MaineSole is redefining its products and marketing goals after COVID setback
By LYNN ASCRIZZI
For almost four years, a small shoe factory called MaineSole has been making handsewn, all-leather shoes in an old woolen mill, a massive brick structure built in 1835, situated along the East Branch of the Sebasticook River that winds its way through Dexter, Maine.
MaineSole was launched in the spring of 2017 by its owner-operator, Kevin Cain. “When the shoe factory opportunity came along in Dexter, I was planning to be one of the investors and its marketing-sales person,” he said. “I knew nothing about manufacturing shoes. I never made a pair of shoes!”
He had the good fortune, however, to hire a number of veteran shoemakers who had worked for Dexter Shoe Company, before the world-class manufacturer shut its doors in 2001, a closure that put 800 employees out of work in the town and area factories, gutting the local economy.
The former Dexter shoemakers, along with other local hires, were eager to ply their various skills in the startup factory’s 10,000-square-foot workspace. “These people know how to build shoes,” Cain, 66, said of his current team. “Shoemaking is really the story of the state of Maine.” Indeed, until the early 1980s, Mainers made more shoes than any other state in the Union. In its heyday, the shoe trade made up 15 percent of the state’s manufacturing.
“I love what I do,” said MaineSole’s fitting manager, Lloyd Goodine, who lives in Dexter. For about 30 years, he worked for various Dexter Shoe factories in Maine, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. “I’m a very lucky person to have a career as long as I have had, to do well at it and to enjoy what I’m doing,” he said.
At first, Goodine, 66, worked on the new company’s shoe samples. “Shoes are made up of a number of leather pieces. The fitting room is where all the pieces are put together. Samples sort of look like a shoe, but they don’t yet have the sole on the bottom. I helped to make the designs more suitable for production.”
Today, about half of MaineSole’s current eight employees had worked for Dexter Shoe, he noted. “But in the beginning, even the more experienced workers needed some re-training. Not all shoes are the same.”
Before the business emerged off the drawing board, however, finding investors proved difficult. It fell to Cain to be its primary entrepreneur. He drew funds from his retirement savings and borrowed $200,000 from Maine and New York investors. He also received a $50,000 community development block grant to upgrade the old woolen mill’s electrical system.
Two-and-a-half years after opening, MaineSole’s workforce was busy building and marketing high-end, hand-sewn boat shoes, penny loafers, moccasins and chukkas — classic lines enhanced with a dash of contemporary panache. Footwear style names, like Acadia Camp Moccasins and Cape Neddick Penny Loafers, conjured up the scenic state’s popular coastal spots.
“In January 2020, we enjoyed our best sales month ever. Things were pretty good,” Cain said. Besides his early investments and skilled team, the growing success reflected his decades-long experience in sales and leather retail, gleaned while working for big companies like Florsheim Shoe Co., G.H. Bass (now H. H. Brown Shoe Group) and Harbor Footwear Group, Ltd.
But then a mere month later, COVID came calling. As the pandemic surged, stress factors jumped to the moon. “It was a ‘killer.’ We had to change everything,” he said. “We reconfigured the factory to make it safer. People didn’t want to come to work, especially with me commuting from southern Maine, which had the highest number of cases. For a while, everybody was part-time except me. We had to go over our whole safety protocol.”
Despite everyone’s best efforts, by mid-December business was down 50 percent. Two out of 10 employees were laid off, leaving three full-time and five part-time workers. Shoemaking — the company’s raison d’être — now accounted for only 20 percent of sales.
“In my business, our shoes are expensive,” Cain said of the hand-sewn footwear’s $200 to $240 price tags. “Business was thin for those customers. People were not gussying up to go to work.”
The crisis called for reassessment and resilience. “That’s why we’re taking in other work — making uppers — the top part of a shoe,” he explained. Currently, the factory does uppers for two Maine businesses that make firefighting boots and soft-soled slippers. Uppers also are crafted for a Massachusetts company that makes a line of pricey suede leather sneakers.
“The firefighter boots,” Goodine explained, “are made from fireproofed leather and threads cut by that company and we put the parts together for them.”
“We average about 200 pairs of uppers per week,” Cain added. “That covers my business. It keeps three or four people busy. The uppers are handmade but machine sewn. Those companies are having MaineSole make their uppers because their footwear businesses are getting bigger. It’s better for them to go with a business set up like mine, so they don’t have to make any investments.”
Shoemaking, however, is still on the factory bench, he pointed out this past December. “We make about 20 pairs of shoes per week for our online business.”
“The last two weeks of December looked better than the first two weeks of the month,” Goodine noted optimistically. “But we’re still down, against 2019 sales. Current shoe sales are not yet steady.”
MaineSole shoe leather is largely sourced from The Hide House based in Napa, California. “We do a lot of buffalo and bull hides from them and we use a lot of their deerskin for moccasins,” Goodine said. Leather is also ordered from Horween Leather Co., a hide-processing and finishing tannery in Chicago, Illinois.
Until recently, the shoe company had been sourcing much of its leather locally from Tasman Tannery Leather Group, LLC, of Hartland, Maine. But the tannery, only a 35-mile drive from Dexter, shut down around the end of summer 2020, leaving 115 people out of work. The closure reportedly was caused by the devastating impact of the global COVID pandemic.
During the startup phase, Cain purchased a combo of new and used leather equipment including sewing machines made by Global Industrial, PFAFF and Singer, and other machinery, such as an Arco rubbing machine “that rubs out seams,” Goodine said.
“Most handsewn shoes have a collar around the top. We stitch that collar to the vamp,” the upper front part of a shoe or boot. “You then rub the collar and vamp to make it easier for the stitcher to turn the collar over. The plug — the whole top of the shoe — is then handsewn onto the upper,” he explained.
As company production got going, experience grew. Whenever shoemaking equipment broke down, Cain learned how to fix it. “I bought a lot of how-to books. I’ve been able to do about 60 percent of repairs — all done to save a few bucks,” he said.
For handsewing, the shoe factory uses high-tenacity, waxed polyester thread manufactured by Maine Thread & Machine Co. in Lewiston. Like MaineSole, its factory space occupies a repurposed 19th-century brick mill. The company’s made-in-U.S.A. waxed thread, designed for handsewing shoes or for handcrafting, is sold worldwide.
“I pick the stuff up in Lewiston when I’m heading home,” Cain said of the thread. For him, home is a 145-mile drive from the Dexter factory to Kennebunk, a picturesque coastal town and popular tourist destination in southern Maine. He shares his home with his wife, Jane. “We live real close to the beach. It’s a great place to live,” he said.
He works five days per week, but commutes to Dexter between three or four days a week. His roundtrip travel time adds up to 4 ½ hours, or 290 miles per day.
The shoe factory is open from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Monday through Thursday. “To get things done, we work as long as we have to. You do what you have to do. We still have to be so careful,” he continued. “Everybody keeps their distance and wears a mask. I’ve got to keep them healthy. If I don’t, we’ll go out of business. I’ve got a lot of money in this business.”
The pandemic has been tough on the staunchest of souls, a sentiment shared by almost all of us. “I take gas money. That’s about it. It’s been a miserable year,” Cain lamented. “We still have static expenses like rent. Those don’t go down. A lot of people are being paid. But, it’s a tough learning curve for me. It was the school of hard knocks. But I’m going to get through it,” he said with conviction.
One of his major goals for the new year is to reboot the company’s Facebook and Instagram platforms. “There are a lot of small shoe businesses in Maine. It’s not like it was 30 or 40 years ago, but there are a number of factories. Their success comes from their online business. We need someone to help us massage those in a marketable way. We’re also redefining what we are. Anything to do business.”
Down the road, he hopes to garner additional grants or funds so he can hire more expert shoemakers from the area, folks who can train the next generation in the shoemaker’s art. “I’d hire four more employees in a heartbeat,” he said.
“I think we have an excellent team,” fitting manager Goodine added. “We have a chance to get out and work and use our skill set. That’s something a lot of people don’t have.”
“Dexter deserves to have a shoe factory. It was a shoe town,” Cain said, as he weighed the positive effects his business is having on the community. “Before the pandemic, every week we’d have schoolchildren visit us and older people who once worked for Dexter Shoe come in to look at the place. All these people’s lives have been touched by shoemaking.”
16 Church Street
Dexter, ME 04930
Kevin Cain, owner-operator
Facebook — MaineSole
Instagram — @mainesole