Scheduling an interview with Brenda Athanus, owner of the epicurean grocery store The Green Spot in Oakland, Maine, was no easy task. The Green Spot operates six days a week and she’s there from dawn to dusk. I was able to pin her down for a Tuesday meeting — her only day off. Brenda suggested we meet at the A-1 Diner in Gardiner; she adores diners and loves fried oysters.
I have a copy of her memoir — Life, One Tablespoon at a Time — on the table for quick reference. Brenda is a storyteller and many of her fondest memories are in her book — a book that reads more like a journal than anything else. She has also written a cookbook and she has had articles published with Huffington Post and the Chicago Tribune.
Before the food comes to the table, I ask Brenda a few questions about her life, the things she fancies most, and The Green Spot:
When did you decide to open The Green Spot?
While at the Modern Gourmet, a cooking school in Newton Center, Massachusetts, we would receive deliveries several times a day from Blacker Brothers’ green grocer, just across the street. Madeleine Kamman was my brilliant teacher. Blacker’s was a beehive of activity with farmers and Chelsea market trucks going in and out carrying the most beautiful produce. It was the beauty and smells of Blacker’s that made me want to have my own market.
The Green Spot is a family business. What’s that like?
I was 18 years old when I said to my older sister Tanya, ‘We should do this.’ And in the same breath I said [to myself], ‘You don’t know enough about food, yet.’ As it happened, a month and a half later we rented the space for what became The Green Spot. As my sister and I were driving by I saw the then-empty space in Oakland and thought it was perfect for a store. My mother named it for us. At that time people didn’t use the word ‘green’ for a food market. My mother was always way ahead of her time. People would come into the market and ask, ‘What does The Green Spot mean, and I would tell them, ‘You know, things that grow.’ My sister and I have been in business for 41 years. Tanya has a passion for working with the public and I’m the back of the house.
Why did you write your memoirs and what is your favorite story?
Wherever I am, a good story finds me. I knew the stories were interesting and I started writing them down. After getting a few stories published, I decided to put them all into a book. My favorite is, ‘Chloe’s Apricot Jam’: ‘ . . . The following week, she arrived with a piece of paper and announced that she had a special present for us. There, on a lined piece of notebook paper, was her apricot jam recipe. She wanted us to carry it on . . . It was her grandmother’s from Marseilles in the late 1800s . . .’
Who are your mentors/role models?
My first mentor was my mother. She taught me to reach for the stars and never take no for an answer. She had poetry in her heart and always smelled like Shalimar. Madeleine Kamman, my cooking school teacher, changed my life. I learned from Madeleine to always do it right the first time and to pay attention to what was happening in the bowl.
Who are your customers?
There are epicureans everywhere! Although at first customers were apprehensive of two sisters in business, but over time we won them over. Our customers know we make, buy and sell the best products on the market. We know what our customers like because we wait on each and everyone of them and we listen well. Our customers come from the Belgrade Lakes area, Waterville/Augusta area and Colby students.
What do you bring to Oakland and this part of Maine that is different from others?
When I was growing up, we took a trip to Paris every year. I realized at an early age that these were my people. I wanted The Green Spot to be a lot like Paris where you can find beautifully baked breads, fresh pastries, local vegetables and delicious wines. My customers are like family; Tanya and I know 95 percent of the people who walk in the door. The children’s children of my original customers come into the market. Often we recognize family members in their features and smiles and ask them if they are related to so and so. We operated seven days a week for 25 years and then our mother got sick and we cut back to six days a week. Mom left us before we could begin our new schedule, but because of her we have a day of rest.
Take a trip to The Green Spot and say hello. You may just find Brenda in the kitchen making pickles or jam in a heavy copper pot, and Tanya by the register talkin’ up what’s new today. This is no ordinary grocery store and these two sisters are no ordinary grocers.
The Green Spot | 818 Kennedy Memorial Dr, Oakland | Wed-Mon 9 am-7 pm | 207-465-7242
Latest from Christopher Papagni
- On Becoming a Baker — Kerry Hanney of Night Moves Bread + Pie
- The Roma wasn't built in a day — Industry vet Mike Fraser's long journey in reviving the vintage Italian restaurant
- An easy commute does not mean a smooth road — How David Iovino of Blue Spoon makes it work
- The Brains Behind Portland's Soon-To-Be Dizzy Birds Rotisserie
- A Life in the Food Scene — Photojournalist and Food Writer Diane Hudson On Portland Past and Present