Local maple syrup company showcases our northern edge in a partnership with Canadian celebrity Jillian Harris

Elisa Nguyen
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

After an unexpected partnership with a Canadian celebrity, a locally owned maple syrup company had 18 days to produce 20,000 bottles of syrup—they normally only made a few hundred bottles a week. Since then, the business has rapidly grown in popularity and demonstrated the effectiveness of small northern Ontario businesses.

When The Nor’wester Maple Company said yes to a partnership with Canadian television star Jillian Harris, best known for her appearances in The Bachelor and Love It or List It Vancouver, they also said yes to the largest project that their team had ever encountered.

Based in Thunder Bay, the maple company produces 100 per cent pure maple syrup packaged neatly in a rounded glass bottle, often a few hundred bottles a week up until their recent growth, said co-founder Sean Murray, whose interest in making maple syrup began in Fort Frances where he grew up along with his longtime friend and co-founder Aaron Keffer.

Murray’s wife had sent a bottle to Harris’s team, without him knowing, as a token of thanks to accompany her gallery-grade art prints from a business that she runs.

Shortly after, Murray received a call from Harris’s agent saying that the Canadian branding and product was exactly what they were looking for. A deal was signed in January this year for the maple company to produce 20,000 bottles that would be included in the 2022 Fall Jilly Box, a quarterly subscription box of products from Canadian brands assembled by HGTV that would be promoted on Harris’s home improvement shows and websites.

“It was a huge undertaking,” Murray said.

The circumstances required all hands on deck in order to meet the requirement in 18 days, a time span caused by shipping delays of glass bottles manufactured in Ukraine at the time of Russian occupation. Ordering glass bottles from Asian producers was not an option because it would’ve taken six to eight months to ship. “And by that point, we didn’t have that time,” Murray said.

He negotiated with exporters from Italy to fast track the bottles to Montreal and then to Thunder Bay. “So by the time it got here, we had 18 days to fill it, label it, and get it in Jillian’s hands before they had to start packing them and getting them into their [Fall Jilly] boxes for their launch.”

The process included applying 60,000 labels by hand with three labels per bottle, boxing, wrapping, and palletizing the bottles which were then sent to a warehouse in Vernon, British Columbia. “The whole order filled an entire transport truck.”

The whole affair was kept private to honor the big reveal of the Jilly Box. Murray said it wasn’t until around September 6 when he was able to say something, so to recruit extra help they relied on trusted family, friends, and a community group they had worked with in a sugar bush.

Murray said that the experience was “extremely stressful” and “a true community and family effort.”

“Thunder Bay’s got this really strong local food, local product, kind of atmosphere, but it’s very hard to crack outside of the northwestern Ontario market,” he said. “And so this Jillian Harris experience was great. I mean, she’s got a huge following, and now we have our product in all kinds of retail stores in BC, we have some in Manitoba, and we’re just racing here to put a huge order together for a company in Alberta.”

“That’s where some of that’s where the real value of this project can come in. It put our syrup in 20,000 people’s hands all across North America. And it’s kind of neat that a Thunder Bay Company, which is not known for its maple syrup production, was the bottle of maple syrup that Jillian Harris decided would represent Canadian maple syrup.”

“I have a lot of optimism for the future of our company. Some days, you know, it’s a lot of work. It’s a lot of rapid growth. And so, it would be great if we had labeling and bottling machinery to mechanize some of this, but it takes a little bit of time and it takes a little bit of capital after selling to some of these new clients to ramp that up.”

“We’re doing really well. I’m happy to say that this past week, we were able to have our first like full time employee so it’s not just me and Aaron working every night and every day,” Murray said. “We’re really happy. I think there’s a lot of opportunity to grow, and challenges for sure. The bigger you are, the bigger the risks. But there’s a lot of good things ahead so we just got to keep on doing stuff.”

The Nor’wester Maple Company was founded in 2016 by five university friends— Sean Murray, Aaron Keffer, Dave Bates, Abe Zettek and Cale Leeson—who started tapping maple trees “for fun.” Later on, Murray and Keffer created a sister company called Canada West Maple Products which uses the syrup from Nor’wester Maple Company in addition to other northern Ontario producers “to help meet the demand that we have.”

“There just aren’t enough maples where we live to produce the amount of syrup that is being asked from us. So we formed a network of extremely high quality producers,” Murray said.

Mentors from Manitoulin Island and Sault Ste. Marie taught the team how to make maple syrup on a commercial level, however, the original interest in tapping maple trees began in Fort Frances where Murray and Keffer both grew up. “​​We were friends in high school. We went to Fort Frances High and grew up hunting and fishing.”

“Aaron’s dad has tapped maple trees in Fort Frances for years and years and years. He used to set up buckets in their yard on Sunset Drive, and they tapped all the trees in their yard.

“There’s not a lot of people in Fort that made syrup, so they brought that little experience to town. Aaron’s parents always had people coming over to see what it’s all about. They’re always great at sharing that little experience. So there’s all kinds of other people in Fort now that tap trees in the spring and I think a lot of that comes from just seeing the Keffer family doing it in their yard.”

Murray’s first business attempt at making maple syrup started about 25 minutes south of Thunder Bay with 24 trees and big, white Canadian Tire pails. He laughed at the memory. “We whittled the maple taps out of some sticks, it was pretty rough. And I went to Value Village and bought all these little old canning pots. So we had like seven or these old, speckled black canning pots. And we put them in a big, long line on a big open fire.”

The first batch came out “jet black and smoky,” Murray said. “But it was really, really fun. So we just continued to grow and to grow.”

Today, the maple company produces syrup that is thicker and richer than other parts of the country where it isn’t as tough for trees to grow, said Murray. They say the deep caramelization of their syrup showcases a northern edge like nowhere else.

From selling syrup at farmers markets, to undertaking a huge project they’ve never encountered before, to expanding their team and working toward new machinery to streamline their processes, a lot has been happening for The Nor’wester Maple Company.

In Fort Frances, their syrup can be found at Lowey’s Greenhouse, The Great Bear gas station, or online.