05/24/17 Northwoods Gourmet Girl owner aims for ‘world condiment domination,’ after surviving cancer
By Emily Burnham, BDN Staff
Abby Freethy plunked herself down at a long, wooden table painted a bright, cheerful shade of aquamarine, in the dining room at headquarters for Northwoods Gourmet Girl in Greenville. She heaved a sigh — a satisfied sigh, not a weary one.
“I feel really good. Most days I’m good. I’m really busy,” said Freethy, who launched Northwoods Gourmet Girl, her Greenville-based line of kitchen pantry items, home goods and textiles, more than a decade ago. “I think when you go for so long feeling really bad that when you start to feel good, you think, ‘Wow, I forgot what that feels like.’”
Just over two years ago, Freethy, a chef and designer, was poised to take Northwoods Gourmet Girl to the next level. She’d moved into a new, much larger production facility in Greenville, she’d recently opened a retail store in downtown Belfast, she’d secured a lucrative deal with Crate & Barrel to distribute some of her food products, and a regular cooking segment on local television had raised her profile in-state.
Demand for her pantry items — like blueberry jam, bourbon caramel sauce, jalapeno relish, cherry tartlet preserves and her signature charred onion ketchup — was growing steadily, alongside newer Northwoods Gourmet Girl offerings like hand-painted tea towels, cutting boards, a selection of Maine-made rustic wooden furniture, and cotton shirts and dresses.
And then, in late February 2015, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“I had no idea. I was totally blindsided. When you hear those words, everything else just falls away. It has a way of putting everything in perspective,” said Freethy, 48. “You just do not have time for things that don’t matter. You decide you are not going to do a single thing that makes you unhappy, or you don’t want to do.”
Freethy’s subsequent treatment — nearly 10 months of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy — put a halt to some of that momentum. She closed the Belfast store, canceled all her upcoming food show appearances, and stopped serving food at that big table in the dining room in Greenville, where she’d been offering weekly cafe services and semi-regular farm-to-table dinners. Her employees helped her keep producing pantry items, so Freethy could focus on getting better and on taking care of her then-9-year-old son, Dustin.
The wisecracking, no-nonsense, gregarious Freethy seems like a tough cookie when you meet her, but when she talks about what she went through in 2015, the emotion can’t help but well up.
“It just sucked. It sucked big time,” said Freethy. “Work gets you through it, though. Work, and humor. Humor gets you through the tough parts.”
Her last day of treatment was Nov. 13, 2015. The following day Freethy packed up her truck and went to the Maine Harvest Festival in Bangor, where for two days she served up a huge array of her favorite goodies, like chicken pot pie, cookies and cakes, pies, fresh lemonade, and her signature crab cake sandwiches with remoulade, selling her pantry items alongside.
“I probably went a little overboard. It was my way of saying, ‘I’m back. You can’t keep me down. I finished it, and I’m not gonna die, and here I am,’” said Freethy.
In the 18 months since then, Freethy has bounced back from all those setbacks in a big way. While she hasn’t yet opened a storefront somewhere to replace the one that closed in Belfast, everything else has returned: the food and trade shows, the full array of both pantry items and home goods, and, most enjoyably for Freethy, the farm-to-table dinners at the aquamarine table at the Northwoods Gourmet Girl headquarters in Greenville.
The dinners, set this year for June 17, July 8 and 22 and Aug. 19, once again allow Freethy the chance to exercise her culinary muscle. Though Freethy, a Pennsylvania native, went to college for textile design. In her mid-20s she returned to school at the Culinary Institute of America and then for nearly a decade worked as a personal chef for wealthy families up and down the east coast, throwing elaborate dinner parties.
When her job took her to Mount Desert Island, she fell in love with Maine, and in 2005 moved to Greenville to start the business that turned out to be Northwoods Gourmet Girl — a business that allowed her to utilize all her different passions for cooking, designing and entrepreneurship.
Freethy asks diners at the farm to table dinners to trust her instinct in the kitchen. The five- or six-course prix fixe menu isn’t announced in advance, so it’s a surprise for everyone.
“It’s just really satisfying to be creative, and have people all sitting together and eating really wonderful food,” said Freethy. “It’s a great vibe here, for the dinners. Everybody gets to be surprised. It’s a magical thing.”
Beyond the dinners, for the past two winters Freethy has been offering skiers and snowboarders a from-scratch lunch menu at the slopeside cafe and bar at Big Squaw Mountain in Greenville. And this year, she’ll launch her latest food ventures: a Northwoods Gourmet Girl food truck, set to open in mid-June two days a week in Brewer, and a Northwoods Gourmet Girl food stall at the brand-new United Farmers Market of Maine indoor market in Belfast.
“It’s an extension of what we’re doing here in Greenville. It’s a big tool to use to bring what we do to more people,” said Freethy. “Plus, I love Belfast, and I love what’s happening on the Brewer Waterfront.”
The food truck, serving things like pastrami and asparagus egg rolls, chicken pot pie and those crowd-pleasing crab cake sandwiches, will be parked at Tiller & Rye and on the Brewer Waterfront throughout the summer. She’ll also be at the American Folk Festival on the Bangor Waterfront in August. The stall in Belfast will serve hot, fresh doughnuts with an array of Northwoods Gourmet Girl dipping sauces, like her blueberry green tea sauce, sea salt caramel and chocolate caramel sauces. Exact days and hours will be announced at a later date.
Though Freethy is again expanding to other towns in Maine, and has made it known that she’s hell bent on “world condiment domination,” the Moosehead Lake region and, specifically, Greenville, her home for the past 13 years, is very much wrapped up in the identity of her brand. It’s also a part of her personal narrative, since the community rallied around her after her cancer diagnosis.
“I’ll talk about Greenville all day long, everywhere I go. I hope my business acts as a kind of ambassador for the area,” she said. “I think the lake is just a really alluring and compelling presence, but not enough people know about it. I think it and this community are a huge part of our story. It’s a huge part of my story. I don’t think I could separate the two.”
Northwoods Gourmet Girl products are available online at northwoodsgourmetgirl.com, and in stores including Tiller & Rye in Brewer, Kamp Kamp in Greenville, LeRoux Kitchen in Portland, and elsewhere. Check back with the Northwoods Gourmet Girl Facebook page for announcements about the food truck and food stall.