Meet Pete Leavitt
This week Tanner sits down to a lively conversation with the ever-mirthful Pete Leavitt – owner and hands-on operator at Leavitt and Sons Delis in Falmouth and Portland’s East Bayside neighborhood.
Show Episode Transcript
[00:00:00] Welcome to Portland speaks a podcast featuring interesting conversations with interesting Mainers hosted by Tanner Campbell and recorded weekly an important part in South Portland Maine. Thanks for tuning in. Let’s begin
[00:00:36] Today I’m chatting with a real mensch of a guy who got started in beer moved to semiconductors and wound up opening a deli wound up opening to actually which wasn’t really what he wanted to hear him tell it but which has certainly brought him a lot of fulfillment as a business owner and the local Portland Ore. I’m speaking of course of Pete Levitt.
[00:00:59] I currently own a couple delis in Falmouth in Portland.
[00:01:03] Did you notice his use of the word currently there. I did and my immediate reaction was I wonder what he’s going to own next but before we climb into Pete’s bottomless well of ambition and no that’s not a euphemism I think we should first explore what brought him to Maine when he was in his early 20s. It wasn’t our pine trees wasn’t our rocky shoals or perfect Summers. It wasn’t our stellar personalities or a zest for life. It wasn’t any of that regular stuff and if it wasn’t for that regular stuff then what was it that brought them to mean beer.
[00:01:42] But this was a long time ago beer.
[00:01:44] Not a bad reason. At least I don’t think so. And we’re going to learn the specifics in just a minute. But since he’s not from Maine let’s find out where he is from first.
[00:01:57] Bainbridge Maryland. My dad was it was a Navy guy and we moved out of there when I was about five months old too Long Meadow Massachusetts which is near Springfield out in sort of western Mass. And that’s where I grew up. That’s where I lived my whole life.
[00:02:09] Well not his whole life. Right. This isn’t the Bainbridge speaks podcast. He got to Maine soon enough but let’s figure out how exactly.
[00:02:18] So I graduated from college with a degree in economics and everybody was going to work on Wall Street and I said I am not going to work on Wall Street. I’ve always been a food guy since I was 15 I worked in food and I said I’m going to go to California because that’s as far as Wall Street as you can pretty much get. So I was working out there in food. I was working at a catering company I worked at a place called the Haight Street Deli right on Haight Street. So I worked food for a while and then I got my brother in law was working at one of the first brew pubs in the country a place called Triple Rock and Berkeley that I opened in nineteen eighty four. I think they were the second or third brew pub in the country. But it was Buffalo Bills brew house I think was one of the first ones in Emeryville or in Oakland California. And then there was a couple around there. Gary’s actually opened up sort of around the same time on this side of the country. I think he was he might not have been that early but. So I talked to my brother and. He said you know they’re looking for someone helping the brewery.
[00:03:18] You want to do that. I said I could do that. He said it comes with free beer. I said yeah I definitely do that. So I started brewing beer which I really liked and as much as I liked cooking brewing beer was certainly one of the first things I said I could see myself doing this in ten years like this is really fine it was really it took what I liked about cooking food which is with cooking food you get you get sort of an immediate feedback right when you work in a restaurant you send a plate of food out if it comes back empty. You know they liked it but you constantly have to make one plate of food at a time. We’re making beer it’s like you make a big batch of beer and then constantly people are drinking it. So you get you get the constant feedback but you don’t have to put the constant effort into making each glass of beer. So it really played well into my sense of laziness as well as constant insecurity of wanting to have people telling me what they actually liked what I was doing and desired and not working on Wall Street.
[00:04:09] This is higher to not have to go work on Wall Street.
[00:04:12] Well all right it looks like things are shaping up pretty well for Pete. What happens next.
[00:04:17] I worked at a place in Berkeley and then one of those owners opened a brewpub called 20 tank right in San Francisco down in South Market area and I did that I loved opening the place up. I mean just starting from installing the system to coming up with the recipes and I was I was still an assistant brewer. I had some great people I was working with at the time and I heard one of the guys that I was working for went to Chicago went to a place called Siebel Institute of brewing technology which is one of the top three or four brewing schools in the world. At that time there’s vine Stefan in Germany which you have to speak German which I mean that’s only Deutsch.
[00:04:54] That’s on a purity law stuff over there too so it’s there’s there are more rules to being on that.
[00:04:58] Well it’s the Rhine High School boat is the German but I think that’s poet pronounce something like that is the German purity law. But but vain Stefan that’s they’re not teaching that stricter. They’re sort of teaching the whole science of it. UC Davis has always had a great course and then Siebel Institute was sort of right up there as well. So I in my family had sought a lifelong education continual learning is sort of embedded in our genes. I said you know let’s go back to school and see what this is all about. And so that was a sort of the executive graduate course 400 hours 40 weeks I’m sorry 40 hours a week 10 10 weeks in Chicago which was great. You know your homework was have some beers and think about you know how this other stuff works OK which is what you’re gonna do which is what I was going to get to get together with a couple a couple guys and Chicago is a great place for that. But most of the Brewers there were big brewers they were from a lot of them from Coors Miller. You get some of the some of the smaller regional ones in the US as well as breweries in China and Brazil. This is where international breweries would send their people because it was in English they could understand it wasn’t a four year course like UC Davis.
[00:06:10] So there was about three or four of us that were under the age of 40 that knew what we were doing. And so we were sort of the new breed back then and the instructors constantly would test us thinking these guys don’t know anything about brewing and it turns out we actually knew more than the corporate guys because the corporate guys sort of sat behind a panel and you know move levers where we were there with the with the canoe paddle actually stone during the green in that I imagine that they weren’t just probably also locked into a mentality of what beer was supposed to be like. And there were little more restriction to what they were but they were also trained of you know when it hits this temperature do this and it will always hit that temperature because it’s all very controlled. We’re in a small system you say well you need to get to this temperature because these reactions need to happen. And if it doesn’t get to that temperature if it goes over that temperature then here’s what’s gonna happen and here’s what you need to do to you really need to have a more intimate knowledge when you’re working on that small scale of what what’s going on exactly.
[00:07:08] So I graduated from Siebel and I put my shingle out as a as a brewery consultant and I helped open up a place in Telluride Colorado which I don’t think is there anymore. I was up in Oregon and just sort of bouncing around and a guy called. He said hey you know I heard about you I need you to come to me and I’m opening a brewery. So I moved up to Bethel Maine after the last sort of permanent address I had had was in San Francisco and I’d love San Francisco. It was just so crowded even I mean this was even in the late 80s it was crowded. And since that time I’d been pretty much living out of a duffel bag. You know I unpacked a little bit in Chicago but I was still sort of you know living in someone else’s apartment and then just sort of traveling the country living out of a backpack and I got to Bethel and it finally struck me that I really actually like that area. I liked not having traffic. I’d like to not have any traffic lights. I like not having a lot of people around. I love you know being outside and being in the woods and being in the hills. And this was even before ski season here. And so we opened up the Sandy River Brewing Company in 90. I think that was still 91 December at 91 and the original attention was I was going to get that open and then move on to the next job. And within about four or five months of getting the place opened up I talked to my partner at the time and I said Well what do you what are you looking to do. He was a young guy. He had some some family finances and he said know I just want to open a bunch of these. I said look great. That’s what I want to do you know. So I became partners with him. And then in 94 we opened up a place called Stone coast here in Portland. That was a fun place.
[00:08:54] It was bags like 12000 square feet which is an enormous bar and many of you likely remember it unfortunately big as it was and fun as it was. It did not last.
[00:09:07] So it was 94. We went and opened up another brewery in Laconia New Hampshire about a year later 95 96 97 or so we started contract brewing out of what was then Casco Bay Brewing Company. And so they were brewing some of our beers for us that we would sell. So they were brewing our black bear Porter and 420 IPA. They may have been doing to do the redstone at that point. We had probably three or four that they were brewing. So at that point I was in charge of three breweries as well as sales of distribution beer. It really wasn’t it wasn’t it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I know the expression you get kick kicked upstairs I mean that was that I liked brewing beer I wasn’t brewing beer anymore so things started sort of coming apart. My partner and I at that point sort of looked at each other and said I think we’re about done here. And so I left in ninety nine and moved on and then St. Coast closed I think in 2000 and 2001. And so that whole that whole organization sort of unraveled a couple of years after that.
[00:10:21] Now if this were me I’d be feeling pretty low. Feeling like everything I’d worked towards was gone and scared to start over again. But here’s where we get a look at Pete’s ability to regularly and somewhat seemingly easily reinvent himself when the chips are down and the world is changing around him.
[00:10:39] Maybe it’s time to go back to school again. That’s that’s that’s sort of always as I say ingrained of lifelong learning continual education. So I went to an open house at USM for the graduate program MBA program and I’ve seen our whole time I think on one hand you ought to start doing this this is stupid. And I’m sitting next to this woman who is not young and most of the most of the student body and at USM especially in the graduate program are nontraditional students. And I was chatting with her and I said What do you think. She goes I think I got to do this. I said Yeah. I said I’m just thinking you know I’m too old to start doing this. She said well she said I’m 47. She said in three years I’m going to be 50. She said in three years I can either be 50 and have a graduate degree or I can be 50 without a graduate degree. I think I’ll be better off with a graduate degree so I might as well. I wasn’t even close to 50. I said Well hell that sounds like it sounds like pretty solid reasoning. So I went to I was I was going to graduate school and I said you know I I know what small business is all about I’ve always been my own boss I know what that’s about I’ve no idea what corporate America is all about. So I got an internship at Fairchild Semiconductor.
[00:11:55] Yeah you heard that right. Semiconductors semiconductors are not beer and they are not deli meat. But change is at the very least different and different can be good sometimes right. Let’s see.
[00:12:12] Fairchild is part of what they call the world’s semiconductor Trade Organization which is WSU. Yes. And every six months WFTS has a big meeting around somewhere in the world and you know whatever region hosts the meeting and they get together and this is how they come up with the forecast for what semiconductor demand is going to be in the next six months in a year. And they sent me as as the the the convoy from Fairchild with fairly very little idea of what what we were doing there. And you go into these sessions and so analog was a big part of Fairchild so you go into these sessions and it’s like okay all the other analog makers and you’d go into a room and they would say you know how many people are looking at you know 5 percent growth and you’re just like raise your hand.
[00:12:59] And then every bit and people just sort of you know like it was the craziest thing and they said OK well so we figured that you know worldwide demand is going to increase by three point two percent next year really like this is how you guys come up with these numbers and then you see the press releases it’s like well the World Trade worries semiconductor Trade Organization has you know determined that semiconductor growth is gonna it’s gonna go up by six point nine percent next year. Oh six point eight. It’s like huh. It seems like there should have been more to it but that was it.
[00:13:29] Oh OK. Definitely different if not maybe a little unsettling certainly something Pete thought was an odd experience but it wasn’t just the meetings that Pete found odd.
[00:13:41] It was the whole of corporate structure the politics of corporate is something that I still don’t really get. You know that that the concept that you know that the later you’re in the office the better the worker you are. Some people a sign of having nothing on your desk was a sign that you had a lot of power because you had other people doing all the work. Other people having a lot of stuff on your desk was the sign of power because it showed that you were doing all the work I did that I didn’t really understand like how would you divide decided who was in which camp. There was one guy I remember who was pretty high up there. He would sort of disappear all day and he’d come back around 4:00 and they tell you know we’ve been gone all night. You know I had you know paint the bottom of my boat.
[00:14:23] He’s like OK. So you guys ready to get to work. You know we’re gonna be here till about 10:00 tonight. This guy’s been working all day. And they’re like yeah sure no problem.
[00:14:31] Here we go I’m thinking this is stupid just want to take a quick minute to thank you all for listening and to ensure that you’ve taken the opportunity to formally subscribe to the show. If you’re listening to us on a podcast listening app you’ve probably already got it sorted. But if you’re listening to this episode from our Web site from one of our social media profiles there is a better way to listen if you’re on an iPhone or an iPad subscribe through Apple podcasts. If you’re on an Android device download and install the radio public app it’s free. If you’re dead set on listening to us on your laptop or computer though consider looking us up on Spotify or I Heart Radio and adding us to your podcasting playlist. Anyway thanks for listening and for subscribing.
[00:15:20] Let’s get back to Pete and see how things worked out Pete’s wife noticed way before he did but when he finally did it was like he knew it all along. Pete needed to work for himself. He wasn’t a paper pusher. He wasn’t a grunt and he didn’t have the tolerance for leadership he disagreed with. And maybe that’s a feature of entrepreneurs or small business owners. They just have to do things their way. That’s good though right. Someone has to open the businesses and take the risk. So why not eleven. Why not Pete. But what would he do.
[00:15:57] I don’t want a lunch rush. I really just want to sell like cured cheeses and aged meats like you know pushing like a prosciutto shot that would have been the ideal if I just could have sold like two or three kinds of prosciutto and just sliced that all day I would’ve been really happy.
[00:16:15] And he wound up with a friggin deli.
[00:16:18] Right. So I let my go wrong.
[00:16:20] My my you know my initial tagline was was I smoked aged cured like I thought. That’s all I was going to sell the stuff that was smoked age and cured and that was it. And I had to sign up. So I got the property on the corner of Route 1 and DePaul Road in Falmouth which was a great corner great great property great location Roone if I remember our previous houses. Well at that point yeah that property wasn’t overgrown right into the lot next to me where the radiators was just yet overgrown weeds and a burned out house that had been there for 20 years. But they kept saying Oh well no no somebody’s coming in there they’re going to build something here. You know I don’t care. I’m right on the corner everybody can see me I don’t care what’s behind me. And so I had a sign up on the roofs in Levitt and Sons and then in small letters that had smoked aged cured and specialty food store but nobody could read that as the driving by all they see is levied incense.
[00:17:15] Now of course we know Pete and we know now that he owns a deli. But yeah I guess Levitt and Sons does have kind of a I don’t know funeral home ring to it got off to a slow start and people come in they say you know I saw the sign.
[00:17:31] I thought you know maybe we’re like a funeral home or lawyers.
[00:17:35] So I stopped by. Well you know said well I kept I kept driving by and then you know I figured I’d see what was going on in here.
[00:17:43] But you know I’d get a lot of calls people that wanted to rent tents and now that’s living in Paris. They’d say oh you know I would. We bought some stuff at your store and you know that the T-shirt doesn’t fit I’d say no. That’s it and chase those guys. This is different. But eventually it caught on. And and so after about eight years of running up there I said All right I guess it’s time to do something stupid again and open a second one.
[00:18:10] So it was time to go shopping for a new building.
[00:18:13] So then when I started looking for a property I started looking up on Washington Street that’s where all the cool places were gonna be. And the spaces I saw up there were sort of too small. There were sort of little two to chopped up what I was doing. And then my broker said well you know well there’s this other this other development that’s going on down down in West Bay side. I’d sort of already started looking in the East Bay side area as they call it where all the breweries are. Could I sort of. I was aware that that was that was sort of up and coming that was sort of a cool area and there was really nothing for rent and even places on Washington Avenue that have new stores and them now. That stuff was not available four years ago. So Labor forage and the shop are the place. You know I was told that guy’s never going to move out of there. You know he’s. And if he does it’s going to be way too expensive for anything but like an office and that in turn out to be true. But I was done sort of looking up there and and so that’s my broker pitch going in to the little plaza where Chipotle is and I said yes I see you know I don’t really know maybe it’s not really what I was thinking. And then I looked at the numbers they said this is what we want for rent. I said Well I’d like to pay like a half of that. And so my broker said well you know. No. Ask him. And so then I got this thing back you know and it says we’ve got space for you at this price. I’m like huh 200 Quebec street.
[00:19:54] Wait that’s not in the plaza that’s across the street and across the street was sort of this leaning over a wooden warehouse building perfect all day. But the red was good.
[00:20:07] Pete I spoke for over two hours and the amount of wrangling and shopping I had to do to the audio of that conversation to get things down to a manageable length was daunting to say the least. Pete has a lot of great stories and he’s a real blast to hang out with during those two hours he told me a ton of those stories we listened to the cliffs of Dover by Eric Johnson. We drank whiskey. We shared a couple of beers and we chewed the fat about all manner of completely random and not interrelated topics. But there is no way I could include all of that in this single episode. So patrons expect a lot of great stuff in the uncut version which we’ll post later this weekend. If you’re not a patron hang in there until the end of this episode and they’ll give you some details on how you can become one. I decided to ask Pete about the increasing diversity in Portland because I in fact had already asked him about it the first time we met while I was vetting him as a guest for the show. I knew what he was going to say and I wanted to include it as the last question of this episode because Pete define diversity differently than previous guest had and I felt that was worth including here.
[00:21:19] Racially diverse is different than culturally diverse and where I think you told me that other people had thought it was becoming more diverse for the good of the bad of the city. And I said I think it’s becoming less diverse because the diversity is getting priced out of Portland. So when I moved down to Portland and even before when I was living in Bethel and I would deliver kegs of beer down to the accounts that we had down in Portland it was it was classic New England it’s still I guess fishing town where you know there are a lot of somewhat abandoned buildings which isn’t necessarily great for a city but it made for easy parking which I really appreciated bars that were there. Everybody sort of went to the same bar as a bar. The bar is where the bar and you’d have the lawyers and the fishermen all sitting together and if you want to go get a drink you got to drink and everybody got along. What I see happening now and it’s I mean it’s not. It didn’t just start. It probably started with with cafe owner wasn’t cafe cafe maybe which opened up sort of across the street from St. coast where Zapotec used to be and it was like the first martini bar in Portland and Portland. You know it’s like a martini bar and people like that. That’s crazy. You know it’s not what you think of it that’s not what you think of Portland.
[00:22:47] And it was very sort of European feel and you know sort of cool and glass and they made these you know 10 ounce martinis. They were charging 10 dollars for reading you know who’s gonna tip who’s gonna pay ten dollars for a martini. Well I will. And they and they were a great train. They were all just you know great drinks. But suddenly this was a bar that not everybody could go to. And since then it’s it’s really you know there’s been such a huge influx of people moving into Portland coming up from New York and coming up from Boston you know to open restaurants among other things and you know 90 time 90 percent of the time you see these write ups of you know the Portland’s great new restaurant is the chef came up from New York because he wanted to find basically cheap rent and that’s sort of what started. Now people want to come up because it’s got this vital food scene but it’s a lot of people from more expensive places coming up that look at the rent up here and they say well you know twelve hundred dollars for a studio that’s cheap. That’s not cheap for people that live up here. You know so. So the diversity is getting priced out of Portland proper. The bars and restaurants are definitely segregating themselves into who can afford a 25 dollar entree versus go in and get some red hot tomatoes for you know two for three dollars and you get your shot and a beer which I still appreciate.
[00:24:09] So it’s racially sexual orientation. That kind of diversity is certainly increasing I think from a financial demographic I think it’s becoming a lot more uniform. You know it’s not a new argument it’s the lack of affordable housing for the people that work at all the restaurants. I mean I see it with the people that work for me. I mean a lot of them live still in Portland and they live in someone that the older cheaper neighborhoods that like Park side you know Grant Street Sherman Street those were you know sort of dangerous neighborhoods back in the early 90s not so much anymore and that’s where a lot of these kids live in there. You know there’s there’s still these places but you know you drive around and I’ll tell you there’s a drive around the east side of Portland and I don’t even know where I am anymore. It’s just these you know monolithic brick clad sort of uniform looking buildings and you know you could be in Boston you could be in to sign you could you know you could be anywhere. It’s really it’s I think very close to losing some of the character of the city because of this these massive buildings going up at this point.
[00:25:22] So not a net good in your estimation.
[00:25:26] I I can’t judge whether it’s a net good or not. I mean certainly there are benefits to it. But I like being over on the bayside. I like the other side of the hill. It feels a little more real to me down there. It feels a little more like this is going to stay a local place more. I specifically did not want to open in the old port. I did not want my customer base to be transient tourists who you know I would see just new faces everyday I really like being part of the community that I’m in. Having the local customers knowing what people are doing knowing what people want. Even today we had a woman that comes and shares the same order of deli me every week and I got a call from my manager in Falmouth. She said you know she just called up here for a deli order I think she just called the wrong number. I said I think so. She said Sure we slice it. I said hold off. If she comes it up there will explain the situation. Sure enough she comes into the port location half hour later. I said hi. She said Yeah I call. They said you called Falmouth. She said. I said I said we can get we can get the word out in like five minutes. I said we just don’t want to slice it because I thought maybe you were gonna be in Falmouth today. So you want to pick it up even though she always picks it up in Portland but it’s that kind of interaction with the customer of not only knowing who they are but understanding you know what they need what they want and even being able to cover when they get the wrong phone number and the phone.
[00:26:54] Patrons please expect the full and uncut version by Sunday. And to those of you who are not yet patrons here’s how to become one and why you should first. Head on over to Patrick on dot com forward slash. Portland speaks there is a link in the description when you get there. Pledge Five dollars of monthly support to the show as soon as you do that you’ll have access to all the uncut versions of all of our interviews and this is the best part in your second month of support. You’ll get important speak sticker for your car. And in your third month you’ll get important Portland speaks T-shirt. Like a good one not a cheap undershirt with an iron on detail that comes off after a couple of times in the wash. Patrons help us to earn a living off this production and prevent us from having to place ads on the show or become beholden to sponsors or sponsor influence. And nobody likes ads. So do your part and become a patron today at dot com forward slash. Portland speaks. Portland speaks is produced weekly by the Portland part Maine’s first commercial podcasting studio located at 46 Broadway in South Portland
[00:28:08] Thanks for listening subscribing and supporting. I’m grateful to have you as a listener and I will see you next week. Take care.
Born in Bainbridge, Maryland, Pete’s Navy family moved to Long Meadow, Massachusetts when he was just four months old. Pete grew up, went to college and got a degree in economics which left him with two options: Go to work on Wall Street or do something completely unrelated to his degree.
Once in California Pete found work at a small brewery where he discovered a real passion for the process of making beer. After a couple of years he decided he’d to to Germany and learn what he needed to learn to become a legitimate brewer – and so he did. He returned from Germany a brewmaster and put out his shingle as a Brewery Consultant.
In those days, craft breweries weren’t really a thing like they are today, and so Pete was a man with knowledge of a business model that was about to get very popular – that’s a good position to be in. One day he got a call from a young guy in Bethel, Maine who was looking to open a brewery and who needed a brewery consultant – Pete took the gig and the two proceeded to open three brewpubs together; one in Bethel, one in Portland, and one in Laconia, New Hampshire.
So I went to California, because California is about as far away from Wall Street as you can get.
Pete LeavittOwner of Leavitt & Sons
Eventually the business relationship soured and Pete again looked at how he might prepare himself for then next phase of his life. He decided to go back to school for his MFA – which he got – and then he went to work at Fairchild Semiconductor but it didn’t last long. Pete had worked for himself for a long time and he just couldn’t get on board with the Corporate America culture – it was bloated, slow, behind the times, and seemed to focus more on working hard than working smart. It just wasn’t for Pete. So he opened a Deli.
Hear the full story by listening to this episode and if you’re looking for more, consider becoming a Patron for access to the uncut version (nearly 2-hours long). Thanks for listening, thanks for stopping by, take care.
From the discussion:
Leavitt & Sons Deli – https://leavittandsons.com
Siebel Institute – https://www.siebelinstitute.com
Reinheitsgebot – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reinheitsgebot
Stone Coast Brewing – http://www.cliffsnotesbeerguide.com/maine-breweries/stone-coast/
Sunday River Brewing – http://sundayriverbrewingcompany.com/
Fairchild Semiconductor – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fairchild_Semiconductor