THUNDER BAY, ONT. – It was 2016 when five university graduates found themselves experimenting with tapping maple trees “for fun.”
Within a few years, and 1,700 sap-producing maple trees, the young company acquired Canadian Food Inspection Agency licensing to produce 100 per cent pure maple syrup, and the Northwestern Maple Company was born.
“And here we are,” said co-founder Sean Murray.
“We have a local operation in Thunder Bay that taps sugar and red maple trees every spring, which is still really kind of fun.”
As Murray and his co-founders Dave Bates, Aaron Keffer, Abe Zettek and Cale Leeson continued to grow the company, they established a retail store called Sugar Shack, in the Goods and Co. market. It became challenging to keep up with the demand for their Northern Ontario-made syrup.
“We just can’t make enough syrup locally here in Thunder Bay because sugar maples aren’t as common as they are in southern and other parts of northeastern Ontario,” Murray said. “So we came up with a collective of producers.”
Murray described how they learned on their own how to produce maple syrup but gratefully accepted help from northeastern counterparts. He credits Brian Bainborough of Mapleridge Farm on Manitoulin Island and Calvin Gilbertson of Gilbertson Enterprises on St. Joseph’s Island near Sault Ste. Marie with forming a collective and mentoring them in maple syrup production. Tapping out the available maple trees in the Nor’wester maple belt, the collective became essential as the three companies provided each other with maple sap depending on which area trees were most productive in the season.
“Between the three of us, we’re able to make sure that we have enough supply to meet our customer’s demands,” Murray said.
“We’ve had a few years where we’ve been stuck with not having enough product and then we were really challenged to grow outside of our Thunder Bay, Northwestern Ontario market. So this partnership, and it’s all Northern Ontario-made syrup, kind of gives us a little bit of a cushion.”
The collaboration calls itself Canada West Maple Products.
In January, Murray and his team received a call from Canadian media personality Jillian Harris, known for her appearances on Bachelor, and Bachelorette, which would be a game changer for the syrup producers. Harris invited them to include their syrup in her 2022 Fall Jilly Box, a quarterly subscription box of Canadian brands assembled by HGTV and promoted on her home improvement shows and websites.
It was simple. All they had to do was produce and label 20,000 jars of their syrup.
“We thought, ‘wow, this is amazing. Let’s go for it. Yeah, we can supply 20,000 bottles with some of our syrup, some of Brian’s from Manitoulin Island and some of Cal Gilbertson’s,”’ Murray said, adding “now we have to get 20,000 bottles and 60,000 labels because there’s three (labels) on each one.”
Murray explained they ordered their “specifically shaped” bottles from a company in Kyiv, Ukraine, because it was the shape of the bottle that “won Jillian’s eye and couldn’t be changed.
Due to the time constraints to meet Harris’s deadline for the 2022 fall distribution of her Jilly boxes, it was all hands on deck for an army of about 20 people to help fill, label and ship the syrup to B.C.
“We got all of these labelled and put it all on pallets that weighed about 32,000 pounds worth of finished product and we shipped it off to B.C. while keeping the whole thing secret,” he said. “We had a full official non-disclosure that was covering everything and we had to swear all of our helpers to secrecy and keep the secret from January right through until the launch on Sept. 7.”
The Jilly Box team “loved” their product and their story, and featured Canada West Maple Company as one of the main makers online and in their magazine, which is included with each box.
“We got lots of spin-offs, marketing exposure, some extra sales, and our product in lots of other stores outside of our district,” Murray said. “We’re now in stores in B.C., Alberta, in southern Ontario, and there’s lots more that we hope to kind of be bringing on, and it’s just from this box.”
By Sandi Krasowski, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, THE CHRONICLE-JOURNAL