Photo Courtesy of Active Beer Geek
by Jamie Carter-Logan, Bryan Roche and Peter Anania
Restaurant. Brewery. Property development. Since graduating from college, Abe and Heather Furth have gone from one business venture to the next, finding success each step of the way. In the process, they’ve helped to revitalize Orono and have been a part of larger growth in the greater Bangor area.
And they’ve done all of this before turning 40.
Both Maine natives, Abe and Heather met during their freshman year at UMaine and began dating a couple of years later. He was an English major, she was a biology major. They both worked at Sugarloaf and at the now-defunct Bear Brew Pub to put themselves through college. Neither had specific ideas about where they wanted their careers to lead.
But they both knew one thing about what they wanted to do with their lives.
”We wanted to create something,” says Abe.
And why the restaurant business?
“That’s what we knew.”
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At 23, both had graduated from UMaine and they had gotten married. Within a year of graduating and marrying, they decided it was time to launch their own enterprise.
Fourteen years later, it’s easy to look back and say their first restaurant was a success, but getting it off the ground was anything but easy. Woodman’s Bar and Grill in Orono is still operating and successful today, but were it not for a banker at Bar Harbor Savings and a strong mentor willing to take a chance on two young people, it might never have become a reality.
In fact, by the time they were meeting with bankers, Abe and Heather weren’t so sure themselves they wanted it all to work out. They’d written a business plan, and were working with Tom Gallant of the Small Business Development Center. Gallant was honest with them – they were high-risk for banks and so they weren’t surprised when the first two banks turned them down.
Though they were terrified, they were persistent. That persistence paid off, and Abe and Heather finally got a yes from Bar Harbor Bank and Trust.
The loan allowed them to launch Woodman’s Grill in 2005, and they got creative to ensure they could make payments on the loan. Abe and Heather were working 80 hours a week each, he as a bartender and she as a server, and their business partner, friend, and talented cook Mark Horton was running the kitchen. Rather than have Horton pull a larger chunk of his pay from the business, Abe and Heather pooled their tips at night, then split them into thirds, with Horton taking one-third to offset some of his pay.
They paid off their loans, and within four years were ready for their investment adventure. While still running Woodman’s, the couple looked to their past for inspiration.
As 20-year-olds, they had taken a motorcycle trip across the country and by the time they got to California were pretty low on cash. Burritos were about the only food they could afford. So it was a natural fit for them to bring a burrito restaurant to Orono. In 2009, they made the decision to purchase the historic 1860s Mason Building in downtown Orono, which would serve as the home to the very first Verve Burritos. They gutted the first floor to make room for Verve and also converted the second and third floors into apartments as a way to help offset the mortgage.
That, too, was a success, and soon grew to have a second location in Bangor. The Bangor location of Verve is also located in a building that Abe and Heather purchased and renovated, and also includes apartments. In 2018, they sold Verve to Tabitha Johnson, a longtime manager of the restaurant, but the Furths still maintain ownership of the properties.
In 2014, the couple added another venture to their growing list – a brewery. Orono Brewing Company began in the basement of the Orono Verve location. Abe and Heather didn’t have experience in the brewing business, but they did have experience running a restaurant that bought a lot of beer. They brought in a new partner, Asa Marsh-Sachs, as their brewmaster, recognizing the need for expertise in brewing if they wanted to have success.
“The biggest lesson for me has been that everyone has different skills and if it weren’t for those skills we wouldn’t have been able to succeed. It’s awesome to see what’s possible when you bring people in who are such amazing partners,” says Abe of the people that he and Heather have surrounded themselves with.
Now, Orono Brewing Company has a small tasting room in Bangor and a larger tasting room in Orono that began producing beer in June 2018. The new location in Orono includes a full restaurant and large production facility. To keep up with demand, the original Orono location has been converted to a small production-only facility. Eventually, Abe and Heather want to see the brewery grow to become a statewide brand.
Abe and Heather are also now expanding their property holdings in Bangor with the purchase of a new building that will be the first they own for which they are not commercial tenants themselves. Instead, the building will have two-to-four commercial tenant on the first floor and ten loft-style apartments on the upper floors.
Since they were college students, Abe and Heather have been an integral part of Orono’s restaurant industry. They decided to stay in the industry, launch their own business, brought in some talented friends as partners, and persevered through the frightening early days of business planning and launching. With business savvy and a willingness to just work hard and get done what needs to get done, Abe and Heather have become major assets to the greater Bangor economy and they show no signs of slowing down.
That’s why Abe and Heather Furth are Emerging Maine Icons.