This bar got famous not serving alcohol

It all came to Johanna Corman after four nights of tossing and turning.

Her husband of nearly 17 years, Steve, had just been laid off from his teaching job of 19 years right during April school break in 2013, and they had two children in high school.

After 19 years of teaching, he asked her what he should do next.

Johanna had been a teacher, but she was also an adventurous spirit, willing to jump at opportunities to run the family apple farm and move to Maine’s Cliff Island a couple months after seeing a “for sale” sign at the island’s only store and café.

Johanna woke up on that fifth morning and realized the answer to their problems.

“I had this whole vision,” she said. “A bar with bartenders, and they’re mixing and muddling and shaking. But there’s no alcohol. It’s seltzer-based, but they’re using really good, healthy ingredients.

“I love old fashioned ingredients, like bitters and tonics and shrubs and syrups. I just could see the whole thing in my brain.”

A dream based on trust

To know Steve Corman is to know how much he loves and trusts Johanna. Having followed her to Cliff Island ten years ago, where they ran Pearls Seaside Market & Cafe for six years, Steve agreed to give it a shot.

In the course of their marriage, “I’ve come to totally trust certain aspects of what she’s saying, what she’s doing,” he said. “She’s incredibly creative.”

“And if we’re going do it, we’re going to go all in,” he said.

Neither had a business plan, but by day’s end, they had found a realtor and an empty corner bar with space for a retail space in Portland’s hip Old Port neighborhood.

And two days later, Steve went to the bank for a home equity loan based on Steve still having a job — which he did until June. (They were approved a few weeks later.)

Vena’s Fizz House, named after Johanna’s temperance-minded great grandmother, was born on July 10, 2013 with just 10 drinks on the menu and cans and bottles of seltzer as the base.

No beer distributor would sell them a carbon dioxide hookup without them also buying soda. Within a couple weeks, they bought the equipment online, watched YouTube videos to learn about the installation, and hooked it up themselves.

The beverage side of the foodie scene

Led only by Johanna’s vision and their shared work ethic, the Cormans tapped into an untapped demand for grownup, sophisticated non-alcoholic drinks — both by customers who don’t drink alcohol and foodies who want interesting drinks.

Customers told them, “We’ve never been able to go out to a bar and actually feel like we’re having a nice drink too,” said Johanna. “We always get seltzer with cranberry or something like that.”

Although it appeared to come out of nowhere, Vena’s was really an outlet for old-timey cooking and canning recipes Johanna had been tinkering with for years.

She had found mention of apple syrup in an old cookbook while running the family apple farm in nearby Hiram, Maine, and she decided to try to create it from excess apple cider they made on the farm. (Her brother Billy Johnson is now the third generation of the family running Apple Acres Farm, but the family has lived in Maine for 11 generations, since before the American Revolution.)

“Two months later, we bottled it, we corked and waxed the top,” Johanna said. “We’re at the old Portland public market and within an hour, people were coming to, we’re just selling tastes and bottled. Two or three people said, ‘Okay, we want to be your distributor. We want to sell this all.’ Within an hour!”

That’s when she invented her first drink, the cider smash, around 1989. Now a Vena’s best seller, it’s “equal amounts of cider syrup, fresh lemon juice and bourbon,” she said. “It’s the easiest cocktail in the world, and tart, sweet, beautiful.”

For Vena’s booze-free bar, Johanna wanted real ingredients, no artificially flavored anything, whether she made the products in her commercial kitchen or bought them from the few producers making bitters, shrubs (drinking vinegars) and syrups that she liked.

A modern version of an old-fashioned soda fountain

Some of the drinks harkened back to another era.

The first drinks the Cormans developed were reminiscent of old-fashioned soda fountains: the lime rickeys, now in four flavors, and chocolate and cherry phosphates.

They also wanted created their own unique concoctions, like the Love Potion Number 9, made from raspberry gomme (an old-fashioned syrup), rose simple syrup, squeezed lime juice, Bolivar bitters, ghost pepper extract and seltzer.

Ginger Julep was made from muddled fresh mint, ginger puree, ginger syrup, ginger bitters, smoky habanero bitters, ghost pepper and seltzer.

Steve became Vena’s head bartender, learning about mixology via YouTube videos, nailing those 10 drinks in his first few months on the job.

Part art and part science, the couple created and discovered ingredients to play with and invented new drinks. If they did well, they got added to the menu.

“One of the first we came up (around Valentine’s Day 2014) with was the Lumberjack Love,” she said.

They found a pine syrup made from this little company out in Colorado “that we just died over,” which they turned into a best-selling piney lemonade.

These days, Steve leads the bartending staff. He works with more than 200 bitters and 30 shrubs to invent new drinks, trains Vena’s staff, and leads classes to train bartenders and home enthusiasts of what they call liquid alchemy with bitters.

Johanna focuses on inventing and producing syrups and other products in her tiny commercial kitchen and developing Vena’s retail operations. Next to the bar, Vena’s sells ingredients for people to make their own drinks at home, including Johanna’s own bitters and dry mixes that don’t break US airport security liquid rules.

They didn’t know if they would make it

It wasn’t always a sure thing that they would survive, but after more than a year into the business, a man walked into their store and changed their lives.

He stopped by in November 2014, asking Steve, “What’s your best non-alcoholic drink in your non-alcoholic bar?”

Steve made him a Lumberjack Love, which has spruce pine syrup, lemon, spiced tonic, Alpine Herb bitters, wormwood bitters, and Owl & Whale’s persimmon bitters.

“After two sips, he’s in love with this drink,” Steve said. “He says, ‘What’s going on in my palate?’ I said, ‘I told you, it’s the bitters.’ I explained the bitters.”

After he left, Johanna and Steve’s phones starting buzzing with text messages.

The man was Food Network star Alton Brown, who was in town doing a show at Merrill Auditorium.

His Twitter followers had recommended that he visit Vena’s. After enjoying his Lumberjack Love, he had tweeted out his love for the shop.

“He put Vena’s Fizz House as one of his top eight tour stops on his national 2014 tour,” said Steve. “Thank you, Alton Brown.”

Adding booze to the mix

Another big decision was adding alcohol to the menu, but the alcohol infusion wasn’t just their idea. It came from their customers, who kept tossing little bottles of liquor in their trash after spiking their drinks.

Steve, who had a rotating list of 40 different mocktail recipes on the menu, knew what to do next.

“The first thing I did was take every mocktail, and I knew, but I wrote down the alcohols that would go great, matched, and what other bitter am I going to add to or take away when I add in alcohol?” said Steve. “All of a sudden, I had already 120 mixed drinks using our non-alcoholic menu.”

The Lumberjack Love became the grownup Lumbersexual, which has gin, pine, lemon, spiced tonic, alpine herb and wormwood bitters.

The Blackheart Mocktail turned into the Blackheart Cocktail with Maker’s Mark bourbon.  It had the same ingredients as its non-boozy cousin with the same proportions — plus bourbon.

Even the child-friendly (but sophisticated) Fluffy Fizz — cherry juice, squeezed lemons, squeezed limes, orange shrub, simple syrup, and seltzer, topped with a good dollop of cotton candy — can get grown up. Vodka turns it into a cocktail, with a few dashes of Vena’s Bitter Charles.

The beverage end of foodie-ism

“We had such a good following for the non-alcoholic drinks that we were afraid once we added alcohol, we would lose those people,” Johanna said.

That didn’t happen. “We’d get all kinds of people, usually it was in groups, where it might be two don’t drink and five do drink,” she said. “They were thrilled.”

As teachers, they like to teach customers about all the ingredients they make and use. “Most people that come in don’t know anything about bitters or all the tonics and syrups,” she said.

“So we want it to be that they’re 100% comfortable, not to be intimidated, and we want them to ask us questions. We want them to be able to make drinks at home.”

That’s why they sell ingredients and freely hand out recipes in person and via their website, including the one below.

Blackheart Mocktail or Cocktail

1.5 ounces blackberry puree

0.5 ounces lime juice

0.5 ounces Vena’s honey creme syrup

2 mint leaves

4 dashes SF Bitters Co. Boonekamp bitters

8-12 dashes Dram Apothecary Black bitters

2 ounces seltzer

1.5 ounces bourbon for the alcohol version

Shake with ice in a Boston Shaker. (Mint will be muddled with ice during this process) . Pour all without straining into a smaller version collins glass.  Add two ounces of seltzer, stir and garnish with a mint leaf and lime wedge.

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Largest East Coast oil refiner goes bankrupt, blames EPA rules

The largest oil refinery along the U.S. East Coast filed for bankruptcy protection on Sunday, blaming its downfall on “broken” environmental rules.

Philadelphia Energy Solutions said it went bankrupt because of “skyrocketing costs” to comply with the EPA’s Renewable Fuel Standard. The rule, aimed at lowering pollution, requires refiners to either blend oil with renewable fuels or buy credits.

The company has received a $260 million lifeline from lenders and investors. Existing shareholders led by private-equity giant Carlyle Group have agreed to inject $65 million into the company. That’s enough to keep its two refineries operational and its 1,100 employees paid.

Philadelphia Energy Solutions plays a vital role in how Americans get their fuel. The company’s Point Breeze and Girard Point refineries turn up to 335,000 barrels of crude oil into gasoline and other fuels, making it the largest East Coast refiner.

But like other independent refineries, the company has been hurt by shrinking margins and regulation.

In a statement on Monday, Philadelphia Energy Solutions said the bankruptcy was caused by “continuing pressure on refining margins and soaring costs” to buy renewable fuel credits to meet the EPA rule.

CEO Greg Gatta said the company will “continue to work with the government to address the broken RFS system that is harming smaller, independent merchant refiners.” Philadelphia Energy Solutions said that last year it spent about $218 million to meet the renewable fuel standard — twice what it spent on payroll.

The EPA did not immediately respond to a request for comment. President George W. Bush signed into law the renewable fuel program in 2005 as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reduce reliance on foreign oil.

Former Trump special adviser Carl Icahn has repeatedly blasted the EPA rules, telling CNN in December 2016 they are “natural stupidity.” In August, Senator Tammy Duckworth urged the FBI in a letter to investigate whether Icahn violated federal anti-corruption laws, claiming Icahn personally benefited from his efforts to change the EPA rules.

Authorities are currently investigating Icahn’s actions related to the renewable fuels standard, according to a filing by Icahn’s firm.

Philadelphia Energy Solutions said it plans to complete its recapitalization in the first quarter of 2018 and to restructure more than $100 million of existing debt. The company said it plans to continue providing employee benefits and pay vendors in full.

The bankruptcy filing lists liabilities of up to $10 billion, including $1 billion apiece owed to railroad giants CSX and BNSF, which is owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway.

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Largest East Coast oil refiner goes bankrupt, blames EPA rules

The largest oil refinery along the U.S. East Coast filed for bankruptcy protection on Sunday, blaming its downfall on “broken” environmental rules.

Philadelphia Energy Solutions said it went bankrupt because of “skyrocketing costs” to comply with the EPA’s Renewable Fuel Standard. The rule, aimed at lowering pollution, requires refiners to either blend oil with renewable fuels or buy credits.

The company has received a $260 million lifeline from lenders and investors. Existing shareholders led by private-equity giant Carlyle Group have agreed to inject $65 million into the company. That’s enough to keep its two refineries operational and its 1,100 employees paid.

Philadelphia Energy Solutions plays a vital role in how Americans get their fuel. The company’s Point Breeze and Girard Point refineries turn up to 335,000 barrels of crude oil into gasoline and other fuels, making it the largest East Coast refiner.

But like other independent refineries, the company has been hurt by shrinking margins and regulation.

In a statement on Monday, Philadelphia Energy Solutions said the bankruptcy was caused by “continuing pressure on refining margins and soaring costs” to buy renewable fuel credits to meet the EPA rule.

CEO Greg Gatta said the company will “continue to work with the government to address the broken RFS system that is harming smaller, independent merchant refiners.” Philadelphia Energy Solutions said that last year it spent about $218 million to meet the renewable fuel standard — twice what it spent on payroll.

The EPA did not immediately respond to a request for comment. President George W. Bush signed into law the renewable fuel program in 2005 as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reduce reliance on foreign oil.

Former Trump special adviser Carl Icahn has repeatedly blasted the EPA rules, telling CNN in December 2016 they are “natural stupidity.” In August, Senator Tammy Duckworth urged the FBI in a letter to investigate whether Icahn violated federal anti-corruption laws, claiming Icahn personally benefited from his efforts to change the EPA rules.

Authorities are currently investigating Icahn’s actions related to the renewable fuels standard, according to a filing by Icahn’s firm.

Philadelphia Energy Solutions said it plans to complete its recapitalization in the first quarter of 2018 and to restructure more than $100 million of existing debt. The company said it plans to continue providing employee benefits and pay vendors in full.

The bankruptcy filing lists liabilities of up to $10 billion, including $1 billion apiece owed to railroad giants CSX and BNSF, which is owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway.

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Team USA’s Olympic uniforms are wearable heaters

Average temperatures in Pyeongchang in February, when the 2018 Winter Olympics open, hover around 23 degrees, and may plunge below that for the opening ceremony. But Team USA will be ready for the cold.

They’ll be decked out in patriotic red, white and blue parkas that feature an innovative, hidden heating component inside their jackets.

Ralph Lauren designed the uniforms and developed an exclusive heating system that’s made out of carbon and silver ink printed on the apparel. The flexible ink conducts heat and is bonded to the inside of the jackets in the shape of an American flag.

The heat is controlled by a slim battery pack and can be adjusted to a high or a low setting. It lasts up to five hours at the highest setting and 11 at the lowest. The buttons on the battery pack are extra large so they can be pushed with gloves.

The best thing about the jackets, given how low the temps can drop in Pyeongchang, may be the fact that the heat comes on immediately.

The heated parkas will be the centerpiece of Team USA’s uniform during the opening ceremony on February 9.

The rest of their outfit will include slim jeans with moto-inspired seams, a red, white and blue wool sweater, a navy wool ski hat, an Americana navy bandana, a leather belt and brown suede gloves with fringe and hand-beading. They’ll also be wearing brown, suede mountain boots with red laces. The jackets went through rigorous testing to make sure they were safe before being worn by Olympians.

During the closing ceremony, athletes on Team USA will swap their parka for a heated bomber jacket.

The entire uniform can be purchased online and in select Ralph Lauren stores.

Ralph Lauren plans to donate $1 to the U.S. Olympic Committee for every social media post that uses the hashtag #HeatTheWayForTeamUSA and gets a like. The social media fundraiser will last from January 22 through January 24.

This will mark the sixth time that Polo Ralph Lauren has designed Team USA’s uniforms for Olympic and Paralympic athletes. It’s had the gig since the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

In 2012, Polo Ralph Lauren faced controversy when it was discovered that the Team USA uniforms for the London games were made in China.

Team USA’s uniforms for the 2016 Rio Olympics and Pyeongchang 2018 were made entirely in the U.S.

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The longer the shutdown the bigger the risk to the economy

The government shutdown could take a bite out of the economy — depending on how long it lasts.

Even if the shutdown drags on, it is likely to have only a limited impact.

The 16-day shutdown in 2013 was the costliest shutdown in the nation’s history — $20 billion, according to an estimate from Moody’s Analytics. Official government figures suggest it reduced gross domestic product, the broadest measure of the nation’s economic activity, by 0.3 percentage points.

If the current shutdown lasts just as long, it’s possible it won’t have as much impact, because the economy today is much stronger than it was in 2013.

“It’s a hit, but it’s digestable hit,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody’s Analytics. “The economy is so strong right now, it’d take a lot to derail it.”

Federal government spending adds more than $1 trillion a year to the U.S. economy. But even if it shuts down, most of that money will eventually be spent.

Most of the nearly 2 million federal workers whose paychecks will be halted have been deemed essential: air traffic controllers and TSA agents at airports, prison guards and FBI agents. Members of the military, who are not counted in the 2 million federal government civilian workers estimate, also remain on the job, though their paychecks could also be halted temporarily. They will all definitely receive backpay if the shutdown drags on to their next payday. Most of those employees who receive direct deposits are due to be paid this coming Friday.

But even the workers sent home — a total of 850,000 during the 2013 shutdown — traditionally get paid for their time off. So do many government contractors whose checks may also be put on hold. Those businesses include janitorial and landscaping services, as well as defense contractors and construction firms working on public works projects.

Many government benefits, such as Social Security checks and food stamps, will continue to be issued without interruption. Otherwise, that could significantly disrupt the economy. Tax refunds could conceivably be delayed, although it would take a longer shutdown to affect those. That’s because with the changes in the tax system due to last year’s tax reform bill, the IRS has already said people shouldn’t file their 2017 returns until Jan. 29.

Any damage to the economy is more likely to come from federal employees and contractors spending less during the shutdown. The money they would have spent at restaurants, shops and other companies is economic activity that won’t be recouped. If tourists cancel plans for travel to national parks during the shutdown, the hotels and other businesses that depend on those tourist dollars will also be hurt. Although many national parks remain open, they are generally not staffed.

“The dollars and cents of federal spending matter, but [the problem] was really the impact on confidence due to the uncertainty,” said Zandi.

But the strength of the current economy, with both consumer confidence and business confidence near record high, should protect against a spending pullback.

“Sentiment now is as strong as it gets,” he said.

That confidence is one of the things that has been driving the stock market to new records. A major correction could reduce household wealth and have an impact on the economy. But history suggests that investors shrug off government shutdowns as temporary events.

The S&P 500 was essentially unchanged during the longest shutdown on record, the 21-day shutdown in late 1995 and early 1996. Stocks rose during the 16-day shutdown of 2013.

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NAFTA close to falling apart with time running out

President Donald Trump could soon kill a major trade deal with Mexico and Canada if huge compromises aren’t made this week.

Round 6 of the renegotiation of NAFTA, the pact between Mexico, Canada and the U.S., starts Tuesday in Montreal, Canada.

No major progress has been made on key issues through the first five rounds. Only one more round after this week is scheduled, and Trump continues to repeat his threat that if he doesn’t get the deal he wants, he’ll withdraw.

“It’s going to be the decisive round,” says Scott Sinclair, senior fellow at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

Trump made NAFTA a core campaign issue. He argues that Mexico is taking jobs and billions of dollars in commerce away from the United States. He also believes a new deal will help the U.S. finance payment for the border wall.

About 14 million U.S. jobs depend on trade with Canada and Mexico, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a business advocacy group.

Negotiators face a number of challenges this week.

Time is running out

Mexican presidential campaigns kick off in March and the election is in July. Mexican leaders have long warned that they can’t ratify a new agreement in Mexico during election season.

President Enrique Peña Nieto can’t run due to term limits, and his party’s opponent, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, known as AMLO, is leading by a wide margin in the polls. AMLO has promised to get tough on trade with Trump and completely restart NAFTA talks. If elected, he would take office in December.

On top of that, U.S. midterm elections take place this fall. It’ll be hard to ratify a new deal in the United States as that vote draws near.

“There are Mexican politics just as there are American politics. So far on trade, the Trump administration doesn’t seem to be playing either well,” says Phil Levy, senior fellow at the Chicago Business Council on Global Affairs.

Economists long warned that the Trump administration’s timeline was unrealistic to get a new deal done. On top of elections, there are several bureaucratic steps the Trump administration and Congress must take before ratifying NAFTA, according to U.S. trade laws.

Many experts say the most likely scenario is that NAFTA talks get kicked way down the road to 2019. But among the other two alternatives — striking a deal or killing it — there’s no doubt what has better odds.

“It’s far more likely that the president decides to blow it up than you get a conclusion,” adds Levy. “I think it’s extremely unlikely you get a positive outcome out of” Round 6.

Top of Trump’s ‘extreme proposals’: Manufacturing cars

The number-one issue on the negotiating table involves how and where cars are manufactured in North America.

Under the current NAFTA, 62 percent of the parts in a car sold in North America must come from the region. It doesn’t matter if the parts come from Canada, Mexico or the United States. They just need to be sourced from within the continent.

Trump’s trade team wants to raise that threshold up to 85 percent. The caveat: Trump’s negotiators are proposing that half of auto parts sourced from North America come specifically from the United States. The rest would go to Mexico and Canada.

In other words, the Trump administration is asking for half of the pie, while Canada and Mexico would presumably each get a quarter.

Mexican Economy Secretary Ildefonso Guajardo said last April that a U.S.-specific rule would be unacceptable.

In November, Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland referred to this as one of Trump’s “extreme proposals” that “we simply cannot agree to.”

Cars are such a big deal because the number of vehicles and auto parts that come into the United States from Mexico make up the vast majority of the U.S. trade deficit with Mexico. And Trump’s top priority for a new deal is one that hacks away at the deficit.

The other ‘poison pills’ on the table

Tom Donohue, CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said in October that the Trump administration has “several poison pill proposals” for NAFTA. One of them is the so-called sunset clause.

Under that proposal, NAFTA would terminate every five years unless all three countries agreed to sign on for another five years. Mexico and Canada say this is another deal breaker.

Some outside experts argue that the sunset clause proposed by the Trump administration would cause too much uncertainty for businesses trying to invest long-term in Mexico or Canada.

Guajardo, Mexico’s top negotiator, has said he will propose an alternative of reviewing the economic impact of NAFTA every five years, but he can’t agree to an automatic termination.

Whether negotiators make those types of compromises this week is exactly what needs to happen for NAFTA to survive, experts say.

“The thing to watch for is — is there any sign that they’re moving towards negotiable positions?” says Levy. Or more bluntly, “Are they even on the same page?”

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