Shain’s of Maine lost its most prominent customer – the Portland Sea Dogs – Friday after a social media storm caused by an accusation of racial bias against the Sanford ice cream maker’s owner.

The online protests of Shain’s of Maine began Wednesday morning after Melitta Nichols posted on Facebook about an incident involving her daughter Iaomi, who worked at Shain’s and who is black. Nichols posted that Jeff Shain, the company’s owner, asked her daughter why he couldn’t use a racial slur.

The post came as the country was witnessing massive emotional protests of racial injustice spurred by the death of George Floyd – a black man – while in the custody of Minneapolis police. Nichols’ post prompted calls for businesses and people to cut ties with Shain’s, which operates an ice cream parlor in Sanford and serves as a supplier to other businesses.

It also prompted at least one black women who worked at Shain’s, Alyvia Parris of Alfred, to say she had witnessed Shain using racially insensitive language on several occasions, something echoed by others on social media.

Besides the Sea Dogs, businesses that cut ties with Shain’s this week included The Ice Cream Dugout in North Windham, The Saco Scoop in Saco and Maxim’s Desserts in Kennebunkport.

Jeff Shain did not respond to a phone call and email Friday asking him for more details about this week’s incident, and about social media comments about him.

But in a message posted on Facebook on Wednesday evening, Shain said his comments to Iaomi Nichols were about words in a song, and came after workers at the ice cream parlor were playing music with “offensive language for our place of business.”

“Let this be clear: I was commenting on the offensive language used in the music. At no time did I comment on anyone’s race, or direct racial slurs at anyone. I did not mean for any of this conversation to be offensive and there was absolutely no intent to hurt anyone,” Shain wrote. “I am sorry for any hurt that it has caused. I believed then, and I still believe, that songs with offensive language should not be played in businesses that serve the public and that was the context in which this conversation took place. I want to assure the community that our business is welcoming to people of all races.”

Contacted midday Friday, Iaomi Nichols said in a Facebook message that she would call the Press Herald “when available” to talk about the incident.

Shain’s post about the incident garnered 1,700 comments, including some from people who said that Shain had exhibited racial insensitivity in the past. Others defended him, saying they could not believe the claims of racism. The company has been in business in Sanford since 1979. Shain’s post was still up Friday morning, but by Friday afternoon it was gone and the Shain’s of Maine Facebook page had been  taken down.

Shain did not mention in his post any specific words used in the conversation about the offensive music. In her post, Melitta Nichols said that Shain asked her daughter “how come I can’t say …” and used a slur applied to people of color. He closed his post by saying he would listen to people and strive to “be better.”

“I am aware of the current climate in our country concerning racial inequality and I cannot imagine the pain that many, many people are feeling. It is my responsibility to be better,” Shain wrote. “I will continue to learn and listen, and I will create a culture for my employees that continues to make them and our community proud.”

The incident this week, and posts about it, have prompted several people to come forward – including three women who called the Press Herald – to say they witnessed Jeff Shain using racially insensitive language while working for him.

One of those was Parris, 21, of Alfred. During a phone interview Friday Parris, who is black, said Shain once told her and another worker to take out the trash “because we were both black.” She said that once during a conversation about  immigration policies Shain told her “if it wasn’t for slavery I wouldn’t be here.” She said she was too upset to ask him what he meant. Another time when some hot fudge was spilled on the ground, Shain told Parris it looked like the color of her skin.

Parris, who worked at Shain’s from 2015 to 2019, said seeing others relate their experiences with Shain on social media this week convinced her to speak out.

“I was young, I was trying to pay for college and it was my first job,” said Parris, a University of Southern Maine student, about why she had not spoken up before. “The tips were good. I didn’t want to lose my job.”

As news about the accusation of racial bias by Shain was circulating Friday, officials in Sanford were gearing up for a Saturday protest related to Floyd’s death. There will be a 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew in Sanford on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, according to an announcement on the Sanford police Facebook page. Essential travel is permitted. A demonstration is expected to be held at 1 p.m. Saturday in Gowen Park, organized by Project Community.

The Sea Dogs announced the ending of its 26-year-relationship with Shain’s on social media Friday morning, saying that “In light of recent reports, and after conducting our own investigation, the Portland Sea Dogs have ended our vendor relationship with Shain’s of Maine, effective immediately.” Shain’s has been supplying the team with the popular Sea Dog Biscuit treats since 1994, as well as hard-serve ice cream cups. Chris Cameron, the team’s vice president of communications, said the team is searching for a new vendor and will have Sea Dog Biscuits in place when the baseball season begins. The Sea Dogs own the name Sea Dog Biscuit.

Geoff Iacuessa, the team’s president and general manager, said the Sea Dogs began “actively investigating” the incident involving Shain as soon as the team became aware of it and got some “direct community input” about the matter. He declined to detail the investigation, only saying that most of it was done “internally.”

“But it was extensive work and what we found made it apparent to us very early in the process that this was a company that didn’t represent the values we represent,” Iacuessa said Friday. “So it was an easy decision to sever ties. What happened Wednesday was shocking and disappointing and unacceptable.”

Social media pressure may have pushed some Shain’s customers to cut ties. When The Saco Scoop announced on its Facebook page Thursday night that it would be closed indefinitely “due to issues with our current supplier of ice cream,” the post got more than 240 comments. Many people praised The Saco Scoop for “doing the right thing” and taking a stand. One poster said the social media reaction against Shain’s felt “out of control.”

In announcing its decision to cut ties with Shain’s, Ice Cream Dugout said on Twitter “we value and respect all customers.”

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