The advent of Maine Bay & Berry seems almost too good to be true — both for co-founders Shaun Knight and Christa Stofferahn and the seafood lovers of Centre County.
When the two founded the seafood market in the latter part of last year, all the right ingredients for a winning business plan were in place. Both have business backgrounds, such as Knight’s 15 years at Penn State, including 8 years as an instructor at the Penn State Smeal College of Business; they had the right connections in Knight’s home state of Maine; and there was already a growing demand for their product.
During trips to see family in Maine, Knight said that he would send out an email to a Listserv with about 130 people, offering to bring back seafood and blueberries.
“As I was doing that, we found that every time I brought back seafood, the orders were getting bigger and bigger and bigger," he said. "We were bringing thousands of dollars of seafood back every time I would do it. It really got us thinking. ... We have a very decent population here that may be interested in seafood and there’s no real seafood market in town in State College. There are certainly grocery stores that sell seafood, but there’s no niche fresh seafood that’s brought back twice a week, that’s never processed, all fresh.”
In August, the two started with a small seafood and produce stand on Shiloh Road before moving to their current location at The Barn at Lemont. But while all the right pieces were in place to start the burgeoning business, delivering fresh seafood to State College is still no easy task.
“Every other week, I’m driving to Maine, personally picking (seafood) up off the docks or picking (other products) up in different locations and bringing it back," Knight said. "The Maine trip is about twice a month. We also supplement that with trips to Baltimore, and pick up fresh seafood down there twice a week. We have seafood that is in our store that is fresh every day of the week."
Though the two started with an array of items they were sure would be best-sellers based on their Listserv experience — lobsters, scallops, blueberries — they quickly expanded their offerings to include other items from small businesses in Maine, from sauces and jams to olive oils and balsamics. Continually bringing in new products, including those recommended by his patrons, is important to Knight.
“(Our) goals for the upcoming year are to maintain quality and service for our customers, ensure that our seafood offerings are the best you can get in this area and continually bring in new products that aren’t available,” he said, mentioning some sea urchins which recently made an appearance on the menu.
Shopping with Maine Bay & Berry is more of an experience than a transaction, then, because of that dedication to maintaining the high quality of customer service. Knight likens it to an old-fashioned butcher shop.
“You know the people, you know the families, you know what’s going on in their lives. We spend an extraordinary amount of dedicated time with each individual customer coming in, so we can get to know them and establish that personal relationship,” he said.
One of the many benefits this provides to shoppers is a better understanding of the product and how to best use it, as Knight is full of tips from constantly using the products he sells in his own kitchen.
“When we cook, we utilize everything we sell in our store ... so we tend to use a lot of olive oil, some fresh Maine sea salt, fresh cracked pepper and then maybe a splash of lemon and fresh garlic — something really easy that works really, really well for all our fish,” he said.
His No. 1 rule? Don’t over-spice.
“What you’re getting is a very high-quality, great-tasting fish and I don’t want you to cover up the great freshness by adding too much spice," he said.
This attention to the customer experience at and after shopping with Maine Bay & Berry works, inspiring a revolving door of repeat customers, which allows the brand to keep its pricing affordable, something that may be surprising to some consumers.
“We want people to understand that 'local' doesn’t mean expensive," Knight said. "Local can be high-quality and affordable. ... (We offer) very high quality seafood, but we’re not going to charge you too much. We’d rather you keep coming back more and more because you’re getting a fair value on your money, but you’re getting an outstanding product. ... We won’t compromise on that — it has to be high quality all the time, at a very fair price.”
To try Maine Bay & Berry for yourself, head to The Barn at Lemont, 201 Elmwood St., State College. It's open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday and 1-5 p.m. Sunday. Starting in June, you'll also be able to find the company at the original produce stand on Shiloh Road and the new Pine Grove Mills Farmers Market.
For more information, visit www.mainebayandberry.com.
Holly Riddle is a freelance food, travel and lifestyle writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.