A group of Lincoln County residents are working to bring S. Fernald’s Country Store in Damariscotta from family ownership to community ownership after 18 months on the market. They hope a crowdfunding campaign will raise $35,000 to bring them over the finish line and “Save Fernald’s” by early February.
Sumner Fernald Richards III and Pam Jackman opened Fernald’s on Main Street in Damariscotta in 1990 next to Renys, selling sandwiches, candy, toys, and Moxie. The business moved to Waldoboro in 1999 and returned to the Twin Villages at its current location on 50 Main St. in 2009.
Richard and Jackman sold Fernald’s to their son, Sumner Fernald “Ricky” Richards IV, and his wife, Rosie, in 2016. Ricky and Rosie Richards put the business itself on the market in July 2022; the building will stay in the family.
One of their regulars since returning to Damariscotta, Alexandra Welch, said she “cried for days” when they announced the sale. She had visited almost daily after school at Great Salt Bay Community School and then Lincoln Academy and feared losing the community space that felt like home to an outside buyer. She soon became serious about purchasing it with her partner, Ramsea Lucas.
After eight months and three investors, Welch was considering selling equity shares to locals when she asked her business lawyer, Marcia DeGeer, if it would be a conflict of interest to contact her husband and owner of Hootenanny Bread, Derek DeGeer.
Welch and Derek DeGeer had known each other for a decade, since she was a customer at his tea business at the Damariscotta Farmer’s Market. DeGeer and one of his eventual employees, current River House general manager Jon Merry, had kept in touch and always wanted to try a project together. They were eyeing Fernald’s, but couldn’t make the purchase price work.
Welch, Lucas, Derek DeGeer, and Merry joined together to become equal business partners in the fall 2023 and have found it a smooth process since.
“To find kind of a not ‘How am I going to do it?’ but ‘Who am I going to do it with?’ was really interesting, and it just all has fallen together so, so fast,” Derek DeGeer said. “It’s so fast and easy, and that is not how it’s ‘supposed’ to go.”
Welch and Lucas plan to run day-to-day operations, with Lucas focusing on baking and back of house and Welch running the front of house.
Derek DeGeer would add bakery offerings and bagels, with Merry running the books and making cream cheese.
“The biggest thing people constantly ask us is what’s going to change, and the answer is yes and no. We want to keep the core of Fernald’s, but of course there will be some changes, but we hope to make it even more Fernald’s,” Welch said.
The four hope to have a pizza night, outdoor events, the return of jam nights and Sunday pancakes, either daily or weekly sandwich specials, and collaborations with local businesses.
Inside the store, the group envisions expanded seating, a communal record player, a toy selection with more local goods, and an added small market, perhaps with local produce at wholesale cost. They hope Jackman will stay involved with the retail side.
The only major menu change on deck is a change to Hootenanny Bread from Borealis Breads, which the restaurant has used since it opened.
All four see Fernald’s as a community spot. They used the phrase “third space,” which describes a place outside of the two social environments of the home and workplace where one can find community connection. They plan to be open earlier and close later, plus bring back Sunday hours.
“Somebody had warned us against opening later again so that the high school kids could come, like, ‘You’re not going to get any money,’” Welch said. “I want the high school kids to come and take over the couches and just like, totally wreck the place. Otherwise, what’s the point?”
The hopeful buyers plan to keep all staff and may hire more for after school hours. Fernald’s is current open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday.
With three-quarters of funding secured, the four look to raise $35,000 to cover operating expenses until the summer season. A Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign runs through Tuesday, Feb. 6. If all goes as planned, the group will take ownership in early February.
The Kickstarter offers discounts and benefits in exchange for contributions ranging from $4 to $9,999.
At the lower tiers, backers can receive a cup of soup for $0.75 off, receive a dozen bagels or a tray of brownies, or get 10% off one lunch. For a bit more, they can create a sandwich, get 10% off for life, join a mug club, or take $200 off of the “eat the menu” challenge. They can have their portrait taken to join a photo book of the “Fernald’s family,” which would be on display at the restaurant.
After-school sandwiches for the academic year, daily lunch for a pregnant woman, or a sandwich a day for five winters come before the largest funding option, which only one person can buy: the “Holy Grail of Sandwiches,” a free sandwich a day for life. They specify the grail cannot be passed down in a will.
The four are waiting on a purchase and sale agreement, and plan to make a down payment along with a small business loan from Coastal Enterprises Inc., in Brunswick, though if the campaign raises any extra it may offset the need for a loan. The remaining cost will be financed through the owners on terms that make the investment lower, according to Derek DeGeer.
“If it goes as well as we think it’s going to go, everybody wins,” he said. “They get the asking price, we get paid, we make a living.”
Ricky Richards said his decision to sell came from a desire to spend more time with his young family, son Sumner “Sunny” Fernald Richards V, now 2, and Tadgh Richards, born on Monday, Jan. 8.
“It’s bittersweet,” Ricky Richards said. “I was only 3 when the store opened, and I knew it all my life. Anyone that’s been in small business will tell you that it’s all-consuming, which is wonderful, but can be a lot.”
He had always hoped for a local buyer and is excited by the partnership.
“We couldn’t be more happy with the team that is coming forth,” he said. “They’re all bringing separate talents and are involved in food service and in the community. It’s kind of a perfect pairing. We’re excited to see what they do with the place.”
Richards is also happy to see Fernald’s’ role as a community gathering space live on. Welch said the social media campaign has brought them in contact with many who have long histories there.
“It’s felt really precious to be sort of the caretaker of these memories and to have people feel comfortable sharing them with us,” she said. “It feels like we have a responsibility to do right by them and continue to be stewards of those memories for them, and also for the kids growing up, that they’re able to have the same place that we all did.”
For more information, go to kickstarter.com/projects/sandwiches4me/save-fernalds, find @savefernalds on Instagram, or email email@example.com.
(Correction: An earlier version of this article online and on Page 1 of the Jan. 11 edition incorrectly reported Jon Merry owns the River House restaurant. The River House, located at 27 Main St. in Damariscotta, is owned by Eleanor Kinney. Jon Merry is the restaurant’s general manager. The Lincoln County News regrets this error.)