‘I’ve got 130 years of branding here’: Everything’s coming up sunflowers for this Maritimer

Forfar Dairy storefront
The exterior of Forfar Dairy and new location of Sunflower Bake Shop in Portland, ON.

Surrounded by dilapidated equipment and on the cusp of a global pandemic, Matthew McShane was still in the mood for a kitchen party jam when he went into the food services business three years ago.

In fact, as a self-described Maritimer through and through, McShane was determined to bring the warmth and hospitality of his Nova Scotian upbringing as the proud new owner of Forfar Dairy and the Sunflower Bake Shop.

McShane moved to Perth and bought the bake shop in 2019. There were challenges from the get-go.

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“I didn’t realize this at the time, everything looked like it was in good condition until I got in there, then I could really see the equipment was so old. The average piece of equipment was 30-plus years old and there was nothing new, everything was literally on the brink of falling apart and is still falling apart,” says McShane with a shrug.

For three years he struggled to pay rent while working around failing equipment. He considered investing in new appliances, but it was going to cost upward of $30,000 at a time when his new business was in the grips of the pandemic.

A natural collaborator with strong community values, McShane got involved with the Perth Business Improvement Area and served on the board of the Stewart Park Festival.

“I love being in Perth, so I started to look for other facilities or another building,” says McShane, who could find nothing suitable in the town.

Then he discovered Forfar Dairy in Portland was for sale and already had a retail space and café. Recognizing a complementary business, McShane decided to move the Sunflower Bake Shop and combine the two businesses. Best of all, Forfar, at almost 6,000 square feet, was three times the size of the bake shop.

Mavis is a massive stand mixer
Mavis the 900 lb mixer needed a tow truck and fork lift to move from Perth to Portland.

“It allows me to do everything I want and already has three-phase power. So it was perfect and it’s a hub and destination,” he enthuses.

The move was arduous and took nearly four months to accomplish. One piece alone took upwards of a day to move.

“We have a big mixer, Mavis, that weighs 900 pounds that needed a tow truck to move. When we got to Forfar, the neighbours, Baker’s Feed Store, brought over their forklift to move Mavis. They’re the best neighbours,” laughs McShane.

“So now I have two iconic brands,” he adds, with the pent-up energy and delight of a child with a new toy. “Sunflower Bake Shop that’s been around for 30 years, famous for their carrot cake, and Forfar Dairy, famous for their cheese curds and their reputation of 100 years. So I’ve got 130 years of branding here.”

McShane says he wants to “expand the businesses on all sides.” This winter he intends to start manufacturing and bottling his own BBQ sauce, Blaze ‘n’ Glaze.

“It’s my own recipe. I wrote the main recipe when I was teenager. I made a few small batches at the Sunflower Bake Shop in Perth and we sold out in five minutes. Really, it was, ‘Here’s a sample and here’s your bottle,’” he chuckles. 

Once he gets the bottling operation running, he figures he’ll be able to offer co-packing for other producers in the area. Less than a year in the new facility and he’s already expanded the seating area and increased his bakery’s output by collaborating with 23 & Co., another cookie-making business.

Bakers smiling at the Sunflower Bakery
Ronda Smith (a volunteer who started at Sunflower Bakery in Perth and continues to the Forfar location in Portland), Cheryl Graham who remains a good friend, Matthew McShane, and Tony Belleperche, Sunflower Bake Shop baker who would have loved to continue at the new location but had no transportation.

“All of the ovens and equipment Matt had in Perth were gas and he was not retrofitting the building here in Forfar for gas and I had an electric convection oven. He needed an oven, I needed space, so Matt and I became very good friends,” says Krista Gill of 23 & Co. in Rideau Lakes.

“Even though we were both making cookies, it wasn’t really competition. Her cookies are very different and my motto is community over competition,” explains McShane.

Darlene Gifford had been working at Forfar for 30 years when McShane took it over. Initially unsure of her employment situation under new management, she left Forfar and started working for Baker’s next door. Within two months she was back. 

“Having been here many years my passion for the business was still here,” says Gifford, who, according to McShane, refuses the title of manager even though that’s her role.

McShane has taken his extensive experience in information technology, hotel and hospitality management and passion for good food and coupled it with his Maritime heritage to build businesses that reflect his roots. 

“Yeah, it is definitely part of our culture in the Maritimes — you feed people and have a kitchen party jam,” he says with a twinkle.  

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