bardens say they hope their new location will not only allow them to increase production --they're already backlogged until July -- but bring them closer to all the bread-related happenings in Skowhegan.

The Maine Grain Alliance has ordered a mobile wood-fired oven, Scott said, for the Kneading Conference on July 28 and 29 at the Skowhegan State Fairgrounds.

The oven will likely live at the Somerset Grist Mill where it can be used to bake bread for the Skowhegan Farmers' Market, he said.

Though they have their own place now, one of the challenges will continue to be shipping their products, especially with increased fuel prices, Cheryl and Scott said. They're searching for a local trucking company to haul their shipments safely across the country.

They already work with Barry Norling Weathervanes in Norridgewock, which handcrafts their copper components. North Country Trailers in Fairfield builds their trailers.

And they haven't stopped their plans for growth. They hope one day to expand the building they've just moved into, possibly with a showroom and working kitchen.

Cheryl said, "We still have ideas we're cooking on."

Erin Rhoda -- 474-9534

erhoda@centralmaine.com

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