Uncle John’s Cider Mill is celebrating their 50th anniversary this year, and their willingness to be innovative has helped them not only survive, but thrive.
John and Carolyn Beck bought the farm from John’s parents in the 1970s, and they originally ran it as a fruit and vegetable farm. When the market made that difficult to turn a profit, they converted the barn into a cider mill and sold cider and donuts. Over the decades, they’ve expanded their offerings by adding a bakery, gift shop, and taproom. They embraced agritainment, and their 50,000 visitors on busy fall weekends are a mark of success.
The Becks have four children, and two of them are in the business – Mike and Kathy. Mike and his wife Dede are owners, as well as Kathy and her husband John. Together with their parents, they’ve been operating a flourishing business.
When COVID shutdowns hit in 2020, they knew they had to make a change.
“At that moment,” Dede said, “we thought – we’ve done a lot of hard things. We’ve been through a 100% crop loss. We purchased the business right before a recession. We got this.”
As a result, Dede said they approached the situation perhaps a little differently than people who hadn’t dealt with making operational changes in the past.
Selling their hard cider off the premises became tricky, because many businesses were shut down or had limited hours. They weren’t comfortable asking their sales staff to call on accounts, and draft sales were almost non-existent.
The taproom already had four flavors of hard cider that they canned, but they had not canned any of their specialty draft flavors. Dede saw an opportunity.
“By canning our draft flavors, it was a way for us to release specialty flavors and provide people with something new and exciting,” Dede said. “It was a fresh and fun way to sell our product.”
They released a new flavor every month, with flavors like blossom blend, strawberry lavender, and prickly pear. They also released glassware to match. It was incredibly popular.
However, they also had to consider how they were going to get packaging materials, because aluminum was in short supply. They needed a better way to get their cans into people’s hands.
“In the industry, we called it the candemic,” Dede said. “But, we had an old semi-load of aluminum cans sitting here from an earlier rebranding. We were just saving them for a rainy day, because they had no recyclable value.”
Dede drew on other small businesses to make their new way of packaging work.
“We found a family business in Illinois to do the shrink wrapping,” she said. “We sent our cans down, they put the wraps on, and this way we could repurpose our cans. We also worked with a small business to print the sleeves, and another to do shipping. It felt so good to be able to repurpose these cans.”
Dede also employed local art teacher Jared Fromson to do the custom art for each can and glassware release.
“It was great for us, and good for him because he wasn’t able to be in the classroom, and it was somewhere different to focus on,” said Dede. “The entire experience for us was refreshing…and fun.”
Dede appreciated many people volunteering their time to help, like local businessman Chuck DeSander of Chuckie D’s, a close friend, and the Beck and Heysteck children.
They also made other innovative changes in their sales strategy, including the way they served customers.
“They implemented online ordering and curbside ordering, which I thought was great,” said their Financial Services Officer Courtney Ross. “I took advantage of it myself.”
Courtney Ross has been working with Uncle John’s Cider Mill since 2017, and she admires the way they run their business.
“They’re always trying to change to meet the needs of their customers,” she said. “Not only that, but they’re fun to work with, and they’re always super welcoming and accommodating when I’m on the farm.”
Dede explains that the online and curbside service happened as a happy accident.
“It was a sunny, beautiful day, and we offered it – and we were so busy,” she said. “It was so cool, because it was during the time we were normally closed, and so many people came – and it just gave us all hope – like we’re going to be okay. We were making people happy, and we’re still making them happy.”
Since people still felt comfortable outside, they also decided to expand their outdoor offerings.
“So many people don’t like change, but we knew we had to change,” Dede said. “We turned an old garden shed into a bar, set up tables, firepits, and added to our live music schedule.”
Co-owner John Heysteck said the new outside offerings are going to stay.
“People wanted to be outside,” he said. “We had an area that would be good for a stage, and the building trade students in St Johns needed a project, so they built it. We added food trucks, and now this is a permanent entertainment area.”
With all their changes, they continue to plan ahead and are actively seeking other opportunities. They’re looking to host a music festival in the summer, expand the taproom with more music and food truck options, and add a second stage as a permanent fixture. They’re also throwing a 50th anniversary party.
“When we were forced to go back to basics, we did,” Dede said. “More than ever, families are spending time together here on the farm. Every demographic is represented, and when I look around and see everyone together, I can see we’ve done our job.”