MAIZ, a popular Colombian street food restaurant in Portland, recently opened a location on Pleasant Street in Brunswick. The space is the owners’ third culinary venture, the first of which was a food truck called La Fritanga which serves a similar set of dishes to both of their restaurants.
The business is owned by couple Martha Leonard and Niky Walters. Leonard emphasized authenticity as one of the initial goals of the business. The couple aims to honor the heritage of South American cuisine, specifically Colombian fare.
“My husband is from Cartagena, Colombia … we were living over there, we left and came to Maine with the intention of starting kind of a fast casual space that could celebrate street food from his hometown,” Leonard said.
MAIZ fills a regional niche previously absent from Brunswick as one of few Latin American restaurants—and the first Colombian restaurant—in town. Leonard wants the business to serve as a cultural center for the community.
“Not only are we selling food, but we also are looking to have dance nights, events [and cooking classes], ” Leonard said.
MAIZ is a bilingual operation, with nearly all employees proficient in both Spanish and English. Leonard said that this ensures that staff can accommodate customers that speak either language. She also emphasized the uniquely gratifying interactions that come from the kitchen’s cultural diversity.
“We’ve got some people who, up until now, have always spoken Spanish and always worked in Spanish speaking environments, and then we have some [staff] who are learning Spanish,” Leonard said.
Ella Martin ’24 worked at MAIZ as a bartender this summer and says this emphasis on providing accommodating work opportunities was noticeable.
“Most of the employees are either first-gen[eration] students on a student visa … A huge focus for the owners was to provide jobs for first generation students, Latin Americans and Central Americans in general,” Martin said.
The MAIZ menu consists mainly of arepas—grilled dough pockets made from ground corn—stuffed with meats, cheeses, veggies and other additions. The restaurant also serves pasabocas, or snacks, such as miniature arepas, empanadas, chorizo skewers and yuca.
Leonard said the corn grinding process is very central to MAIZ’s menu. The restaurant aims to grind 100 percent of their own corn in the future. Many of the techniques and processes used to make the food honor the roots of the region the dishes originated from.
“From beginning to end, [the staff] grind the corn and make the arepas completely from scratch … they make empanadas from scratch as well. You can just tell that even though it is technically fast food, there’s a lot of care put into it, and that it’s all homemade,” Martin said.
Ugne Stasiukynaite ’24 recently visited the restaurant for a birthday party and says she enjoyed her experience.
“I really like the bright lights and everything. It was a big space, so it facilitated talking, and the food was really good as well. So it was really fun,” Stasiukynaite said.
The restaurant has been a success so far, but Leonard and Walter have many plans for the future of MAIZ.
“Right now, we’re really putting our focus in the Brunswick location. We want to really push our cultural activities. We are also working hard to [open] a mini market in the front of the shop,” Leonard said.
Leonard says the mini-market will feature arepas, empanadas, pan de bono and other MAIZ dishes, as well as other treats from Colombia and other surrounding countries. It will also aim to have a space that highlights local Latinx artisans and artists.