Local Boston cider house grew from three operator/owners to more than 20 employees.
Note to readers: This Q&A is part of a series of peer interviews from The Equipped Brewer. Twice-monthly installments will share the key experiences, lessons learned, and advice of owners, operators, and other key contacts at young craft beverage companies as they’ve tackled the challenges of growth.
Downeast Cider House in Boston, Massachusetts, is a fast-growing cider brewery owned and operated by brothers Ross Brockman and Matt Brockman, as well as Tyler Mosher. The past 18 months has seen the company grow from being operated by these three to 20 paid employees. Downeast brews three core products, plus has some seasonal offerings. The company uses fresh, whole fruit and local ingredients to craft its cider. You can find Downeast cider throughout much of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine. The company distributes in kegs and cans. Today we're focusing our conversation with Ross Brockman on the company's journey to add a full set of employees to support its growth.
Getting to Know Downeast Cider House
Equipped Brewing: You all got into cider brewing back in college in 2010. How did that come about? Did your education or previous business experience help prepare you for running a craft cider business?
Ross Brockman: One of our co-founders (no longer with us) grew up on an apple orchard. His family had owned it for generations. We spent a lot of time hanging out at the orchard, eating fresh apples, and drinking fresh cider. When we went to college, his mom used to drop off apples and cider when she visited him. We always had a big box of fresh apples in the dorm room, so I think one thing naturally led to the other.
My degree is in philosophy, so absolutely nothing in my education — or previous business experience — prepared me for the cider business. While inexperience is probably our biggest challenge, it’s also what sets us apart. With absolutely zero experience, we never fell prey to, in my opinion the WORST possible thing you can say, "let’s do it this way because that’s how it’s always been done.” Doing things because “that’s how it’s done” crushes creativity and originality.
Tell us briefly about your journey from start-up to where you are today.
RB: It’s been a fun journey, but we don't pay attention to milestones very well. We’ve set milestones and said we were going to celebrate with a really nice dinner. I think the first of these was the first can off the line. Then, it was a million cans. Every time we get to a milestone though, we seem unsatisfied and look further down the road. I'm not sure whether that’s good or bad — we should stop and smell the roses — but it’s the personality of the team.
Getting Down to Business
Your staff has grown from the three owners to now having 20 employees. Tell us about that process.
RB: When you're small it’s usually easy to see what needs to be done. It’s more tangible, like, “Hmm, demand is way higher than we can supply, we need some more tanks, so we need someone to help work the equipment,” or “Now we’ve made too much cider so we need to sell more. We need a salesperson.”
These days it’s much harder. How do we increase sales? Do we add a sales person in our biggest market or into the smallest market to build it? How much merchandising should we invest in? Do we go to more events? Hire a marketing director? It’s not so simple, and we definitely don’t know what we need, we can only make guesses. As for titles, nobody really has any of those around here. Everyone’s goal should be to build an awesome company, by any means possible.
The owners of Downeast Cider House: Ross Brockman, Matt Brockman, and Tyler Mosher.
What are your long-term goals as far as size of the cider house?
RB: This is another ongoing question. We know where we want to be; we’re not sure how to get there. It’s our philosophy that if we’re making good cider — which we think we are — it should be available to as many people as possible. To that end, we grow when we’re ready to take on more volume. When done properly, growth creates a better product, better equipment, a better process, and a better team. When rushed, growth can create problems. We want to always improve, and so far, we have been successful. Just 18 months ago, the three of us did everything. Now, there are people doing all of these jobs we were doing at a much higher level, with much better equipment.
What has been the biggest challenge of adding staff? What lessons did you learn in the process?
RB: Not sure what the biggest challenge is, although you brought up a bunch of them. Giving up control was tough at first, but once we realized that they’re all better than we are at what they do, we got over it. Keeping organized is tough. For a long time I only had to focus on what I was working on. Now, I have to make sure everything is moving forward to align with what I’m doing.
Firing always sucks; I doubt there’s any way around that. It’s also tough making sure all of the corporate details are taken care of. As easy as it is to scoff at “corporate culture,” we want to make sure we’re taking care of our people in a professional manner. The first time we had an employee during the holidays and we took some days off, our employee texted us asking where we were. Oops! We forgot to tell him he didn’t have to come in. Live and learn!
Any big hiccups now that the larger staff has had time to settle in?
RB: Always. They’ll never end. If there weren’t, it wouldn’t be worth doing.
In May of last year, you blogged that you were concerned about keeping the "soul" of the company intact as you added 20 employees. How goes the soul of the company?
RB: This is definitely a concern. Part of the solution is to hire the right people. If someone is a fantastic sales person but unpleasant to work with, they’ll probably do more harm than good. It’s really a team effort and bad teammates create problems. Another part is setting the right example. As a leader of the team, I know that everything I do can (and should) be seen by others as the right way to do things. As we grow, those of us who have been here for a while need to buy in — and, they do. It’s great to see the right people doing the right thing.
Any other experience or advice to share with your fellow brewers about hiring staff?
RB: I’d love to hear what others have to say. My personal plan is to find smart, good people to hire. I don’t care much about experience, where you’ve been, your education, whatever. If you’re both a good person (kind, a good teammate, a hard worker, not a complainer), and a smart person, we can work you into something. I’d take the wicked smart, good kid right out of college over the seasoned vet seven days a week and twice on Sunday.