The Big Cheese: A Look Inside Portland’s Public Market House

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I love cheese. I love it more than most foods, and I love most foods even more with cheese on top. The first time I laid eyes on the cheese display at the Portland Public Market House I felt just like a kid in a candy store. My initial encounter with Kris Horton, one of the three original vendors of the Public Market House, owner of K. Horton’s Specialty Foods, and cheese connoisseur, was this past fall. As I gazed longingly at the soft wheels of creamy goodness comprising her display case, Kris engaged me from over the counter. She offered me samples and told me the about this history of Camembert and Brie.  I could tell she was an interesting lady, one that had great passion and knowledge. Later that night I found myself still thinking about those delicious samples and wondering what other knowledge the cheese lady had to share.

I sat down with Kris last week with a list of questions regarding my favorite dairy product. I had prepared such questions as “What’s your favorite kind of cheese?” and “Where do you source your product?” Although she was kind enough to humor me, Kris had a bigger story to tell. A story of one of the cornerstone’s to our community. The focus of my interview quickly shifted when I realized Kris is more than just a cheese lady, she embodies what it means to be a small business in Portland.

The Public Market House, located in Monument Square, is not the first version of the Public Market that Portland has seen. In fact, the Public Market House got its name from the original public market that stood in the very same spot back in 1825. Some may think of the Public Market as simply a collection of vendors that share a building, but there is actually a much larger concept involved. Along with her two partners, Maine Beer & Beverage Company and Big Sky Bread Company, Kris creates an incubator for small businesses in the heart of Portland. She feels their mission to house a gathering place and showcase fresh local products is “essential for any urban community.”

Kris describes The Public Market House as “constantly in a state of flux.” A business will get their start in the Public Market, leaning on other vendors for support, sharing costs and gaining strength in numbers. Eventually, the business will outgrow the space and be strong enough to branch out on their own, allowing the opportunity for a new small business to take their place. It’s a ongoing cycle, and it seems to work very well.

One of the best features of the Public Market House is the Community Kitchen, located in the basement of the building. This commercially licensed kitchen can be rented by the hour, allowing start-ups to produce product without having to cover the cost of building their own kitchen. Close to 35 Portland businesses such as Local Sprouts, Spartan Grill, Tandoor Bakery and numerous catering companies have gotten there start here. Another great feature of the Public Market House is the sidewalk space that the Kris and her partners lease from the City of Portland.  And thanks to its convenient location in Monument Square, there is room for twelve tables for local vendors to rent by the day to showcase and sell various Maine made products. It’s attributes like these day tables and the community kitchen that Kris is most excited to share with me during our conversation, her passion for creating this communal space in the heart of Portland is admirable.

Don’t worry my fellow cheese-heads; Kris did share with me many interesting facts about our favorite snack. Did you know the Maine cheese making industry is only about ten years old? For such a young industry, Maine is home to the second largest number of artisanal cheese makers in the country! (Our friendly neighbor Vermont is number one).  Kris carries over 200 different varieties of cheese in her shop and she has one of the largest selections of locally made cheeses in the state. When I asked Kris her thoughts on restaurant cheese lists in Portland she had one piece of advice for chefs, “Buy Local.” I kind of saw that one coming.

 

Drop some knowledge.