House of Spirits – Mainer


Johanna and Steve Corman inside the future home of the new Vena’s Fizz House. photo / Chris Busby

It is unlikely that anyone has ever overcome the specific set of obstacles placed in the way of Steve and Johanna Corman, who founded Vena’s Fizz House in the Old Port of Portland eight years ago. These obstacles include the deep snobbery of modern cocktail culture, skyrocketing rents caused by gentrification, and the divinely inspired edicts of the end of the 19e Portland Century Church Fathers.

Yet here they are, embarking on the renovation of an old church on Congress Street, near the future main entrance to Maine Medical Center, which promises to be one of the coolest places in town to have a drink. , meet friends and celebrate events.

When Vena’s Fizz House opened on Fore Street, in a building that had housed a series of failed businesses, their success was hardly guaranteed. It was a cocktail bar that lacked what most drinkers consider the key ingredient: alcohol. Instead of making cocktails, Vena’s served mocktails which, given their quality and complexity, weren’t much cheaper than the alcoholic versions.

“It always amazed me what these two guys did, in terms of knowing nothing about the bar industry,” said Mary Jo Marquis, director of business development for Vena’s Fizz House. “They jumped into the bar industry and created something completely different, starting with mocktails. And they’ve taken a lot of criticism from the industry. I don’t think they were considered valid mixologists with it.

About five years ago, Steve Corman had another brilliant (and seemingly unprofitable) idea: artisanal bitters. As Marquis noted, at the time the only bitter bars stored were Angostura and Peychaud’s, neither of which are remotely local.

Vena got a liquor license several years ago and started serving cocktails as well as mocktails in their small but cozy upstairs bar. Meanwhile, the bottom retail section of their business has grown alongside their growing selection of bitters, syrups, and craft cocktail accessories.

“Two years ago, all of a sudden, mocktails started to be in fashion, and we were getting calls from Dublin Timetables in London because alcoholic cocktails were now moving around the world, ”recalls Marquis. “Now all of a sudden he came back to little Vena’s Fizz House in Portland, Maine, and they started it. [People were] like: “How did you know and how did you do it?” We want to set up a non-alcoholic cocktail program. ‘”

“It’s just lovely to see that validated, and that these guys have stood their ground in the middle of this industry that was like, What? Alcohol-free cocktails?“continued Marquis. The Cormans” always preached: ‘It can be as good as a cocktail. You will never know, sitting at this table, which is the mocktail or the cocktail, because they are made with so much complexity, flavor. and love than others.

Then, around the time the pandemic swept the world, bitterness followed suit. “It took the world by storm,” Marquis said, “and all of a sudden everybody is using homemade bitters and it became a thing, and these guys were on the cutting edge. long before that happened.… They established themselves as the leaders in this area and that validated them, in terms of the bar industry, because it went against everything that [the industry] represented. They did it in a different way.

The couple rented a large space in Westbrook to fulfill online orders and, having outgrown their location in the Old Port, began looking for a new home for the Fizz House. Meanwhile, with the bar shutting down due to the government’s inept response to COVID-19, Steve Corman, now affectionately known as the World’s Bitterest Man, has been teaching mixology classes online, via Zoom, to customers who had already received the ingredients for the signature cocktail by mail.

When the Cormans first opened Vena, the lease was $ 2,800 per month, recalls Steve Corman, and over the years it has only increased by $ 500. However, as Vena proved, this place – in Boothby Square, across from Rosie’s and Dock Fore – was no longer cursed. “People were like, ‘Oh, it’s a great place, but it’s a shame you’re so far from the Old Port,’” Johanna Corman recalls with a laugh (Boothby Square is at the east end of the Old Port District).

Earlier this year, when the couple started looking for a larger location in the Old Port or downtown Portland, they were shocked to find that rents ranged from $ 6,000 to $ 9,000 per month. . And this assuming that commercial real estate agents were prepared to negotiate in good faith. The Cormans quickly realized that these agents were not – negotiations dragged on and conditions would change at the last minute to the detriment of the tenant.

In other words, the heart of Portland is effectively closed to entrepreneurs – even those, like the Cormans, with years of experience running a successful business there – unless you’ve already been inundated with ‘silver. (The high-priced sites they reviewed last spring are still empty.)

The Cormans were starting to lose hope when one day last summer Johanna, who already knew all the space available for rent, saw a listing for an old church on the corner of Congress and Weymouth streets in the still rough neighborhood. from Parkside to Portland, it was for sale. The asking price was just under half a million dollars, and the mortgage on the property (less than $ 2,000) would be a fraction of the cost of renting a similar-sized space a few blocks away. houses.

Johanna had lived in Parkside decades ago, including somewhere in Weymouth, and had fond memories of the area – she remembered going to the now defunct Sportsman’s Grill near the old Greyhound station of Congress, with his father. The couple have always viewed their bar as a place to build community, not just to get drunk, and were delighted to host events with the most ethnically diverse residents of this part of town. They rushed to buy the building and their credit union insurers calculated the numbers. It seemed that everything would be fine.

Then the will of God made itself known – or, at least, the interpretation of the divine will of some holy men long dead. The original act of the church, which was built in 1889, included a provision prohibiting its use for “uninspired inventions and devices of men,” such as “instrumental music, choral concerts or festivals. “.

The Church of Christ congregation that erected and used the building for a long time sold it to a Baptist group in 2015 for the face price of $ 1, but credit union underwriters feared that the old provision of the handwritten deed does not come back to haunt the Cormans. “Our lawyer said it was very broad and anyone with the Church of Christ could come and say you didn’t follow the act,” said Johanna Corman.

“I could predict myself in court for the rest of my life, but I would always win,” added Steve. “But I don’t even want to spend an iota of a minute in court when I don’t have to, because time is money.” “

“It basically boiled down to this perpetuity clause,” Johanna said. The 19e the clergymen of the century had decreed that the restrictions on use would remain in effect “as long as a congregation worshiping the disciples of Christ exists in said city, even until the coming of our Lord if men and women of the pure faith of the apostles of Jesus Christ stay so long in our city.

Fortunately, the lawyer for the Cormans was able to prove, using the assertions of prominent conservatives in rural Maine, that Portland is now indeed a modern-day Sodom devoid of any pious inhabitant.

I’m joking. This was in fact that part of the restrictions remaining in effect until the Rapture which no longer stands the test of the law. So, after four more months of wrangling, the Cormans finally secured the building this fall. Like they did to launch the original Vena’s Fizz House, they are using the equity in their own home to pay for the renovations. These include the conversion of the main worship space into a bar with a hall for events and retail products. The classic church basement, with its kitchen and inspiring messages on the walls, will be used for Steve’s cocktail classes.

The Cormans hope to open the doors next spring; they and Marquis are already planning several themed events for next year. And the old church will still be available for weddings – Steve Corman is a solicitor who once performed ceremonies under the name “The Marrying Bartender”, a much better nickname for such occasions than The Bitterest Man In The World. .


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