Hunter Wade, Jolie Devoo of Sonoma County’s Golden State Cider company win Wine, Beer & Spirits Industry Award craft beverage co-founder category
The winners of the craft beverage company co-founder category in North Bay Business Journal’s beverage alcohol industry awards say the firm refocused on independent and chain grocery store after the pandemic restrictions on bars and restaurants.
How did you get into the industry? And what has been your career track since?
HUNTER WADE: It wasn’t a straight line or planned career path for me. When my wife and I joined her parents on their family apple farm in Sebastopol we knew we’d need to add a new enterprise to the farm in order to support ourselves.
We began exploring value added products to make from the farms ‘cosmetically challenged’ apples and were inspired to make hard cider by the incredible wines our neighbors were growing from the same dirt.
We started selling the cider alongside the farm's apples and cut flowers at Bay Area farm markets and one by one added retail accounts - we certainly never envisioned the business would grow to where it is today. We now operate the cidery separate from the farm but continue to be inspired by Jolie’s parents.
How have you or your company influenced the industry in the last five years? What are key accomplishments?
I think our biggest influence has been introducing consumers to drier ciders which have shifted the category away from the sweet ciders which dominated when we started.
We’ve also worked hard to raise awareness for the Gravenstein apple variety through cider and are proud to see so many local cideries doing the same to help hold on to this important part of west Sonoma County’s agricultural heritage.
We came from pretty humble beginnings selling ciders at the farmers market so our key accomplishments are being the #1 selling cider brand in Northern California and one of the top 10 selling brands overall in the Norcal beer segment which includes all beer, seltzers, rtd and cider brands. Next, we’ve set our sights on surpassing the national leading cider brand in Southern California as well.
What changes have you noticed in your industry in the last five years, and how have you and/or your company moved to capitalize on or adjust to those changes?
We’ve positioned ourselves well to capitalize on consumer demand for ‘better for you’ products and sustainable packaging which have always aligned with our company values.
Our ciders are naturally gluten free, made from 100% fresh pressed apples, and we include the nutrition facts on our label for transparency which consumers really appreciate. We were one of the early adopters of aluminum cans replacing our glass bottles and utilize 100% post consumer recycled plastic for our multi packs.
How has the pandemic affected your business? What has been the impact of restrictions on visitors, closure of restaurants and bars, surge in online shopping, and rise in digital consumer experiences and marketing?
Draft sales to restaurants and bars were a sizable part of our business and disappeared nearly overnight once the shelter in place order was issued which also forced the closure of our taproom in Sebastopol.
We launched a DTC cider club to connect with our customers in a new way and offer single varietal and orchard designate ciders which for the most part are exclusive to our club and tap room.
We reopened our tap room in July with a new outdoor only model that has been really well received so we are really appreciative of our staff and our community’s support.
How have you responded to the challenges and opportunities of the virus-influenced economic downturn? How much are these measures making up the difference in sales?
We responded to the loss of all bar and restaurant sales by immediately refocusing our efforts on the independent and chain grocery store segments.
Our production and sales teams worked closely with our distributors to switch output, orders and inventories to meet the new reality that packaged goods - cans - were going to be our only format for the foreseeable future. This laser focus, hard work, multiple shifts and weekends on the canning line has paid off and our sales have thankfully more than recovered from the loss of our on premise business. It was truly a team effort and accomplishment.
Which of your adjustments and initiatives do you think you’ll continue past the pandemic, and why?
We’ll continue to develop and add focus to our cider club. It’d been on our to do list for a few years and has been really received by our customers. Once the pandemic is over we’ll be able to offer our members in person experiences and events that just aren’t possible now.
We also expect to continue our focus on grocery sales past the pandemic as the bar and restaurant recovery will take time. In Q1 we’ll be installing a new canning plant that will ensure our capability to fulfill this shift in demand with increased automation, speed and output.
How are the North Bay wildfires and power shut-offs affecting the outlook for your business?
Our production facility and office are located in the northern Healdsburg so the fires really impacted us in 2019 and 2020.
Mandatory evacuations mean unplanned shutdowns for our facility and when you’re growing any day that the canning line isn’t running risks a domino effect resulting in potential out of stocks in stores.
This year we’ve also had suppliers whose facilities are evacuated which means we miss shipments of key materials and have to adjust our production schedule and orders the best we can. We’re mitigating the risk by investing in redundancies and carrying higher inventories of materials and cased goods during fire season.
The wildfire effect on air quality has especially impacted our taproom this year since we’re operating outdoors only during the pandemic. To address this we’ve put air quality standards in place so our team can monitor the air throughout the day and close down when necessary.
It requires flexibility and understanding from our staff, vendors, distributors and retailers - but we’re all in this together and everyone in California has been affected in some way.