From Maine to State Col­lege: Shop has be­come a go-to place for spe­cialty prod­ucts

Centre Daily Times (Sunday) - - Good Life In Happy Valley - BY HOLLY RID­DLE

Maine Bay & Berry joined the State Col­lege culi­nary scene rel­a­tively re­cently, in late 2017, but founder Shaun Knight has al­ready made his mark on the com­mu­nity.

“We have been work­ing very hard at grow­ing our cus­tomer base, pro­vid­ing out­stand­ing cus­tomer serv- ice and de­vel­op­ing our brand recog­ni­tion,” Knight said.

It’s not just the Cen­tre County com­mu­nity that’s im­pacted by the growth of the com­pany, which op­er­ates at 201 El­mood St., State Col­lege. A host of fam­ily-owned, lo­cal ven­dors and pro­duc­ers all through­out Maine have part­nered up with Knight and his brand to bring unique Maine-spe­cific prod­ucts to the re­gion. Choos­ing these ven­dors, how­ever, is no easy task.

“Ven­dor choice is very im­por­tant on sev­eral fronts,” Knight said. “The sin­gle most im­por­tant fac­tor for us is that we can see the pas­sion and hard work each of our ven­dors puts into their prod­ucts.”

That pas­sion and hard work can’t be missed, par­tic­u­larly when you start talk­ing to the ven­dors them­selves. It’s ap­par­ent that Knight has tapped into a culi­nary com­mu­nity made up of fam­ily busi­nesses reap­ing the re­wards of Maine’s plen­ti­ful har­vests, from bay to berries.

THE RAVEN’S NEST

One such ven­dor is Rox­anne Quimby, and if you don’t rec­og­nize her name, you’ll rec­og­nize the name of her most no­table brand — Burt’s Bees. How­ever, her con­tri­bu­tion to the Maine Bay & Berry se­lec­tion is far from bees. In- stead, she of­fers a line of Ital­ian-in­spired items just like what you’d find at the Maine farm­ers mar­kets she fre­quents.

“The most pro­duc­tive el­e­ment of the farm is our chick­ens. We sell fresh eggs, but we also take those eggs and make fresh pasta,” she said. The dried pasta, made from the same recipe Quimby uses for her fresh, re­frig­er­ated pasta, but shelf-stable, can be found through­out Maine, at health food stores, olive oil shops and sim­i­lar out­lets and, now, at Maine Bay & Berry.

The Raven’s Nest prod­uct line of pas­tas and re­lated items is small and Quimby says she plans to keep it that way. She grew the brand from the ground up, af­ter search­ing for ways to use up the over­abun­dance of eggs the farm was pro­duc­ing and now op­er­ates out of a com­mer­cial kitchen with just a few lo­cal em­ploy­ees.

TODD’S SALSA

The Raven’s Nest pasta isn’t the only item you’ll find on Maine Bay and

Berry shelves that was borne out of a sur­plus of in­gre­di­ents. Todd Sim­cox of Todd’s Salsa tells a sim­i­lar story, the Maine weath­er­man stum­bling into the salsa world fol­low­ing a boun­ti­ful har­vest of toma­toes.

Af­ter a few un­suc­cess­ful at­tempts at stewed toma­toes and spaghetti sauce, Sim­cox said, “We (tried) salsa, com­pletely on a whim. ... We kept tweak­ing un­til we fi­nally got it the way we wanted and ev­ery­one loved it. ... We had so much of it, we gave it to friends.”

When friends of friends be­gan re­quest­ing jars of the finely-chopped, thick, gar­lic-rich salsa, Sim­cox pur­sued his home pro­cess­ing li­censes. Af­ter dis­play­ing at a Bangor food show, sales ex­ploded, he said.

“From there we just kept ex­pand­ing into stores and ex­pand­ing the brand. Now we’re in around 100 stores,” Sim­cox said. Todd’s Salsa has gone on to win awards with unique fla­vors and va­ri­eties like pineap­ple and ghost pep­per.

He met Knight through an­other lo­cal pro­ducer, the own­ers of a cran­berry farm.

“Be­ing up here in the cor­ner of the coun­try ... there are a lot of good food pro­duc­ers here in the state that you don’t re­ally think about. You might not think of Maine as pro­duc­ing salsa or some of the other prod­ucts (Knight) car­ries. For him to be show­cas­ing (Maine prod­ucts), it’s a fan­tas­tic idea. For us, it’s done well.”

EU­REKA FARMS

It’s this word of mouth that’s con­nected sev­eral ven­dors to the Maine Bay & Berry brand. Eu­reka Farms owner Hol­lis Ed­wards notes that he might not have known about Knight’s ven­ture had he not heard the rav­ings of one of his neigh­bors, Denise Murchi­son, owner of Sil­ver­ton Foods.

Ed­wards pro­duces maple syrup and honey on his 250-plus-acre farm, which he owns with his son, Seth. For him, the busi­ness is a fam­ily mat­ter, and one that’s been an ob­ses­sion since a young age.

“My dad showed me how to make maple syrup when I was 10 years old,” Ed­wards said. “It was like a dis­ease, it got in my blood. I’ve done it on some scale all my life. ... This (busi­ness) was some­thing I al­ways dreamed about when I re­tired.”

He just so hap­pens to sell honey to Murchi­son for use in Sil­ver­ton Foods prod­ucts, who rec­om­mended he send Knight some sam­ples for con­sid­er­a­tion.

As for Murchi­son, she sup­plies Maine Bay & Berry with gluten-free, mul­ti­pur­pose sauces and says work­ing with the State Col­lege com­pany has been a very suc­cess­ful ex­pe­ri­ence.

“It re­ally helps to have a re­tailer that is be­hind your prod­ucts and takes the time to in­tro­duce cus­tomers to them and they’ve been re­ally re­ally good about that,” she said. “They’re be­hind the prod­uct 100 per­cent.”

BEN­E­FIT­ING ‘MAINERS’ AND THOSE IN CEN­TRE COUNTY

For Knight, though, it’s all in a day’s work.

“The most im­por­tant rea­son for these part­ner­ships is that it gives an en­hanced op­por­tu­nity for the busi­nesses in Maine to grow through us buy­ing and sell­ing their prod­ucts,” he said. “Our busi­ness doesn’t (and will never) over­ride that ba­sic foun­da­tional fo­cus of peo­ple com­ing first. Geo­graph­i­cal sepa­ra­tion doesn’t give us an ex­cuse to not care about our part­ner­ships, it gives us the rea­son to work even harder to make them mean­ing­ful, hon­est and re­ward­ing.”

As the part­ner­ships ben­e­fit “Mainers,” they also ben­e­fit those in the Cen­tre Re­gion, with unique, high­qual­ity prod­ucts that you’re just not go­ing to find any­where else.

Take, for ex­am­ple, Zen Bear Honey Tea, cre­ated by Frank and Lisa Feral. The sim­ple yet in­ge­nious mix­ture of honey, tea and herbs can be mixed by the tea­spoon­ful into a mug of hot wa­ter, re­sult­ing in a good­for-you cup of herbal tea, rang­ing from En­light­enMint Honey Tea to Qi Chai.

Af­ter pur­chas­ing the idea of a jarred tea base from their nephew, Frank and Lisa threw their ef­forts into re­fin­ing the prod­uct and cre­at­ing the Zen Bear Honey Tea brand. At their first food show, where they de­buted the prod­uct to the pub­lic, they sold just un­der 1,500 jars in three days. Rec­og­niz­ing its suc­cess, they took the prod­uct to re­tail stores.

Now, they’re work­ing on new prod­uct ideas, pack­ag­ing and mar­ket­ing, to ex­pand the brand into the hos­pi­tal­ity, health and fit­ness in­dus­tries.

SHOW­CAS­ING THE MAINE BLUE­BERRY

Of course, there’s no in­gre­di­ent quite so in­deli­bly linked to Maine culi­nary cul­ture as the hum­ble blue­berry. Dell and Marie Emer­son, own­ers of Wesco­gus Blue­berry Farm, are quick to point out the stark dif­fer­ence be­tween Maine wild blue­ber­ries and what you’ll find in your av­er­age su­per­mar­ket. It’s dif­fi­cult to doubt them, too. The cou­ple has ex­ten­sive knowl­edge on the sub­ject be­tween them, work­ing the farm for decades, with Dell ad­di­tion­ally serv­ing 53 years at the Univer­sity of Maine, work­ing at the only wild blue­berry re­search sta­tion in the United States and con­tribut­ing sig­nif­i­cantly to the coun­try’s blue­berry re­search and breed­ing ef­forts. Ad­di­tion­ally, they own the world’s largest blue­berry, which came about as an ef­fort to keep their busi­ness in line, but turned into an iconic Maine land­mark.

“We started years ago sell­ing wild blue­ber­ries here at the farm,” Marie said. “One year, I think it was 1999, some­body took our five-pound boxes and went up to the cor­ner and set up a ta­ble and started sell­ing blue­ber­ries there. I said to Dell, ‘Jeep­ers, that’s not go­ing to work.’ ”

So, Marie de­cided the cou­ple would buy the cor­ner lot and build a giant blue­berry to house a fruit stand. While Dell had a some­what small stand in mind, about 20 foot in di­am­e­ter, the re­sult­ing struc­ture was 50 foot in di­am­e­ter.

“It was so fun to build!” Marie said, laugh­ing. “It’s been there ever since. It’s be­come an icon. I can go by there in the dead of win­ter and peo­ple are tak­ing pic­tures of it.”

It’s the blue­ber­ries them­selves, though, that the cou­ple claim are most spe­cial of all. “They grow here nat­u­rally. They’ve never been planted,” Marie said. “It’s a rare thing and it’s very spe­cial. They’re very bio­di­verse, there are mil­lions of clones. Each berry tastes a lit­tle dif­fer­ent.”

Maybe that’s why the Maine wild blue­berry pies Maine Bay & Berry car­ries from Two Fat Cats Bak­ery sell so well. The bak­ery, which was es­tab­lished in 2005, is an old-fash­ioned, Amer­i­can bak­ery spe­cial­iz­ing in pies, cel­e­bra­tion cakes and other sweet treats. The pies, though, said owner Stacy Be­gin, are the dis­tin­guish­ing prod­uct.

“Whether you’re a lo­cal or a tourist or what­ever, ev­ery­body loves that pie. That’s our num­ber one seller,” she said.

She be­gan sell­ing her pies through Maine Bay & Berry on a some­what trial ba­sis, un­til she saw how the re­la­tion­ship would work.

“(Knight and his co­founder Christa Stof­fer­ahn) are re­ally com­mit­ted to bring­ing Maine prod­ucts in their best forms to their store. ... When we started out, we started out on a trial ba­sis. No one was re­ally sure how well it would do. ... I think we were both sur­prised at how well his cus­tomers re­sponded to our pies there.”

MAINE SEA SALT

It’s not just berries that Knight of­fers Cen­tre County food­ies, but also the bay, and be­yond seafood that in­cludes fresh Maine sea salt, which goes from ocean to ta­ble in three weeks.

Steve Cook, owner of Maine Sea Salt, has been pro­duc­ing the prod­uct for 20 years and said that Knight “just showed up at his door one day” and the two struck up a re­la­tion­ship. “He’s help­ing the state of Maine, re­ally,” Cook notes.

If you think that salt is salt is salt, think again. Cook points out there are a mul­ti­tude of ways to make the sim­ple yet cru­cial in­gre­di­ent and the method his brand uses re­sults in a very unique fla­vor.

“Our salt is evap­o­rated in green houses in shal­low pools. ... It takes about three weeks from be­ing in the ocean to go­ing on the ta­ble. Be­cause of that process, our salt does have a unique struc­ture, it has that fla­vor, it has a sweet­ness; I’ve had chefs tell me that it’s just like a swal­low of the ocean. And that’s why peo­ple keep com­ing back, be­cause of that fla­vor.”

As Maine Bay & Berry brings all the ven­dors and sto­ries above from the wilds of Maine to Cen­tre County ta­bles, Knight prom­ises there’s only more to come.

“We are go­ing through a sub­stan­tial ex­pan­sion into the en­tire build­ing that should be com­pleted in the next few weeks,” he said. “We are ex­pand­ing our fresh and frozen prod­uct lines to pro­vide a more di­verse and ex­otic of­fer­ing to our foodie pop­u­la­tion here in the Cen­tre Re­gion. The most noted busi­ness evo­lu­tion that will oc­cur over the com­ing months is that Maine Bay and Berry will be­come more of a des­ti­na­tion ex­pe­ri­ence rather than just an in and out re­tail stop.”

LYNN KARLIN StateCol­lege

Rox­anne Quimby sells The Raven’s Nest prod­ucts at Maine Bay & Berry in State Col­lege.

ABBY DREY [email protected]­tredaily.com

Ar­ti­san prod­ucts cover a wall at Maine Bay & Berry in The Barn at Le­mont.

AL­LAN DET­RICH Photo pro­vided

Award-win­ning Todd’s Salsa is sold at Maine Bay & Berry in State Col­lege.

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