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Fast and Local Fare Is Engrained in South Berwick
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Fine Dining Fixture Turns Fast Casual

Chef Benjamin Hasty and business partner Jennifer Fecteau have done a 180-degree turn on how they serve up hospitality in their 279 Main Street restaurant in South Berwick. In the six years they operated Thistle Pig, a farm-to-table place with a French flair, they did so with a homey grace that welcomed guests in for a local brew at the 24-foot polished white pine bar, invited them to hang around for one of Hasty’s house-made charcuterie boards, coaxed them to share a plate of vegetable-centric pasta or a slow-cooked pork dish, and tempted them to round off their hours-long experience with a local fruity dessert.


This formula worked.


Yet even before COVID-19 hit, the pair was contemplating a second restaurant, one with a lighter focus. They’d settled on a fast-casual concept where Hasty would still tap the local food system for raw ingredients, but the finished dishes would reflect a healthier makeup, with a ratio of two parts vegetable and one part each protein and whole grains. All menu items—those curated by Hasty or customized by the client—would be served in a compostable bowl. Ben’s Buddha Bowls, if you will. As proof of concept, the pair prepped hundreds of these balanced bowls a week, selling them to busy, exercise-focused folks like themselves.


This formula worked, too.


When COVID-19 arrived, Thistle Pig closed temporarily, like all Maine restaurants, and Hasty and Fecteau laid off 20 employees. “The decision to remodel The Pig into what we now call Engrain is not at all a pandemic-panic business plan,” says Hasty. It’s a pivot that reflects how “we can set up ourselves, our farmers, and the five employees we could hire back for success,” notes Fecteau.


To make the remodel financially feasible, the pair worked with contractors to repurpose hardware as much as possible. They cut the bar into pieces to fashion several high-top tables and a countertop over which the bowls are passed to customers. A prep cabinet was turned into a recycling station. And the old chalkboards sport the new menu.


There is a $10 spicy farro bowl with apple, red cabbage, green lentils, parsley, avocado, and chipotle dressing. You can add a portion of chicken for $4 more. The $11 sesame-marinated tofu bowl comes with roasted mushrooms, shredded carrots, Thai basil, edamame, kale, and spicy miso dressing. The $13 slow-cooked beef bowl is filled with green onion, broccoli, peppers, peanuts, rice, and ginger-chili dressing. Other options are anchored by omelets, grilled salmon, and chorizo sausage and finished with olive oil, cider vinaigrette, and lime-yogurt sauce, respectively. The menu will change seasonally, says Hasty, but every bowl will have “acid, sweetness, heat, and umami.”


“Everything we’re doing here at Engrain is both good for the eater and good for our local farmers,” he adds.


Engrain is open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. There is limited inside and outside seating. You can order online or via phone for curbside pickup.

Christine has lived in many places, including Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, England and France. But her professional world has consistently been grounded in just two: in journalism and in the kitchen. Throughout her 30-year writing career, she’s covered sports, politics, business and technology. But for the past 10 years after completing culinary school, she’s focused on food. Her words and recipes about eating locally and sustainably have appeared in publications from The Portland Press Herald to Fine Cooking. Her award-winning cookbook Green Plate Special (link is: https://www.amazon.com/Green-Plate-Special-Sustainable-Delicious/dp/1944762140) was published in 2017. When she’s not laboring over a cutting board or a keyboard, she’s learning from her two semi-adult children, a community of food-minded friends, hundreds of productive Maine farmers, thousands of innovative chefs near and far, and her 30,000 honeybees.

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