A lot of foodservice companies claim they are unique, but The Good Crust in Canaan, Maine, is truly one of a kind.
The Good Crust is a dough manufacturer that creates whole-grain sourdough made with 100% Maine Grains. There’s a growing legion of foodservice establishments adopting the product, both within Maine and outside of it. Among the company’s established customers are Maine craft breweries that run artisanal pizza programs.
That’s hardly what separates The Good Crust from other dough manufacturers, however. The company’s mission statement includes workforce development training for locals with unique needs. Founded by an occupational therapist, The Good Crust now employs over a dozen local Mainers who may have had a tough time finding work elsewhere.
Add into the mix the fact that The Good Crust hosts weekly Friday-night pop-ups—and often sells all of its 50 pizzas in a town of about 2,200 people—and you’ll start to understand why The Good Crust is no ordinary company.
Heather Kerner worked as an occupational therapist for two decades before founding The Good Crust in 2020. The company ended up being a pandemic baby, but Kerner had drawn up the plans prior to lockdown: In March 2020, she was scheduled to begin attending an accelerated class for women’s entrepreneurship that teaches attendees how to launch in the marketplace. She had sketched out a business plan that drew on her experiences making pasta and bread as a mode of occupational therapy, but she wanted a little guidance and inspiration on how to get a business up and running.
“My mission for The Good Crust was to do two things: The first was to only use locally sourced grains,” Kerner said. “I wanted to really commit to the regrowth of farmers growing wheat for human consumption. So that was a goal when I was developing the recipe for our pizza dough. And then, once we got off the ground, I wanted to use the manufacturing as a platform for workforce development.”
When the pandemic fully set in, the women’s entrepreneurial classes moved to Zoom and continued for two years—Kerner was still attending them well after she’d launched The Good Crust.
One of the early battles Kerner fought was to prove that delicious pizza dough could be made using 100% Maine grains. Kerner had the advantage of knowing the owner of Maine Grains, a gristmill in neighboring Skowhegan, Maine, dedicated to turning locally-grown stone-milled grains into a serviceable product. The owner of Maine Grains happens to be her twin sister, Amber Lambke.
“There has always been this idea that you couldn’t make whole-grain dough,” Kerner said. “People said there wasn’t enough protein, not enough this, not enough that. But we’ve proven that you absolutely can. It’s a nuttier, earthier, richer flavor that you get from long fermentation. And we’ve also found that people who have gluten sensitivity find it easier to digest.”
Pizza makers agree: The dough is exceptional. It is made with 100% whole-wheat flour, spelt flour, sourdough, water, dry active instant yeast, sea salt and olive oil. Notably, there is no sugar in the dough. The spelt helps enhance the browning and crunchiness of a product that is otherwise tender on the inside. The dough is versatile, too: It can be used to make bread, bialys and more.
“[The Good Crust’s] dough checks all the boxes—healthy, local, sourdough and delicious,” said Nate Wildes, owner of Flight Deck Brewing in Brunswick, Maine. “It doesn’t matter whether a pizza is vegetables or meat or something else—customers tell us, ‘Man, that dough is really good.’ And the consistency and social impact have real business value. We have not found a better value product out there.”
The product comes in a variety of sizes, ranging from 3 ounces to 18 ounces. It’s available pre-stretched, pre-proofed and frozen—it’s durable, too, yet easily stretched. The product is ideal for high volume operations, Kerner said, noting that over 200 foodservice establishments now use the product. (That figure includes local school lunch programs, which have enjoyed having a healthy, nutritious and easy way to make pizza.)
Kerner’s dedication to the science of fermentation and commitment to quality might be why Maine breweries were some of the earliest adopters of The Good Crust. As many of the breweries steadily became tourism attractions, building out a food program became an obvious next step. And what pairs better with a craft beer than hand-crafted pizza?
Sensing a larger theme that tied craft beer and artisanal pizza together, The Good Crust co-founded the concept of Maine Craft Pizza with the help of several other entities, including Maine Grains. Visit Maine, the state’s tourism board, is helping promote Maine Craft Pizza with a map denoting local breweries and shops that use 100% Maine Grains to create their pizza. Whether or not Maine now has its own unique style of pie is up for debate, but Kerner, of course, believes it is, for a host of reasons.
“I’m not an industry expert, but our style of pizza would fit in the model of artisanal style,” Kerner said. “The crust is at least an inch high. We want a thin crust on the bottom. We don’t have any tip sag; it should hold out straight, but we are not folding the pizza like New York-style pizza. It’s not California-style with bizarre toppings—we only source locally and in season.”
The Good Crust’s influence has moved beyond Maine breweries, too. In fact, the company’s growth has outdone Kerner’s wildest expectations. Less than four years after launching, The Good Crust now employs five people fulltime and 14 part-time. While the company was initially operating out of the commercial kitchen at Maine Grains in Skowhegan, it eventually moved to its current location in Canaan.
Then there’s the business of the weekly pizza pop-ups. If Kerner’s goal was to grow a dough manufacturing plant big enough to employ those with unique needs, she had no goals at all when it came to the pizza pop-ups. In fact, she didn’t even want to do them in the first place.
“We had occupied our manufacturing facility in Canaan for about a year without doing pizza,” Kerner said. “I said, no way, we’re not doing pizza. Canaan does not need more pizza—we are flanked by two different gas stations that sell pizza.”
But the community was persistent, perhaps because the gas-station pizza was…well, gas-station pizza. It seemed every time Kerner was out in public, members of the community were asking not if The Good Crust would start serving pizza, but when. To do so, Kerner wouldn’t even have to add many pieces of equipment to her facility: The Good Crust occupies a former restaurant, which meant there was already a cooking line and impinger oven in place.
“We finally decided to start a Friday-night-only pizza program,” Kerner said. “It’s been incredibly successful. We serve anywhere between 30 and 50 pies. In our tiny village, that’s a lot.”
Pizzas sell for up to $30 depending on the toppings. They come in a single size, 16”, in order to keep it as simple as possible. The Good Crust’s pop-ups always feature a Cheese Pizza, a Pepperoni Pizza and a Carnivore Pizza. The pop-ups also rotate in one veggie pizza and one meat pie based on what local ingredients are available. For example, The Good Crust has done a Broccoli Alfredo pizza when a local farmer had excess broccoli harvest. It has served a Shaved Steak, Pepper and Onion pizza when those things can be sourced locally. There’s also been a hugely popular Maine Scallops and Bacon pie.
“Our customers really like to connect the pizza they order with their farmers who might be neighbors,” Kerner said. “So that’s definitely something we’re doing.”
Still, dough manufacturing is the heart and soul of The Good Crust’s business. And one of the most special aspects of the operation is its workforce development, where it helps team members overcome unique challenges—be it cerebral palsy, a traumatic brain injury or something else. Considering the volume that The Good Crust churns out these days, it can be a cumbersome gig for employees who may have no previous work experience and need extra time to complete tasks. Fortunately, Kerner’s training has prepared her for this—the extra needs and time are built into her business model.
“There’s an inherent tension between the desire to be efficient and productive and also welcome people who need a little more time or patience to do the job,” Kerner said. “The way we’ve tried to be artful to accomplish our dual mission is by doing workforce development on ‘packing’ days. That’s the perfect day for workforce development.”
On those days, The Good Crust employs an additional occupational therapist to serve as a job coach and make busy days run as smoothly as possible.
The days are running so smoothly, in fact, that The Good Crust is eyeing expansion. When asked what her goals for 2024 were, Kerner had a whole list. The business aims to be in Hannaford Supermarket as well as Whole Foods. The company will soon launch a dry-mix product for at-home use—just add water, and you’ll get an authentic Maine Grains sourdough crust.
“Those are the big goals in the new year,” Kerner said.
Not on her list? Putting Maine pizza on the map. That’s already been accomplished.