Green Spot owners discuss evolution of cherished business

For Tanya and Brenda Athanus what started out as a plan to spend one more college summer on the Belgrade Lakes transformed into a business that has now been around for 41 years.

The Athanus sisters co-own The Green Spot, located at 818 Kennedy Memorial Drive in Oakland. The yellow and green building with a lobster on the side is a landmark for Colby students. The store features local fruits, vegetables, seafood, meats, preserves, and prepared foods.

News Editor, Grant Alenson ’18, sat down with Brenda and Tanya and discussed the history of the Green Spot and what the store means to them:

Echo: How did the Green Spot come about?

BA: I had gone to cooking school and I said to my sister that she didn’t know enough about food and we were ready to get jobs for our lifetime, or so we thought.

One day we were driving by and saw that this place was vacant, so we decided to go to the owner’s home. It turned out our father had helped the owner of this place start his business and he decided to do the same for us. It was really cheap rent, and our original plan was to have the store just for that summer so we could spend one more summer in Maine on the lake.

But that first year was so fun so we decided to do it the next year. Now it’s 41 years later, and we don’t regret a thing.

Echo: Where’d you go to culinary school?

BA: I had actually started writing a book when I was in high school about Quebecois cuisine because it was such a prevalent cuisine around here. While writing the book, when I only had a rough draft of the first chapter, I went to a boyfriend’s parents cocktail party. At the party I was introduced to a woman who was the cookbook editor at Little, Brown Publishing Company in Boston.

I told her I was writing a book on Quebecois cuisine, and she asked me what my credentials were. At the time, I had only learned from my mother, and she told me I had to have some credentials to sell a cookbook. So, that week I signed up and went to Fannie Farmers School Cookery in Boston and moved to an apartment down there. It was horrible. I was feeling sad because I thought I had made a mistake and I was wondering how I was going to tell my parents, but my mother specifically because she was living vicariously through my cooking school experience.

Echo: What happened next?

BA: One day, I stayed in my apartment instead of going to school and got a bagel with salmon and capers and a big pot of tea and I heard a knock on the door and I opened it and there was a newspaper on the ground. It was actually my neighbors, but it was delivered to the wrong door. I opened it up to the food section of the Boston Globe and there was this spread on this woman who taught Vietnamese pastry making in her home. And the pastries were just like you thought you had died and gone to heaven. So I read the article to the end and there was a phone number, so I decided to call her up and I told her my story. So she asked me what I was doing and I told her I was drowning my sorrows in a really perfect bagel, and she gave me her address and invited me to lunch.

Echo: What happened at the lunch?

She had this beautiful lunch for me of all these leftover Indian dishes, because her husband was studying Indian cuisine—the food was fabulous. And then she brought out multiple beautiful desserts, and I just gorged.

After lunch, she told me to get my coat on and that we were going to go to someplace. We drove for about a mile and a half and showed up at this French blue door and the smells coming out of it were wine and mushrooms and butter and the door opened and there was copper everywhere. This crazy Frenchwoman, who later turned out to be Chef Madeline Kamman, was parading around and she stopped and said hi to the women that brought me there, and asked her what she could do for her. So Madeline gave me a tour of her school and  she told me to let her know if I wanted to go to her school, and I said “yes.” And she asked me if I had any questions and I said, “no, yes.” And she asked me when I kept saying yes, and I told her I was coming to her school.

Echo: So you learned under Madeline Kamman, and the rest was history?

BA: Well, she first gave me an entrance exam in which I had to make a Genoise cake, which is a European sponge cake. So I went back to my apartment and got my eggs and my butter all room temperature and clarified my butter and started trying to make a perfect Genoise. The first cake I made was two inches high, when they should be around 2.5 inches. So I started again. And again. In total, I made six genoises, and the last one was just under 2.5 inches. I thought would never go to cooking school because she’d never accept me.

Echo: And then what?

BA: I boxed them all up and I brought them to her school the next day. She opened them and kept looking and looking and I thought either she’s going to say that I needed to go to her school because I clearly couldn’t make a Genoise or she wasn’t interested. But after looking at them, she accepted me.

I graduated on a Sunday, and started the Green Spot on Monday. Tanya came on Tuesday. And that’s how we started. That was in 1976.

Echo: What are your most popular dishes and what are your favorite dishes to make?

BA: My favorite dish to make is apricot jam, and the most popular dishes we have are our chicken curry, lobster rolls, and meatballs.

Echo: How often do you have to make a batch of chicken curry? 

BA: Sometimes four times a day, and each batch is ten pounds of chicken which translates to about twelve pounds of chicken curry.

Echo: Do you ever change your recipes?

BA: If it’s not broken, you don’t fix it. People like consistency, if people come in they want to be able to get something that they remembered the last time they stopped in and they want it to taste just the same.

Echo: Do you have any secret recipes?

TA: They’re all secret in some sense. That’s actually interesting that you asked that because Brenda has a lot of recipes that people try to replicate when we’re closed in the offseason and I have never heard anybody have a success story. They all have stories, but none of them are successes.

Echo: What’s your relationship with Colby students?

TA: We love Colby students.

BA: Back when we first started the store, Colby students weren’t that much fun or interesting. Now, Colby students are all more dimensional, more varied in their experiences, very smart, and you all share such lovely stories with us that we do live vicariously through you.

Echo: What your favorite part about running the Green Spot?

BA: I love the cooking.

TA: I love the store. I love trying new cheeses, new wines, new produce. It’s as fun for us as it is for our customers. Actually, sometimes it’s even more fun because we’re here everyday.

Echo: What’s your least favorite part?

BA: I don’t think I have anything that I don’t like.

Echo: What do you guys do in the offseason?

BA: We like to take a nice trip, catch up on our sleep, and read. In the offseason I also write food stories and cookbooks. I wrote a couple books and I’ll have a third one soon about lobsters, called “Lobsters Anonymous.” It is going to focus on the history of lobsters and it will have some recipes.

TA: It’s a nice balance to have some time off.

BA: We truly do give it our all when we’re open. People always tell us we should open a week earlier or stay open an extra week—but that 7 p.m.  on the last day, I don’t think I have fifteen minutes more in me.

Echo: What kept you doing it all these years?

BA: I’d have to say the support of our customers, it’s very Woodstock-esque. It’s a lot of work, but we get kissed and hugged all day. We’re working on fourth generation customers and it’s a nice legacy. And I love the smell of produce, when I go into that cooler and it smells like produce, I think all is well with the world, its like when you’re a kid and you have penny candy.

Echo: Any final comments?

TA: You think as you get older it’d get harder, but it seems like it’s just getting easier. I think we have gotten more efficient with age after having done it for a number of years.

BA: We love the Green Spot. We love it with people, and we love it without people. Sometimes we close at 7 p.m. and close the doors and just hangout and have a cup of coffee and look around the store. It truly is a wonderful time.