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 service 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. Instead, 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.
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.”
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, multi-purpose 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, high-quality 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 good-for-you cup of herbal tea, ranging from Enlighten-Mint 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 co-founder 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.”